december 2011

Ed Littlefield, Jr. performing on the harp-guitar at the Harp Guitar Gathering 9 (October 2011): ‘What I seek is transcendence where the music acquires a special kind of magic that with any luck reduces people to tears in a good way.’ (Photo: Chuck Thompson, ©The Harp Guitar Foundation.)

Out Where The Land Sings

By David McGee

littlefieldMY WESTERN HOME
Ed Littlefield, Jr.
Sage Arts Records

At only eight songs Ed Littlefield, Jr.’s second solo album may seem slight, but those eight songs add up to 59 minutes of music lovingly rendered, subtly performed and felt to the musician’s core. Among the tunes is a six-minutes-plus version of “Red River Valley”; an eleven-minutes-plus version of “Get Along, Little Dogies”; an eight-minutes-plus take on Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”; and 15-minutes-plus of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” Back in the day Barney Fife counseled always keeping the heels of your shoes polished “because that’s the last thing people see of you when you walk away.” Even some die-hard western music fans might betray their embrace of the Fife Dictum when confronted with Littlefield’s expansive renditions of once concise canonical tunes, but those who would show others their heels (whether well polished or scuffed) would be missing one of the many delights recommending My Western Home.

Marley’s Ghost by Robert Crumb

On his first solo album since 2004’s Going To the West, Littlefield, a superb pedal steel player who does multiple duty herein on a variety of stringed instruments, is assisted by Piper Heisig (playing upright bass on “Red River Valley”) and drummers Jerry Fletcher and Michael Buono, with Heather Littlefield adding a background vocal to “Home On the Range.” Which is to say this is even more of a one-man-band album than its predecessor, which featured contributions by an impressive lineup of guests, including Laurie Lewis, Tom Rozum, Phil Salazar, Jon Wilcox and Trevor Wheetman. The spartan approach seems to suit Littlefield to a T: he’s as fine a musician as any in the land (a fact documented by his work in the estimable roots music group Marley’s Ghost over the course of eight CDs); he understands these songs’ mystical connection to the land and a way of life from his own family’s history as ranchers and his current life on his self-built Littlefield Farm, which includes a state of the art recording studio at which this album was recorded; and his warm, avuncular vocals are mellow but emphatic evocations of his bone-deep affection for the world and the values informing his repertoire.

Marley’s Ghost, with Ed Littlefield, Jr. on mandolin, performs ‘Key To the Highway,’ September 27, 2009, at Berkeley Café, Raleigh, NC

You can hear all this immediately as the album opens with the gentle folk fingerpicking and tender telling of the ill-fated courtship of “Darcy Farrow” (one of the album’s four songs traceable to Ian & Sylvia). Littlefield’s singing is infused with feeling for the horrific tragedy awaiting the song’s subject, his own subdued piano, dobro, pedal steel and atmospheric acoustic guitar fills underscoring the story’s poignancy. On “The Cowboy Waltz” words are unnecessary, as the instrumental’s graceful, swaying rhythm and tender melody (with a heart tugging, wistful tint), carried by fiddles, mandolin and guitar, becomes something greater than the sum of its parts, something rooted in the elegance of an earlier age that in turn bemoans the lost civility of our own. The “Texas Rangers” saga, a traditional number first recorded by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock and the Cartwright Brothers during the prewar era but revitalized in 1964 on Ian & Sylvia’s Northern Journey album, is a gritty a cappella tale of a bloody, five-hour battle between the Rangers and a band of Native Americans. Littlefield’s unadorned voice--and the way it rises to a fragile upper register at times--is the sound of a survivor’s thousand-yard stare, chilling in the details it describes and in the deadening of the singer’s soul it reveals. (“Texas Rangers” was the model for Steve Goodman’s similarly devastating “The Ballad of Penny Evans,” which supplants the Ranger’s despondency with a widow’s rage over her husband’s senseless death in Vietnam and the government’s unfeeling response to her loss.)

From the 1940 film West of the Badlands, Roy Rogers performs ‘Git Along Little Dogies.’ Ed Littlefield, Jr. features an extended arrangement of the song on My Western Home.

The extended numbers here, though spread out rather than grouped together, comprise a western song cycle. In the case of “Get Along, Little Dogies,” Littlefield appends some original lyrics to this cautionary tale concerning the challenges of the trail drive, in which the verses are followed by affecting atmospheric instrumental passages--swirling pedal steel, a church-like piano, resonant dobro, restrained drumming with a wash of cymbal here and there--serving as connective tissue between Littlefield’s sturdy vocals, the whole enterprise sounding more like an instructive sermon than a mere folk song or, indeed, a children’s song, as it has often been presented through the ages. The same vocal-plus-instrumental template is even more moving on the album closing epic version of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” Solemn and melancholy, Littlefield maintains an even keel in telling of a gringo and a comely Mexican lass whose love is thwarted by the couple’s biracialism, to the point where his oblique reference to it--“I can’t cross that line, you know”--is subsumed by a following reference to the singer being wanted for a gambling debt, this being the popular, much revised version (as recorded by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Nickel Creek and countless others over the years) of the original “A Border Affair” poem by Charles Badger Clark, the first Poet Laureate of South Dakota (1937). Littlefield lets the several instrumental interludes speak for his conflicted sensations, as these take on an Impressionistic feel, searching, bereft and nocturnal; in fact, the last 3:45 of the song, after Littlefield has signed off with a despairing “left her heart and lost my own, mi amor, mi Corazon,” is a completely instrumental probing of emotions led by a jazzy, improvisational acoustic guitar solo (a purely musical evocation of the narrator’s ensuing lonely wanderings) as the pedal steel cries softly in the background.

Ian & Sylvia, ‘Darcy Farrow,’ the first song on Ed Littlefield, Jr.’s My Western Home album

In the press material accompanying his album, Littlefield makes no claims for My Western Home beyond wanting to capture how he imagines cowboys would have performed these songs, “just sitting around the campfire, playing for fun.” What he’s done, though, is to assemble an Americana suite--not the phony in-name-only kind the Americana Music Association promotes, but real Americana, rooted in how people live when they are inseparable from and humbled by God’s handiwork. When he sings and plays, the land sings too, as surely as it does in Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. And if the land sings, does not the man upstairs do the same?

“I do know what I’m looking for in my music,” Littlefield says, “and what I seek is transcendence where the music acquires a special kind of magic that with any luck reduces people to tears in a good way.”

Mission accomplished, in a good way.

Ed Littlefield, Jr.’s My Western Home is available at the Western Folklife Center store

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024