(Self-released, CD, digital download)
In a 2011 interview with Seven Days, Montpelier-based songwriter Mark LeGrand summed up his decision to quit drinking. "It's a part of your brain that takes over," he said, explaining addiction. "Eventually you have to figure out who is really running the show." LeGrand is inarguably among central Vermont's foremost authorities on country music, a genre as soaked in whiskey as it is steeped in tradition. Though he's been sober for decades and has been a public advocate for sobriety for nearly as long, his struggle with alcohol has long played a prominent role in his songwriting.
But the barroom ghosts that haunt the neon-lit margins of LeGrand's songs exist more as cautionary tales than the soused sad sacks you typically find in the country music oeuvre. It's as if, by writing about his demons, he's exerting his own power over them, showing the specters of his past that he's in control. On his latest record, Tigers Above and Tigers Below, LeGrand relinquishes some of that control. In doing so, his music and, seemingly, his resolve prove stronger than ever.
Tigers is a collaboration of LeGrand and his wife, vocalist and visual artist Sarah Munro. Though LeGrand wrote or cowrote each of the album's 10 cuts, Munro takes the lead on four tunes and plays June Carter to LeGrand's Johnny Cash on another. For those who've followed LeGrand's music over the years, hearing his northern gothic musings given voice through Munro's sweet alto is a unique treat, and one that adds new depth and context to his material.
It doesn't take long for this to bear itself out. Munro takes the lead on the opening cut, "Ask of Me." She sings with sassy swagger befitting the tune's early rock-and-roll swing.
Next up is "The Hank in Me," a woozy number in which LeGrand confesses that he's been under the influence of Hank Williams in more ways than music. "I was born with the lovesick blues / Tailor made for pills and booze," he sings in an unadorned tenor that bears shades of Willie Nelson.
The album's most affecting cut is "After All These Years," which is essentially a love letter from LeGrand to Munro. But those old spirits still lurk. "The ghosts around this house, they still haunt me / I see their smoky shadows in the air," he sings. But he finds strength in another presence: Munro. "After all these years, I still love you," they harmonize at the chorus. It's sweet and moving, as is the whole album.
The album's title, Tigers Above and Tigers Below, is a reference to a Buddhist parable popularized by author Pema Chödrön. The gist of the tale is to enjoy life even when peril surrounds. It's no doubt an apt metaphor for LeGrand, and one that informs his latest work with Munro. The record has a pervasive sense of joy, of appreciating goodness in spite of lingering shadows, and it is infectious.
Tigers Above and Tigers Below by Sarah Munro and Mark LeGrand is available at marklegrand.com.