ALBUM REVIEW: Sally Anne Morgan – ‘Thread’: homespun Appalachian warmth from Black Twig Pickers’ player

QUIETLY collaborating away in some of the finer, truest to tradition acts of the Americana movement such as the Black Twig Pickers, the time is now ripe for multi-instrumentalist Sally Anne Morgan to step forward with an album under her own name.

Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label is a fine seeding ground for talent, and it is they who will be releasing Sally’s debut set, Threads, come September 11th. 

Sally is perhaps best known for her fiddle work with Nathan Bowles and Izak Howell in the Twig Pickers, who reach deep into the authenticity of the Appalachian sound to bring it forth for an appreciative 21st-century audience. If you’ve seen them live, you’ll know they have an almost biblical knowledge of the form and an absolute mastery of it.

It’s a fine smithy in which to forge musicianship, all of which is brought to bear on Sally Anne’s debut, on which Nathan drums alongside Sally’s partner, guitarist Nathan Zinn.

For an opener, she slips inside “Polly On The Shore”, the English traditional ballad most famously reified by Fairport. She does it absolute justice, and you would swear from her unmediated, free-expressing vocal that she was a daughter of Albion. A sad tale of sailor recalling his sweetheart in his moment of doom, be in no doubt she knows exactly what to draw out from the song.

“Garden Song” sees her back across the ocean wave in her domestic plot, real and/or analogous. A shimmering guitar leads in for her fiddle to weave a bittersweet tone around; she burrs her Rs in an Appalachian rhotic way, shows her roots. “Everything is green inside my garden, garden, garden / Nothing is a weed inside my garden, garden, garden,” she intones. Her plot is safe and Edenic. Her music is a warm and welcoming place to be.

Sally Anne Morgan, photographed by Katrina Ohstrom

“Sheep Shaped” is a deeply grounded fiddling rouser, fast and raw and punctuated with stripped back drumming This could have been captured by Alan Lomax on his recording explorations of the Ozarks at some jubilant harvest event.

“Wintersong” pulls towards a more modern folk melodicism: you can almost see the browns and slates of that season in her bare lyrical evocation, low-key acoustic and fiddle swaddling her voice: “Saw a night creature in the morning / She saw me and kept on walking … There’s soup upon the stovetop / Water in your cup.” The song as hearthside to steer away the chill, to nourish. There’s an absolute candour of the beauty of the dark season quotidian in here.

“Ellemwood Meditation” is an impressionistic, almost post-folk dialogue between fiddle and piano, Sally alone the player. There’s definitely a landscape in the space here, notes stripped back like bare branches.

We reviewed lead single and (almost) title track, “Thread Song”, back in June. On this bold waltz, Sally’s voice stands strong in a tradition which includes people such as Edith Frost, Meg Baird, Anne Briggs and British psych-folk originators Trees; but listen as that guitar line lazily unfolds and charts expanding harmonic ground, and I swear you can hear the shade of Tom Verlaine. As with “Wintersong”, Sally shows a reach out to an almost acoustic pop sensibility, while retaining a real Ozark integrity to her sound. 

The album closes on a trio of trad.arr. numbers. “Sugar in the Gourd” is as traditional an American fiddle number as it’s possible to be, first recorded in the literature as being played on a fishing trip by a West Virginian fiddler around the fire  in 1880. Later it would be a favourite of fiddle battles. Sally obviously plays this deep treasure with aplomb. It’s followed by a tear-weary reading of “Wagoner’s Lad”, a sad tale of a woman under pressure with a seemingly unsuitable courtship. You can hear the red-rimmed resignation of the narrator’s lot, soothed only by Sally’s honeyed delivery.

The finale, “Annachie Gordon” she treats with a homecoming acoustic warmth, sees the potential to remake this one in the modern tradition, her take low-key, her voice ringing and slightly blurred, evocative, the song seen through a rainy window. And very beautiful.

Sally’s debut will unfold quietly, like that afforested hilly landscape of the eastern interior. Don’t mistake what might seem like an absence of bells and whistles for an unfriendliness, a reticence; it takes time to get to know this country, and once you do, that attachment will be deep.

Sally Anne Morgan’s Threads will be released by Thrill Jockey on  digital, CD and yolk-yellow vinyl on September 11th; you can order a copy here.

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