Kathy Barwick first appeared on my radar as the resonator guitarist with the fine northern California bluegrass band, the All-Girl Boys. Since then, she’s been branching out in a variety of other areas, most notably as an instructor and a columnist teaching flatpicking guitar. Based on her first featured recording, In My Life, it’s apparent that she’s been holding back on sharing the full extent of her impressive gifts as a player and arranger…until now.
There are inherent pitfalls in making a recording that’s mostly instrumental and comprised entirely of tunes and songs that are either traditional or written by others. But Barwick has harnessed her prodigious skills to make this a wide-ranging and just plain interesting album to listen to. She has a special knack for sparse arrangements that allow the tunes to shine, with just the right (but still unexpected) harmonic twists that bring a delightful surprise to your ear. Her immersion in Irish music informs her passion for bluegrass and vice versa, so the tunes avoid falling into ruts.
And none of this would work without her fine work on lead and rhythm guitar and resonator guitar. Some brief but sparkling guest appearances from John Reischman, Roland White, Mary Gibbons, Linda Relph, Keith Little, and others add zest throughout. If anything, Barwick can melt too far into the background, as she does when she yields the spotlight to singer-songwriter Mike Justis on “On The Modoc Line.” More apropos is her duet with fiddler/singer Samantha Olson on “My Native Home” where we get to hear her vocal gifts. She even steps out on banjo, bringing a nice bluegrass touch to the old-time tune “Sadie At The Back Door.”
The occasional appearance of whistles and percussion shouldn’t frighten off stylistic purists, because this album is able to strike a delicate balance between the dual sources of many of these old fiddle tunes. A prime example is her version of “Red Haired Boy,” of which she might have been subconsciously inspired by the excellent version done years back by Tony Rice and Norman Blake that incorporated its musical cousin, “Gilderoy.” It might also be worth noting that the album notes were written by former Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer Jon Hartley Fox, who is Barwick’s husband.
In My Life is a deeply enjoyable coming out party for Kathy Barwick, showcasing her rich array of talents. And what’s most deeply satisfying about the result is that her abilities are channeled not to dazzle the listener, but rather to serve the music. (FGM Records, P.O. Box 2160, Pulaski, VA 24301, www.fgmrecords.com.) HK