Louisa Branscomb is no stranger to frontiers. Once called “always 20 years ahead of her time” by Lester Flatt manager, Lance LeRoy, she was spotted as a songwriter with promise by Mel Tillis at the tender age of 21. It’s now been over forty years since she penned the ideal train song, Steel Rails, once recorded by Tillis himself (to date unreleased). 20 years later, Alison Krauss made the song a world-wide hit on her initial debut in 1990. Today, Louisa’s twelfth album, Gonna Love Anyway, is released on Compass Records, with her train anthem included in the stellar collection of tunes and artists.
”The perfect song is a vanishing point,” Branscomb shared. “I’m interested in pursuing things I can never really achieve. It inspires me to keep moving through new ground, and reminds me to live close to the bone, open to the unknown, so I won’t miss the next song.”
Branscomb approaches the vanishing point on Gonna Love Anyway. Her legendary songwriting is on full display: conjuring up feelings of longing, humanity, and resilience conveyed through poetic images of rustic barns, majestic mountains, open fields, and distant freight trains.
Respected as an innovative bluegrass/Americana songwriter and performer, Branscomb co-founded the bluegrass quartet, Boot Hill with Sam Sanger in the early ’70s. A true pioneer, she blazed trails as likely the first female to partner in fronting a bluegrass band, while also playing banjo and composing much of the group’s material. Since then, she has performed with many accomplished artists and earned numerous accolades including music Hall of Fame appointments in Alabama and Georgia, and IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award.
Following a childhood of riding the rails, the theme of winding tracks and the lure of the unknown is ever present in Branscomb’s creative imagination and work. Gonna Love Anyway is no exception. The album launches with Dale Ann Bradley powering out the rambling Gone, a song that uses breaking free as a metaphor for the transformational journey of heart and soul. Branscomb delves into tragedy, triumph, and survival with stories that range from the pathos of love (‘Can I find the strength / To kiss this love goodbye’ – Ain’t No Good Goodbye), to the wonder and innocence of her Alabama childhood (Barefoot Girl).
As in a fine tapestry, Branscomb’s adept musicianship is interwoven without pretense in instrumentation and harmony and a signature lead track. Her frailing banjo adds to the raw ache of There’s No Marker on Our Grave, and her lead singing on Blackbird in the Rain echoes the album theme of rising above hardship: ‘the grass was way too tall / but we danced right through it all/ then he flew away/ but I kept dancing anyway.’ Claire Lynch’s vocal on Freight Train for a Song moves along with Louisa contributing finger picking track steady as a train’s rhythm in the distance.
Co-producer Missy Raines outlined their plan of action. “We took a designer approach to considering whose artistic style and voice we felt best matched each song.”
The outstanding cast settles out with exciting one-of-a-kind combinations from one song to the next. A few taking front seats are Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, Alison Brown, Jim Hurst, Jeanette Williams, Steve Gulley, Josh Williams, Kristin Scott Benson and Missy Raines. Both seasoned producers, Branscomb and Raines create a waterfall of magical moments for the listener in this cascade of artistic showpieces.
Steel Rails is the masterful flagship of the album, with a collection of singers such as Hull, Tuttle, and Buller – all of whom have stories about how Steel Rails influenced their careers. However the gem here is Molly Tuttle’s magical delivery of the title track, Gonna Love Anyway. Tuttle joins forces with Sierra Hull and Jim Hurst, adding the musical expertise of Missy Raines and Bryan McDowell. Resilience is the guiding theme throughout the recording, and the title cut reflects the courage of taking life as it comes, just as a train surrenders to the track. The song dropped as a single on July 12.
There are many ways to spell resilience. Branscomb spans the theme with masterful ease on songs delivered from the soul’s raw edge (Blue Moon Blues, There’s No Marker on Our Grave) all the way to exquisite songs about the delicate yet unstoppable nature of the human spirit. The CD is a stirring perspective on a theme that has inspired legions of artists, and pioneers, since the beginning of time.
A complete list of guest artists on Steel Rails includes: Tina Adair, Kristin Scott Benson, Dale Ann Bradley, Louisa Branscomb, Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Casey Campbell, Shad Cobb, Mike Compton, Charlie Cushman, Josh Day, Stuart Duncan, Jenny Lyn Gardner, Steve Gulley, Billy Hawks, Sierra Hull, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Ron Inscore, Kimber Ludiker, Claire Lynch, Bryan McDowell, Russell Moore, Dave Peterson, Missy Raines, Deanie Richardson, Jake Stargel, Molly Tuttle, Jeanette Williams, Johnny Williams, Josh Williams, Celia Woodsmith.
Cowriters of songs cited above: Ain’t No Good Goodbye – Teresa Neal; Gone – Diane King; Blackbird in the Rain – Teresa Neal; Barefoot Girl – Becky Buller; Gonna Love Anyway – Jennifer Strickland.
Kicking off a series of release concerts in different areas, Branscomb will perform with Jeanette and Johnny Williams in Asheville, NC, on August 25, 5:00-7:00 p.m. Details/reservations: (602) 330-9574.