Bluegrass Unlimited 9/94
New Joe Clark/Calliope House/Shortening Bread/ Shady Grove/Blarney Pilgrim-Humours of Ennistymon/ Sister/Blackberry blossom/Mona Ray/Norwegian Wood/ Farewell to Whiskey/Sandy River Belle-Cherokee Shuffle/ Aran Boat Song/Night Flight to Dublin (Spanish Suite)/ Forked Deer-Fisher’s Hornpipe.
It might seem difficult at first blush to critique autoharp players. How do you evaluate intonation on an instrument which works via keys and dampers? The answer: The same way you’d evaluate a pianist. On that basis, Karen Mueller’s touch, timing and taste make her a true virtuoso. Her talent and clarity (pun intended) of musical vision for an under-appreciated instrument deserve a wide audience.
The Minnesota-based Mueller (who also plays lovely mountain lap dulcimer) raises new life into an old staple with a yeasty version of "Shortening Bread," then presents a simultaneously wistful and exuberant "Shady Grove." Leo Kottke’s "Mona Ray" is a tour de-force in her hands and evocative dimensions are discovered in a jazz-waltz arrangement of the Beatles’ "Norwegian Wood." She’s even worked some variations on a spanish guitar piece into the mini opus "Night Flight to Dublin (Spanish Suite)," which proves there are true creative possibilities in flying from Madrid to Ireland at 4 a.m.
The autoharp has certainly had star performers in folk and old-time country music, notably Mike Seeger, Bryan Bowers and of course Maybelle Carter. But it has never become a major voice in bluegrass. The reason probably goes beyond the old saw that "Bill Monroe never had one in his band." The strumming, sustained sound of the instrument doesn’t always get in sync with the stacatto syncopations of three-finger banjo picking. But Mueller comes fairly close on "New Joe Clark" and even closer on "Blackberry Blossom" opposite guest Tony Trischka. And the instrument proves to be ideally suited to lively jigs and reels, as witness some New England-style dance medleys included here.
In addition to Mueller’s instrumental talents, the assemblage of tasteful backup musicians, the variety and colorations of the material, and the coherent economy of this CD are all tributes to her abilities as a producer. "Clarity" will clearly be a musical jewel box for all who open it. (Streamline Productions, P.O. Box 80565, Minneapolis, MN 55408)