Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Album Review: Old Light: Songs from my Childhood and Other Gone Worlds


Never mind that she was my college roommate. Never mind that I adore her and that I am an extremely loyal person. Nevermind that this type of music happens to be right up my alley. The new pre-released cd, Old Light: Songs from My Childhood and Other Gone Worlds, by Rayna Gellert is a work of musical art that is well worth your time and attention. So listen up!
Rayna has been playing, performing and recording old-time and old-time related music for at least the better part of 2 decades. Starting with her childhood (her dad is traditional fiddle and Banjo player Dan Gellert), and continuing through college and beyond, Rayna has performed in a variety of venues- from Warren Wilson contra dances, to touring with the Rhythm in Shoes dance company, to playing with the Freight Hoppers, to singing and fiddling with bad-ass girl band Uncle Earl, to guest fiddling with Toubab Krewe- and more. Rayna has filled the need in many-a-situation as a fiddler/ guitarist/ vocalist who is classically trained and old-time raised and thoroughly studied and practiced in tradition.

After about 20 years, Rayna has ventured out into a new realm: Old Light: Songs from my Childhood and Other Gone Worlds, is her debut as a songwriter and artist of her complete own accord and right. Consisting of about half original and half traditional songs, this album is completely original. Arrangements are fresh, thoughtful and spot-on. It struck me both during the live performance at the pre-cd release show and listening to the album that each note, each intonation, each pause in this music is complete with intention and integrety. It seems to me that Rayna is presenting this music with complete respect; since the work is a marriage of tradtional music and candid originals, listening is like bearing witness to a beautiful balance being found between respecting tradition and making one's own mark.

The content of the album focuses heavily on memory, and thus to me has an overall thoughtful and slightful melancholic demeanor. Let me be clear- not every song is about memory, and not every song is sad. However, even with the most upbeat of traditional songs, we are still struck with the sense of the passing of time and the ways our world is drastically different than it was when the song was first sung. Some of the original songs definitely explore the dark side of memory. Several songs dip into the realm of memory loss,  inspired by a "creative conversation" between Rayna and author David MacLean, who has completed the memoir The Answer to the Riddle is Me about his experience with amnesia. And there are two extremely creepy traditional murder ballads, one of which has haunted Rayna since childhood. (When I say creepy, I am talking very dark, very creepy and very haunting.)

The instrumentation on Old Light is fantastic- it is a perfect selection of musical sounds, and each musician is doing just the right amount. From the banjo paired with the trumpet, and the BUMPIN DRUM SOUNDS on "Nothing," to the hair-raising guitar off-notes on "The Fatal Flower Garden" and the subtle and appropriate usage of an organ on several tracks, Rayna demonstrates her keen selectress skills.

And the voice. You just have to hear it. Rayna has a voice that is timeless, ageless and starkly beautiful. Her voice presents each song as an honest expression of the depth of human experience. Calmy, openly, beautifully. Like I said, you just have to hear it.

My favorite song on the album is probably the opening track, "Nothing," but honestly, I find myself singing most all of them quietly as I go through my days this season. Old Light is my soundtrack for this autumn- the season of remembering.

(ps- You can supposedly listen to a song from this album by "liking" it on Facebook. I don't know anything about "liking" something on Facebook, but here's the link: Like it! It should be worth the effort.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Field and Forest: An Equinox Mead

August 20 found me swimming with friends and family at the creek, harvesting and spinning two frames of honey that dear Mr. CR brought to the house early the morning before, and then harvesting boatloads of pears to the light of the setting sun.
I will never forget that pear harvest. Ruth and Dan Gallagher drove by as I harvested, stopped and tailgated it with me for a good long while. It was Dan's birthday, and he sat on the tailgate of their Honda Element, looking at fluffy innocuous clouds move across the sky over there in Tennessee, where the sun always sets- first turning pink, then brilliant shades of lavender and purple. We admired the Spider Lilies, one of Hot Springs's botanical anomolies- a species which started in someone's garden and has made itself at home here and there over the years all over the valley. It stands in the company of other naturalized plant forms- mahonias, Japanese maples, campion. The spider lilies put out leaves early in the season and then disappear only to shock us all with their brilliant bright red spidery long fingered flower blooms the third week of August. Their emergence always coincides with the first wind of late summer which blows walnut leaves in greenish yellow swirls lightly through the warm sunlight. Inevitably that wind stops me in my tracks, and I watch the walnut leaves beginning their descent, and I think: how did it happen so fast?
This particular evening, Dan was in excellent spirits, as was Ruth, and we picked pears, talked, laughed, and loafered around that tree until night fell. They convinced me to drive my Subaru right up under the tree, stand on my car, and then pick the big fatty pears which were too high to reach. It was a good move. All bags, buckets, boxes and tubs in sight were filled with the bounty in no time flat.

It is September 20 now, and the pears I came home with that night are officially either consumed or put up. First came the pies about 3 weeks ago. There were several, and they were damn good. Then came the chutney, which you can read about a couple of posts ago, the canning of which went flawlessly, thanks to the company and spur-of-the-moment tips by Susie.

