North Country Sky
Andy Baker is a Michigan-based singer-songwriter who placed as a 2020 Kerrville Folk Festival finalist for two of the songs on this release, North Country Sky, his fourth studio album. The album is somewhat eclectic, from folk to folk-rock, a dash of country and even blues but it holds together through Baker’s gift for infectious hooks and some strong lyrical moments. Yes, this is a wide ranging effort not only in styles but in instruments played. Baker handles guitar, octave mandolin, dobro and keys. Yet, he has plenty of support too including Michigan musicians Drew Howard on pedal steel, Mike Lynch on accordion and organ, and Grammy-winning Peter “Madcat” Ruth on harmonica, who has been on the Ann Arbor music scene for over 50 years now, including when this writer lived there in the late’70s.
Baker draws the listener in immediately with the jaunty “Second Wind,” the opening track imbued with banjo, accordion and a driving guitar solo with lyrics that speak to newfound energy – “Half my beard has turned to grey/half me years have flown away/but I don’t look back on where I’ve been/I’m chasing down my second wind.” “Skywriter,” an image of which appears on the CD cover, is the deliberately delivered tale of a distraught lover who asks a pilot to write “I’m sorry” in the sky before his love boards a wayward train. “Sixteen,” one the two Kerrville finalist songs, pays homage to his youngest sister, who died of a brain tumor at age 15. It features some tasteful dobro work from Baker.
The other Kerrville finalist song is “Tsunami,” reflecting on the grief of a woman’s loss of her husband in the tsunami of 2011 that hit Japan. “Next Right Thing” a mid-tempo tune with a singalong hook and prevalent pedal steel while “I Know” falls into a contemplative acoustically strummed mode With harmony vocals from Mia Rose. “Crossroads” is a rocker with good hooks and chorus while “Running After You” initially seems follows that similar pattern, beginning as an acoustically strummed ballad, but it morphs into a bright full band tune midway through. Hard charging blues arrive with the driving “Fixer Upper Blues,” featuring Lynch on organ and Madcat Ruth on harp.
“Fall to Pieces” is perhaps Baker’s best vocal, a standout track, supported again by Lynch’s B3 organ and Rose’s vocal harmonies. “Love and Gravity,” like “I Know” is a lighter folk song with minimal accompaniment before the full band joins for the title track, another standout featuring guest Noah Nigg on piano and Mark Schrock on mandolin, in addition to the core quintet of Jeff Moehle (drums), John Austin (bass), Will Walker (rhythm and lead guitar), and Drew Howard (pedal steel). The chorus of “North Country Sky” keeps echoing and fades into applause, well-deserved for this batch of refreshing songs.
- Jim Hynes