Barbara Jo Kammer’s debut solo album One Song at a Time shows that this music therapist by trade has more than a clear bead on her own creative process and this ten song release turns out to be one of the most invigorating releases in the category of roots music you’ll hear in 2017. It’s an intensely personal piece of work that, nonetheless, sacrifices none of its accessibility in the name of artistic self-indulgence. Her voice receives able backing vocal support, but it has the richness and color to fill every corner of these songs and imbue them with real character that brings the lyrics to life. Nine of the ten songs are written by others and some of the cuts are well known, but Kammer claims a piece of each song for herself despite their history. Her one original on the album stands up well alongside the work from others and helps further flesh out the album’s strengths.
“I Can See Clearly” is going to be a song familiar to many, but Kammer recasts it here as fast paced bluegrass tune that never loses its eye on some extra nuance. Kammer’s performances are well served by the first class talent congregated around her – the instruments never step on each other’s toes and weave a seamless blend that sounds like first take magic. “Choices” delves deep into and deals directly with the effect of addiction on someone’s life and the unsparing language of the lyric elicits a brave, intensely musical performance from Kammer. Every bit of her sixty two years goes into making this performance stick in listener’s consciousness and she never backs off from the song’s unforgiving truths. The instrumentation is particularly effective at underlining mood. Fiddle plays an important role on the Peter Rowanpenned “So Good” and this uptempo slice of Americana is an ideal fit for Kammer’s voice. She essays the tune with the sort of easy confidence that comes after a lifetime of living with and listening to this sort of music. It never sounds like a pose; instead, it comes off as natural as breathing. “Hard Promises to Keep” is another track culled straight from her classic country influences and plays Kammer’s talents off those of vocalist Greg Blake in a memorable duet. This tradition was once a solid standard of the Nashville sound and Kammer finds an excellent match for this in Blake’s smooth, authoritative vocal tone.
“The Winning Side” is Kammer’s lone original song on One Song at a Time and it’s beguiling, forward looking effort the likes of which we rarely get from popular songwriters. It’s a truism that writing about suffering in a convincing fashion tends to be an overall easier sell than conveying optimism and gratitude, but Kammer turns that potential logic on its head with a vibrant effort capable of convincing any listener. “Bluegrass Melodies” comes from the songwriting imagination of Darrell Statler, member of the legendary Statler Brothers vocal group, and this waltz time invocation of a music filled childhood flirts with sentimentality, but is ultimately warm and grounded in the details of a life well lived. The album closes with an exuberant cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues” and it’s a true treat to hear how completely Kammer throws herself into this time-tested classic – it quickly evolves into an example of how artists can often pour new wine into old bottles. Much of the album is the same. One Song at a Time will find favor with anyone who values authentic self expression and anyone who places a premium on the value of someone sharing their heart.