Annie Savage’s passion for her art glows with such fierce intensity that it isn’t surprising she’s drawn likeminded artists into her orbit. The remaining four members of her band The Savage Hearts include other teachers like herself and artists simmering with the same boundless desire to renew and preserve great forms of Americana music like bluegrass and western swing for future generations of musical artists. To that end, Savage and her band have invited a number of students that they share in their capacity as educators to guest-star on their latest full length album Playing It Forward. The band and students are, likewise, joined by a number of renowned guest stars from the world of Americana music and the resulting eleven song collection is rich with deeply emotional strains and a wealth of musicality. The Savage Hearts are blessed with immense vocal dexterity; the songs employ various voices and there’s impressive across the board consistency in what each singer brings to the album as a whole.
Playing It Forward opens with an inventive re-envisioning of Jim Croce’s “Age”. The performance uses a twin-fiddle attack and brings Annie Savage’s voice together with the strong supporting vocals of Greg Blake for a rousing beginning. They shift gears from the pure bluegrass of the first song into “Compadres of the Sierra Madre”, a light western swing tune with a bright Southwestern bounce. Savage handles the vocals on this track and her breathy, but her intensely tuneful voice is perfect for conveying the song’s narrative. Kevin Slick, an instructor like Savage, offers his first original contribution on the album with “Heaven on Earth”, an aching love song with beautifully melodic bluegrass accompaniment. Slick has a strong voice for this sort of material and, even if it isn’t the most commercially minded set of pipes you’ll ever hear, he has an uncanny skill for emoting that makes him a good match for the lyrics.
The band’s outright love for western swing emerges on the track “Faded Love”, a cover of the great Bob Wills original dating from the mid 20th century. The stylish presentation going into each of these performances reaches a high point here; there’s almost a reverential quality about the outing that distinguishes it from the surrounding songs. The Savage Hearts’ careful treatment, however, doesn’t mean they drain the song of life. Instead, the song gracefully swirls and swings from the start. “Workin’ on a Building” foregoes the band’s bluegrass influences in favor of outright blues. The lyrics might be spiritually minded, but there’s an undeniable melancholy laced through the verses and chorus. The sprightly tempo fueling “Ragtime Annie” has a very traditional gait and features two fiddles working in crackling unison with one another. It’s one of the few instrumentals on the album and arguably the best example of their efforts in that area. Kevin Slick’s “Child’s Song” ends the album and even a cursory listen reveals how deeply Slick has internalized a lifetime’s worth of listening and loving traditional music. His songwriting, however, contains something of its own character here with its idiosyncratic mix of imagery. It’s a big part of why this project is so successful overall. The Savage Hearts and their students hit all their marks when playing this music, but there’s something more going here. They are fulfilling the mission individuals like Annie Savage and Kevin Slick have taken upon themselves – to promote and strengthen these musical traditions for generations to come.