Graded on a Curve:
Laura Baird,
I Wish I Were a Sparrow

Thus far, it’s been Meg who’s cultivated the highest musical profile outside the Baird Sisters, but now multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and recording engineer Laura steps into the spotlight with the beautiful and hearty solo set I Wish I Were a Sparrow. Evenly split between originals and readings of tunes long-loved, it dives deep into the Appalachian folk tradition to deliver a vivid portrait of the artist; it’s out October 20 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Ba Da Bing.

Of The Baird Sisters’ three recordings, Until You Find Your Green is the most well-known. Originally released in a hand-numbered edition of 315 as part of Grapefruit Record’s subscription series, the music was so choice that an eventual reissue was inevitable; Ba Da Bing’s new pressing came out last year, enlarging its stature in Meg’s already ample discography and serving for many as an introduction to her sibling’s considerable talents.

In 2013, fans of the guitarist Glenn Jones were given a taste of those skills via his superb disc My Garden State; in addition to playing banjo on “Across the Tappan Zee,” Laura also recorded the album in her home studio at Forest Hill Farm, having done the same for Until You Find Your Green (the Baird Sisters’ two prior self-released CDs, 2003’s At Home and ’08’s Lonely Town, are live recordings).

The reality is that Laura has contributed to more than a couple releases over the years, including those of Meg’s old band Espers. For I Wish I Were a Sparrow, she goes it alone at Forest Hill Farm to distinctive result; Until You Find Your Green is essentially a blend, certainly impacted by the long, deep history of Appalachia, but just as indebted to developments in ’60s progressive folk, e.g. Shirley & Dolly Collins and Pentangle. Altogether, it securely lands in the new century’s acoustic roots boom.

On her solo debut however, the focus is decidedly on mountain tradition, and it flows in a confident, non-studious, and ultimately, highly personal manner. No recent convert, Baird’s great-great uncle Isaac Garfield “I.G.” Greer was a collector of folk songs, having cut a 78rpm disc for Paramount in ’29 (“Black Jack Davy – Parts I & II,” reportedly the first commercial recordings of the mountain dulcimer). Later, he was documented more extensively by the Library of Congress for their Archive of American Song.

Baird has spent time at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina and Allegheny Echoes in West Virginia, so her knowledge and obvious love of folk tradition is strong. Interestingly, her choices tend to the well-known rather than dusted-off or unearthed obscurities; for starters, anybody who’s soaked up the Anthology of American Folk Music knows “The Coo Coo Bird,” which is sung and played on that three-volume collection by the great Clarence “Tom” Ashley.

Baird’s version, titled simply “Cuckoo,” magnifies the tune’s eternal verve (it’s been recorded dozens of times) through her ability as banjoist, vocalist, and perhaps most importantly, studio engineer, with vocal lushness bringing added contemporary resonance. But she also effectively dials it back; “Pretty Saro,” another of the set’s familiar tunes (subtly deepening a connection to Collins, who recorded it with Davy Graham), shines through just vocal, fiddle, and banjo, and is an absolute beauty.

But most impressive is how her own songs complement these interpretations and vice versa; opener “Wind Wind” is clearly impacted by Appalachian roots, but Baird never strains to mimic the aura of mountain song past, with the piece’s gentleness instead a fitting contrast to the emotional depths and instrumental vigor of “Dreadful Wind and Rain.”

Consisting of just vocals and what sounds like mountain dulcimer, “Love Song from Earth to Moon” nods to Uncle Greer, while “Bats” is a gem of string pluck and vocal sweetness. The banjo gets a little crisper in “Did You Come Here Alone,” the track’s succinctness serving as an intriguing prelude to the hill song robustness of “Pretty Polly.”

The roots atmosphere continues just as strongly on her own “Hay in the Wagon,” the lyrics illuminating anxiousness and desire, while “Home is Where You Are” is a solid beauty move complete with some non-precious whistling. For “Poor Orphan Child,” guitar and fiddle are fortified with deeper-toned bowed strings as Baird’s singing, wielding a plainspoken potency, unifies the whole.

“Poor Orphan Child” is noted from the repertoire of the Carter Family, and the album ends with “Twin Sisters,” a short instrumental piece for banjo that those well-versed in Appalachian music may recall from an early ‘60s recording by Sidna Myers. This version, like the five others here, can send one journeying for prior examples of the source material; upon returning to this album, nothing is wanting, and that’s high praise indeed. Laura Baird is a remarkable player, vocalist, songwriter, and interpreter, and it all comes together on I Wish I Were a Sparrow.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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