(Thunder Ridge Records, CD, digital download)
Davey Davis' Green Mountain roots run deep. The Woodstock native has worked as a machinist, a ski instructor, a fly-fishing guide and a trail builder, among other classic rural occupations. In other words, the seventh-generation Vermonter practically bleeds maple. His latest record, the curiously titled Bones of the Heart, is rich with rustic imagery and old-school Yankee sensibilities. In moments, it wouldn't sound out of place alongside the fabled folk releases of late local label Philo Records. Like the songwriter himself, the album is Vermont AF, hearkening to a bygone era of homespun folk, blues and rock songwriting.
Some credit for that feel undoubtedly belongs to producer Kristina Stykos, who engineered the album at her Pepperbox Studio in Chelsea. The record is also a product of Stykos' Thunder Ridge imprint, which is home to a wealth of local artists who trade in a similarly rough-hewn, rootsy style. A hallmark of Stykos' catalog, both as a producer and in her own recordings, is tattered quality. Thunder Ridge albums tend to favor grit over polish, and Bones of the Heart is no exception.
That scruffy trait is most evident in Davis' age-worn vocals — both when he sings and, on numerous occasions, speaks. The songwriter often employs a sort of talking-blues delivery interspersed among more traditional melodic passages. Especially when used sparingly, as on the Eddie Russell-penned "Hawk of the Mountains," it's an effective tactic that lends his songs a conversational familiarity, kind of like a favorite uncle spinning tall tales.
Stykos contributes vocals to that cut and many others. Her own wizened rasp is a perfect complement to Davis', particularly on songs such as "Belle of the Bijou," "Ghost of Chateauguay" and the title track. Stykos also chips in on a variety of instruments throughout, including guitar, ukulele, banjo, mandolin and percussion. She's one of a crack crew of backing musicians and Pepperbox regulars that includes Jim Pittman on dobro and pedal steel, drummer Jeff Berlin, multi-instrumentalist Bow Thayer, and keyboardist Lane Gibson, the last of whom also mastered the album.
But the true guest star is Val McCallum, best known as Jackson Browne's lead guitarist. His stinging electric licks are a highlight throughout, adding urgency, character and gravitas.
Despite all that instrumental firepower, Davis' charming songwriting stands on its own. Witness album centerpiece "Night Church," on which Davis and friends find a specific sort of old-time religion. "It was night church at the nine pine bar / with a banjo and three guitars," sings Davis at the chorus. Then, "Preacher forgot all about sin as whiskey / rolled down his chin / Jesus was in the choir, the Sabbath was / on fire, redemption's not far, so get / yourself a perch at night church in / the nine pine bar."
Bones of the Heart is available at CD Baby.