Still strummin’, Betty Belmore’s back from the road and ready to start work on the follow-up to her latest release. First we listened to the new record; then we called her. Here’s what we thought, and then what she really meant.
I was fortunate enough to have a copy of Betty Belmore’s latest release, ‘These Fields’, sent to me here in Ontario and I’ve not only had the chance to listen to and review the album, but also to talk to Betty about the album, her love and experience with music, and her process.
A Look at ‘These Fields’
As the Mourning Dove comes flying in to open the album, she’s not mourning the music. A brief and groovy song of lost love, the bouncing bass and slide guitar swing us into the fray with a sense of merry melancholy.
An ill wind carries the mourning dove and in its wake, we can “see the Dust for miles”. This desolate ballad showcases Betty’s voice with a heartfelt love for a community that seems to be vanishing. The organ plays integral interludes of downtrodden but faithful hope and the additional instruments are subtly mixed down, appropriately feeding the desolation of this magnificently morose piece.
The Cold, Cold Snow starts to fall in this song; the story of a man in the winter of his life, holding on to heartbreak, “carrying the torch” for a lover who jilted him many years before. The lap-steel and harmonica take this track to the back porch of this poor old soul and Belmore’s voice whines whimsically, sharing such a wonderfully weary story.
Without You picks up the pace and kicks up some wonderful harmonies with fun and finicky fiddles to accent between vocals. A heavy country guitar gears up the song and keeps a steady thrum while the accordion and mandolin join the fiddle-fest to make a real shindig of this lovely lonesome lyric.
Working These Fields, Betty sings with soul, sewing this sweet song into our hearts, pushing us to make the most of the time we have. The smooth lead behind Belmore and her haunting harmonies carries us on a gentle breeze of old-school rock and country.
The Last Red Eye Flight takes off and, with a sensual jazz piano and smooth drum beat, we’re taken into a different world, removed from the back porch, and put into the lounge with a sexy sax and husky lyric of loss as the flames of love are put out into the night.
A wonderful parlour country ballad, What Good is a Moon shows its face– and it’s bright; well lit with pedal-steel, piano, and beautiful brush work. Betty shines with a munificently melodic and masterful voice.
Maybe We Can Fall in Love Again brings us back to that great jazz lounge with peppy piano, bashful brushes, and gleeful guitar, driving, ever so smoothly, the hope for love.
A broken love story; a world falling apart, slow building¸ My Heart is a very real song with Belmore almost just speaking at the outset of each verse, and coupled with the heart-warming and simultaneously heart-breaking sax, this song is truly an emotional straight-from-the-heart kind of piece.
Driving with bouzouki and banjo, Sally Go Round the Moon is a great thrumming tune with pacing percussion and ethereal harmonies. I feel Sally must be going round the moon on a steam engine, chugging away on this wonderful track of simple and sexy licks and lyrics.
The Last Christmas in Moose River has a sweet strum throughout with an elusive lead and ornamental organ to dress up this beautifully personal and moving story of the challenges and changes of a dwindling community; the golden spirit that still shines in the family, though the gold has long been pulled from the ground about them.
A Chat With Betty Belmore
GUFF: I suppose I’ll start with this, since you just got back, how was the tour?
Betty: It’s been a number of years since I’ve toured and never as the headliner. I’ve always been part of a band, or a featured backup singer. These Fields is my first solo recording so it was a little daunting to start out. Lucky for me I had some great musicians come with me. I’ve worked with Greg Simm for over 20 years. We played in The Mighty Oak String Band. Bill Stevenson, my husband for 34 years, (we’ve sung together even longer); Tom Easley, my nephew; Geoff Arsenault, a long time friend as well… The tour was a lot of fun and small, a good way to get my feet wet.
GUFF: Do you have any plans for larger tours across Canada or do you prefer to tour closer to home?
Betty: I would love to do longer tours across Canada and anywhere in the world, for that matter. I’m working toward that end. I stopped going on the road for long periods of time when my son was born. I started working in the film industry as a make-up artist and music was no longer full time for me. My plan is to get back out there, on my own terms, ‘work my fields’ while I still can.
GUFF: How has the album been received by the general public?
Betty: So far the CD has had very good response from the general public. People have told me it makes them laugh and cry at the same time. I take that as a compliment.
GUFF: What was the recording process like, especially with such a talented group of musicians and technicians?
Betty: We recorded the CD at my house. I wanted it to be relaxed and feel like friends were dropping by to play rather than a studio session. I wasn’t sure where it would all end up and a studio seemed like too big of a commitment. Because I was working on TV series and movies, the whole process has taken four years. Greg and I had lots of time for decision making and listening; however, I didn’t want to over listen or second guess the public’s response, and tried to stay true to the original intention. The musicians are all good friends and very supportive.
GUFF: How do you choose what old-time songs you want to revamp and make your own? Is it because of personal moments in your life that are reflected in the songs? Or simply an enjoyment of the song’s sentiment? Or something else entirely?
