march 2011

Carmen Cuesta (left) and Coty Hogue (right): Occupying the common ground of being true to their muses.

From The Bossa Nova To The Backwoods, Hope Arises

Carmen Cuesta and Coty Hogue fashion affecting love letters to the places, people and land that inspires their art

By David McGee

cuesta bossa nova
Carmen Cuesta
Tweety Records

Coty Hogue
Cello Room Productions

On first blush new albums by Madrid-born, New York City-dwelling Carmen Cuesta and Montana native Coty Hogue would seem to have little in common. Yet, in Ms. Cuesta’s graceful interpretations of songs celebrating the Bossa Nova music that first inspired her musical endeavors when she was growing up in Spain and in Ms. Hogue’s proud, affecting love letter to the mountain and roots music in which she finds values she knows well from growing up in mountain country herself, the two artists occupy the common ground of being true to their muses. Musical though those muses be, loving the land and recognizing its powerful pull on human nature is arguably the most interesting trait they share as kindred spirits in song. The sun, the sea, the sky and the mountains are often backdrops for the action on both albums, but these natural forces also shape or color the destinies of the characters populating the song selections.

carmen cuestaMs. Cuesta’s Mi Bossa Nova is largely devoted to the songs of the one towering muse in her artistic life, Antonio Carlos Jobim, but also includes songs by other South American artists (including an impossibly tender reading of “Manha de Carnival,” the Luis Bonfa-Antonio Maria classic from Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Black Orpheus, to which her husband/guitarist/co-producer Chuck Loeb contributes a feathery gut-string guitar solo every bit as winsome as his wife’s affecting vocal) plus two of her originals that might well have come from the pens of the greats from whose songwriting wells she drew for this project: her slinky “Jobim” is dedicated to the master, and were he still with us he might well blush at its unbridled expressions of love and gratitude; being expert at this himself, he would certainly appreciate the restraint and subtlety with which Ms. Cuesta renders sentiments such as “You are the promise of life in my heart/You are the promise/Your song is the promise of love,” and would doubtless admire the perfectly calibrated atmospherics of the arrangement, with the flutes of Christina and Lizzy Loeb flittering like butterflies through and around the melody and Ms. Cuesta’s voice double-tracked to ethereal effect; with Howard Levy’s harmonica slithering through its arrangement--now crying, now laughing in harmony with the storyline--Ms. Cuesta’s “Tormenta” challenges “this storm of loneliness” to move on through a couple’s life, wreak its havoc on “curtains and quilts…geraniums and the table set for dinner,” and wash away their pain with it, “‘cause the rain’ll know when to stop.” (Do not be misled by these English lyrics; Ms. Cuesta sings her two original songs in her native Spanish tongue, but the covers are in Portugese, which she learned especially for this album because the Jobim estate does not allow Jobim's songs to be translated into any other language. In and of itself, this is no mean feat, and hats off to her for a flawless performance in that regard.)

Carmen Cuesta, her original song ‘Tormenta’ from her new album, Mi Bossa Nova, a tribute to the music that first inspired her (especially the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim)

Mi Bossa Nova’s other songs seem chosen purposely for their messages or historical resonance. No haphazard collection of Jobim tunes this, its selections include “Chega de Saudade” (oft recorded in English as “No More Blues”), widely singled out as the first Bossa Nova song, offered in an arrangement honoring the shuffling energy of Jobim’s 1958 original and featuring another striking guitar solo by Chuck Loeb, this one fleet, swift and bursting with energy; its happy feel, though, masks a lyric about unbearable longing, and Ms. Cuesta plays it with a blithe spirit, as if to hide the sorrow at the song’s core. (Note: Chuck Loeb, Ms. Cuesta's husband, was formerly the guitarist in Stan Getz's band; Getz served as best man at the Cuesta-Loeb nuptials.) Similarly, Jobim’s “Meditaçao” opts for an upbeat mood as the singer, supported by velvety background singers and sprightly solos by Loeb on guitar and Matt King on piano, takes a hopeful approach in articulating her anticipation over the return of the person she loves most; in the best-known version of the song, recorded by Jobim with Frank Sinatra on their duet album, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, originally released in 1969 and reissued last year, along with seven other Jobim-Sinatra tracks released in 1970 as Sinatra & Company, as The Complete Reprise Recordings, the Chairman of the Board eased into a melancholy mood, as if uncertain of his lover’s return, whereas Ms. Cuesta seems confident of its inevitability--to her credit she tempers her reading enough to leave a smidgen of wonder over whether her optimism is well founded. Something of the other side of her own “Tormenta,” “O Barquinho” (“The Goodbye,” written by Roberto Menescal and Ronaldo Boscoli), blessed with a cool, languid Matt King piano solo, sees love in the context of sunny summer days and quiet boat rides under blue skies, with the onset of evening signaling a sudden adieu to affection.

From her new album, Mi Bossa Nova, Carmen Cuesta sings Jobim’s ‘Chega de Saudade’ (oft recorded in English as ‘No More Blues’), widely singled out as the first Bossa Nova song.

The last we heard of Carmen Cuesta prior to this was on 2007’s wonderful You Still Don’t Know Me, a project that was itself a couple of years in the making. On her website, the artist says that album took some time to complete while her husband was “busy with other projects that actually pay our bills,” and she, self-described as “unpredictable and easily distracted by gardening, decorating and other aspects of regular living,” stepped away from the day to day business of making music. She also notes her despair over “the Bush administration’s foreign policies and the entire world’s politics, and most distressing of all, my father’s death.” The world is hardly better shape now than it was in 2007--worse, actually--but in Mi Bossa Nova Ms. Cuesta has injected something positive and calming into the mix, a moment not without its own sorrows, to be sure, but also one with bracing, indomitable strength in its performances--a potent elixir for taking the edge off hard times.

coty hogue
Coty Hogue: all existence fades to a being with her soul and memories, and a hope arises for safe travels ahead.

