(Notch Above Records, CD)
As the story goes, eight years ago Vermont soul siren Tammy Fletcher received a mandolin as a gift from her friend Peter Langdell, the luthier behind Jeffersonville’s Rigel Mandolins. Fletcher began using the instrument to write songs. But the resulting rootsy output was hardly befitting of a gospel diva — even one from an Americana hotbed such as Vermont. She began rehearsing the tunes with a new group of musicians, collectively dubbed “Tammy Fletcher Is Mountain Girl.” With surprisingly little fanfare, the all-star sextet — including drummer Simon Plumpton, bassist Stacy Starkweather, pedal steel/dobro whiz Jim Pitman, guitarist Bob Hill and Fletcher’s son, mandolinist Dakota Foley — began performing semi-regularly in relatively out-of-the-way roadhouses like Morrisville’s The Bee’s Knees, honing the tunes that would eventually make up this excellent self-titled debut.
A word of caution: Longtime Fletcher, um, disciples might be put off by the abrupt about face. Though the material found here isn’t remotely close to gospel, the transformation isn’t as jarring as, say, Willie Nelson’s ill-advised foray into reggae. It’s a little bit country, sure. It’s even a little bit rock ’n’ roll — and a whole lotta bluegrass. But it’s still Tammy Fletcher.
Her voice, as always, is unmistakable. From the opening salvo, “Wild and Crazy,” through album closer “Walleye Widow,” Fletcher swoons and croons with grace and power. While it would be permissible to expect gospel-type histrionics (you can take the gospel out of the diva . . .), Fletcher’s performance is almost understated. She approaches Americana conventions with tact and reverence, her take on the genre delivered with commendable restraint and taste, though with no shortage of emotive soul.
Perhaps Fletcher’s decision to rein in her considerable pipes was born out of respect for her ace backing band, which is worth the price of admission on its own. In particular, Pitman’s contributions, on both pedal steel and dobro, are remarkable. His steel on “Wild and Crazy” ranks among the finest playing you’ll hear, locally or otherwise. Foley’s mandolin licks, while solid throughout, are especially pleasing on “It’s Over.” His lines dovetail expertly with Hill’s nifty guitar flourishes and Pitman’s swooning dobro. Fans of Alison Krauss and Union Station will find a lot to like here.
The disc’s only stumble is “I’m Tired,” which treads a little too closely to radio-ready roots-pop for comfort. It’s also the only instance in which Fletcher overindulges vocally, perhaps in an attempt to lift the tune from its adult-contemporary malaise. She doesn’t. But it’s hardly a deal breaker. All in all, Tammy Fletcher Is Mountain Girl marks another topnotch entry, both to Fletcher’s canon and to Vermont’s increasingly vibrant Americana scene.