Yesterday came the mead. As it were, after the pies and the double batch of chutney, there were still quite a few pears to contend with. I ate them freely- with yogurt, with cheesy crackers, with chocolate, alone, with a meal. Biting into their cool juicy sweet flesh was a gentle delicacy- a perfect nourishing treat for a late summer morning, afternoon or night. But there were so many, and I just couldn't work through them fast enough. I didn't want to do any more canning (I don't know how you people do it it drives me so crazy) and dehydrating is not the best option for so juicy a fruit. So fermentation it was. And I thought what with two good damn neighbors having stocked me up this summer with more than enough honey, it would be mead. And then I thought I would doll it up a bit with some sort of spice to make it a nice winter time sipping wine, and it was decided- the gorgeous bright red ripe berries of the keynote understory species all up in this dingle- the mighty Lindera benzoin- spicebush!

I enjoyed the lovliest September 19th wandering around field and forest harvesting pounds upon pounds of these berries. What a delight it was to slow down and mosey. I spent hours picking, mosying, watching, listening. I found so many cool things in the woods while daudling.

The great thing about this project is that it required no peeling! I simply weighed out the pears, crudely chopped them up and tossed them into the pot, poured the water over the chopped fruit, then cooked them for a while. After I turned the heat off, I added the berries, and then left the concoction overnight to steep and cool off. This evening, I strained the fruit off the water, squeezing the liquid out of it for flavor, and then strained and skimmed the liquid several times. I dissolved the honey in a little bit of water, and added it to the pear spicebush juice, heating it all up to about blood temperature. At that point I transferred the sweet juice into a 2-gallon carboy, added champagne yeast and closed it off with an airlock. It is working its little self away in the work room as we speak. I am aiming for the first little drinkypoo at Christmastime.


10 pounds ripe pears, unpeeled and chopped
1 pound spicebush berries
1 1/2 gallons spring water
2 quarts raw honey
1/2 package champagne yeast*

*If only some Asheville hippie or DudeBra would get off his ass and start a company producing and packaging local wine yeast everything that went into this mead could have been entirely local! Someone, please, just do that for next time.  It coule really nicely supplement your Further Tour parking lot hacky sack sales. Thank you.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Perhaps it is being driven by hoarding tendencies that began as a two year old when I refused to eat for days, screaming that we must save our food because the world is going to run out. Or maybe the root of it is guilt from the fact that even with 20 acres of land, we are well into September and all I have managed to put up for the winter is 5 quarts of blanched beans in the freezer. It could be for the love of a project or simply the fact that pear chutney is such so darn good over spring nettle and potato fritters. But whatever the reason, the driving force is apPEARently a strong one. I have spent the past 5 hours peeling and finely chopping pears from my favorite pear tree in Hot Springs. And I have so many more to go!

This is after spending about a two hour session picking them a few weeks ago and after dear friend Eliza spent an evening individually wrapping about half of the them in newspaper to minimize rot. I thought my mom was going to partner with me for this project, but everytime I call my PEARents to talk to her about it, they are just so dang busy. (Oh, what a PEAR those two are!)

So as of bedtime tonight, I have enough finely chopped pears for two batches of chutney and stilled enough peeled ones for several pies. And there is still a box of whole unpeeled pears left in the pantry, which I am thinking might become pear mead that I can bust out at wintertime PEARties...

Although I am overwhelmed by the scale of this project and my peeling hand is stiff and sore, I am looking forward to the chutney, pies and mead, and I am PEARfectly happy to share the chutney recipe with you. It came out of the Ball Blue Book for canning, and it rocks my world. It goes a little something like this:

Pear or Peach Chutney

4 quarts peeled, pitted and finely chopped pears (or peaches)
2 to 3 cups brown sugar
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped onion (about 1 medium)
1/4 cup mustard seed
2 Tbs ginger
2 tsp salt
1 clove garlic minced (optional)
1 hot red pepper, finely chopped
5 cups vinegar

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepot. Simmer until thick (takes a good while). Stir frequently to prevent sticking. Ladle hot chutney into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust 2-piece caps. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.

Yields about 7 pints.

It seemed a little crazy to be peeling all those pears by myself today for hours upon hours, but hey, that kind of craziness is just PEAR for the course.

Thanks to my food preservation insPEARation, Beth Trigg, for calling me and providing good conversation and moral support during the final stretch of today's chopping. And for Jessie Lehmann (aka Lil Razz) for being PEARticularly funny with the puns...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Coming up on September 9th

It's going on the three year out mark from 9-09-09,* which brought a terrorizing 3am electrical hailstorm to this small holler, scaring the daylights out of all residents and nearly washing me and my Airstream away. I was only halfway joking when I told my neighbor RM today that three years out I am finally beginning to recover from the stress of the storm; for example it can rain and thunder without me going into fight or flight mode...

It is hard for me to believe that in less than three years I have bought land here and now live in a gorgeous house on it, with a (currently) functioning kick ass water system and a good start to a garden. I never would have suspected on that bizarre morning of September 10, 2009,amidst the 2 ft deep drifts of quarter sized hail and the overpowering smell of shredded pine needles roaring down the new river that was created overnight, that I would be here today as a land holder and homeowner. So much has happened since then.

This evening I walked to the Sunset Spot and drank in the beauty of this place that I am beginning to call home.

May this September 9th bring unexpected delights. If you need to find me, I'll be the one sweet talking

*For more about the freak storm of 9-09-09, click here and here.