Carman Cuesta may be a long way from her native Madrid now, but Coty Hogue, even when she has journeyed geographically far from her big sky home town of Philipsburg, Montana, has managed to stay close to familiar terrain--she attended school in Bellingham, Washington, where she played out extensively and mastered a number of stringed instruments before relocating to Boone, North Carolina, where she studied old-time music and earned a Masters Degree in Appalachian Studies. While in Boone, she recorded an album, Going To the West, with her frequent collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Aaron Guest. To the West is the reissued version of that album, and it features not only Guest in a supporting role but also a half-dozen other musicians supplementing various arrangements with cello, dobro, accordion, piano and harmony vocals (including Goose Creek Symphony’s fiddler Jon Parry on three cuts, most notably a joyous, tension relieving original fiddle instrumental, “Up the Waterfall,” with an Ozarks flavor). As Carmen Cuesta does, so does Coty Hogue: 10 of the 13 songs are covers of tunes by legendary American roots artists (ranging from Ola Belle Reed to Hazel Dickens to Bob Wills & Cindy Walker) and promising contemporary writers, along with three of her own originals.

Coty Hogue performs the opening track of her album To The West, ‘Going To The West’

An old soul in a young woman’s body, Ms. Hogue’s songs rise up from the earth she loves, are haunted by mountains and waters, and, even in their spare arrangements, evoke the freedom of wide open spaces with a limitless horizon; in this landscape she posits herself a pioneer exploring her heart as surely as those of another age sought a better life in uncharted territory--she wastes no time, in fact, in emphasizing this point in the opening traditional number, “Going To The West,” in which, over languid banjo and guitar musings, she intones in her clear, ringing contralto, “In this fair land, I’ll stay no more/Your labor is in vain/I’ll leave the mountains of my birth/in search of fertile plains/I’m goin’ to the west,” knowing full well, as the next stanza reveals, that she’ll be going alone, because her husband refuses to follow her. In this complete break with her past--from “the land I love, where fragrant flowers bloom and music fills the air,” from her life’s companion--to journey to parts unknown, her flight to independence is the whole story; there is no coda, or musical P.S., where a change of heart brings them back together--the singer simply refuses to settle for less than what she believes life has to offer. By contrast, the next song, her own “Dear Mother,” is a Depression-era letter home from a daughter who is stuck right where she is, her fields, and her hope, dying around her. Over the eerie hum of Nova Karina Devonie’s accordion and Aaron Guest’s sturdy but lonesome guitar strums, she describes rolling thunder, ground trembling under her feet, a tree split in two by lightning “like my mind, burning what’s left inside, torn between wrong and right.” The land she looked to for salvation in the preceding song has turned against her and now mirrors her own inner quaking as she tries to hold onto hope. Nature is a harsh mistress. In another original, “Push On Through,” Hogue assumes the voice of a farmer watching the day come alive and reflecting in bittersweet terms on the changing times now jeopardizing the life that nurtured him, when “the land had a mind of its own”; now, young people are abandoning the rural world, mines are closed down, the railroad is gone, big ranchers are selling out to developers. Janet Peterson’s moaning cello and Guest’s brisk, fingerpicked guitar establish an ominous ambience, but Hogue’s farmer departs the story trying to believe in another day--“somehow we always pushed on through,” Hogue sings in a strong, assertive voice ahead of repeating the sentiment in a hopeful but wary postscript: “Somehow we always pushed on…through, think this time we will push on through” as the cello and guitar softly caress her words in solidarity with her confident stance.

Coty Hogue performs Ola Belle Reed’s ‘Undone In Sorrow,’ from her album To The West

Sometimes the land intersects with, shields or reveals intensely personal tragedies. Over her own desolate banjo picking, Hogue offers up a cry of the heart in rendering Ola Belle Reed’s “Undone in Sorrow,” a wrenching tale of a man who left the mountains and his girl behind to seek riches elsewhere. Returning to wed his true love, he instead finds her buried there and is faced with the tragic result of his past cupidity. Direct and emotionally raw, Hogue’s reading and minimalist banjo support bring the horror of the story home in a way Crooked Still’s more precious version cannot--it’s the difference between something felt and something learned. Human follies of another, even more horrific sort are documented in searing detail in an unaccompanied Civil War tale actually written by one of the combatants, “Shiloh’s Hill/Battle of Shiloh Hill.” The total absence of any other sound but the artist’s plaintive voice is especially striking--like the ghostly, after-battle stillness in the air some Civil War veterans reported experiencing--and especially so when the Union narrator-soldier sings of shooting a Rebel soldier who had attacked him, only to learn it was his own father, fighting for the Confederacy. Still another kind of personal loss is chronicled in a rustic treatment of Hazel Dickens’s bluegrass heartbreaker, “A Few Old Memories,” detailing the sad detritus of a faded love and featuring, for good measure, an absolutely heart tugging, weeping dobro solo by Laurel Bliss as a complement to Hogue’s own tear-stained confessions. In the context of To The West’s narrative arc, the artist closes on a perfect note, with a truncated, a cappella rendition of the traditional shape-note hymn, “Dear Friends, Farewell.” Singing only the first two verses, then reprising the first, she strikes the right chord of benediction and hopes for divine salvation “from all harms,” as all existence fades to a being with her soul and memories, and a hope arises for safe travels ahead. The land remembers.

Carmen Cuesta’s Mi Bossa Nova is available at

Coty Hogue’s To The West is available at

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