When we use the term country & western, we do not often think of a place like Vermont. That’s not to say Kris Gruen’s Welcome Farewell falls into the country & western camp but the predominant presence of the pedal steel guitar and rootsy accompaniment deliver a similar refreshing, rural, open feel to these songs, born in Vermont’s rural backcountry that surround Gruen’s family’s organic farm. Call it “northern country.” It’s not only about the landscapes though as Gruen paints character sketches and spins personal tales of family relationships. These include his late grandmother, the subject of “Apple Tree” and “Skyline,” as well as his wife who invites her husband to join her in the fields on “When She Stays.”
Gruen has long been an acclaimed solo performer, but he taps as many as a dozen musicians in the credits including close friends Randy Schrager (Sister Scissors, Jesse Malin), Rob Morse (Anais Mitchell, Hadestown), and solo artist Michael Flynn (Slowrunner). Jack McLaughlin mostly mans the twangy pedal steel which wafts through most of the tracks. Yet there is more than just a rural feel as horns and hand percussion give a slight Calexico feel to “The Painter” and “Nothing in the World” which begins mostly with just Gruen’s voice, swells with choruses and some ferocious electric guitar, leading to a gentle segue for the dreamlike “Skyline,” expressing emotive and fond memories.
The second half begins with “When I’m Down, which sounds as if it’s in the acoustic singer-songwriter mode, but piano notes and pedal steel swirls create nice colors and his elongated vocal wails strike deep. The mood lightens with the bouncy “Pictures Of,” his ode to his children. The listener can almost visualize the beckoning apple tree sitting alone on a hilltop in “Apple Tree,” his poignant memories of moments with his grandmother. Rather surprisingly he closes with a cover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” a tender piano ballad that perfectly encapsulates the theme of the record.
By turns gentle and expressive, Welcome Farewell is the product of a veteran songsmith. This makes for one of those nice quiet listens when uninterrupted, you can focus on the lyrics such as this last verse of “Apple Tree” – “They say death/Is just a door through which we leave/The chapters of our reverie/As a hero in a day-dream.” This is Gruen’s fifth studio album, and it encourages this writer to explore others in his catalog. It will likely do the same for you.
- Jim Hynes