Betty: This is a hard question to answer as I’m not sure what attracts me. When I’m listening to vintage recordings, often it’s the simplicity of the songs. Lyrics are important to me. I like obscurity. Even if the songs have been dressed up over the years, I want to go back to hear the early recordings. When I can hear a song in its simplest form I can better visualize my own arrangement. I love the delivery by the old-time musicians. They are what they are. There is no posturing or performing. It’s back porch music, explaining why it’s hard to name famous old-time bands. I’ve never been one to strut my stuff on stage and, as I get older, I find relief in not being expected to. That folksy, relaxed, conversational style feels comfortable to me.
GUFF: What is it about the old-time country and blues that gets you fired up?
Betty: I love the early country and blues for a number of reasons, first of all, the honest delivery. Those early singers and musicians did not perform as though the whole world was watching. There were no expectations. The songs were written from their own experience. I am a nostalgic person and the instruments, fiddle, claw-hammer banjo, honky-tonk piano, slide guitar, etc. bring back memories of country dances.
GUFF: Did growing up in the Caribou Gold Mine community influence your love for country? Or was it mainly your family?
Betty: I’m probably more of a fan of old-time country than my siblings. Although we listened to 78rpm recordings of The Carter Family, Vernon Dalhart, Jimmie Rodgers, etc., the songs we sang together growing up were more folk and pop oriented. I didn’t think about seriously learning the old-time songs until I heard bands in the sixties like The New Lost City Ramblers and The Greenbriar Boys recycling them. There is that nostalgia attached to the music that makes me love it as well.
GUFF: What were those family gathering like, everyone coming together to sing songs from ages past?
Betty: I grew up in the house that my great grandparents built in the 1870s. It is still our family home. It was the old hotel, store and post office during the gold boom days. My father’s parents lived with us there for a while. My grandmother played the pump organ and taught us old revival hymns. My father loved harmony and my mother, who had a beautiful clear, strong soprano voice and played Hawaiian guitar, was a great teacher who taught us all how to sing and hear harmonies. From as far back as I can remember, I would often be carried from my bed, along with my five sisters and asked to sing for a houseful of company. Our father’s relatives would visit with vaudeville tunes and barbershop harmonies. My father loved to sing bass and dance. My mother grew up in a family of eleven children. Visiting that grandmother’s house was a different experience. They were Scottish. My uncles played the fiddle, bagpipes and the handsaw. My aunts accompanied on the parlor organ. They sang traditional songs that my grandmother taught them, as well as old sheet music songs from the turn of the century. My family is enormous. Whenever we gather, no matter the place or the number, there is music. Our children and grandchildren all sing and there are a number of professional musicians in the mix. The song list keeps on growing, but they know and love the old ones as well.
GUFF: That sounds amazing. The history and the closeness of the family is beautiful. Harmonizing with your sisters, did you ever do talent shows or make any recordings?
Betty: I am fifth in the line of girls. I always sang the high harmonies with an older sister. We sang in at least three parts, often some counterparts, one of my sisters has a good low bass. When we were in school and university we sang at fairs, in church, variety concerts and hootenannies as The Belmore Sisters. Up until last year, when one of my sisters passed away, we still performed once in a while. I had them sing with me on my first CD, The Harvest is Ready. Other than that we only have our home recordings.
GUFF: In what capacity had you worked for/with Stan Rogers? What was that experience like?
Betty: I first met Stan Rogers in 1974 when I was a singer on a CBC TV show called Take Time with Noel Harrison. Stan was a guest and I sang his back up harmonies. I sang with him many more times over the next few years. He had such a rich voice it was empowering to sing with him. One time we were asked to sing backup for a studio session. The session was pretty forgettable except for the fact that we shared a mic and I stood on a pile of boxes to reach his height. He was always very supportive of me and he remains one of my all time favourite songwriters.
GUFF: Why did These Fields become the title track over the other tracks on the album?
Betty: When I wrote These Fields I had a visual to help me. I could see the fallow fields and the old fence line. I felt like I could breathe the air. Once I had the concept I couldn’t wait to get home and sit down to write. The idea of looking around at what you love and realizing that you have put your dreams on hold for far too long obviously hit home. Working your fields while you still can, whether they are real or metaphorical, kind of summed up my whole CD. With that visual in my head, I asked my sister, Bonnie Price, to do the cover painting.
GUFF: The cover art is wonderful and that’s a very clear vision; working one’s fields. What inspired you to add ‘Maybe We Can Fall in Love Again’ to the album, it being a more blues-heavy song as opposed to old-time/traditional country?
Betty: I never write with a genre in mind, in fact, I’ve never liked the idea of a genre. I’ve sung all styles of music over the years and living with a jazz/blues musician has opened my ears to complex harmonies. When I wrote “Maybe We Can Fall in Love Again,” I could hear the chord changes and having jazz musicians play the song seemed like a good idea. On all of my CDs I’ve tried to present each song in the way I think suits them individually. Continuity of theme or genre has never played a part.
GUFF: How did you go about finding ways to make these songs your own; giving them new life for today?
Betty: Usually I learn a song in its simplest form (with my very basic guitar playing) and if it starts to feel right I will think about which supporting instruments to choose. Whether my songs have new life for today is a matter of opinion, I guess. I would feel very flattered if they sparked someone’s interest enough to listen to some old-time recordings.
GUFF: Then I think you should feel very flattered. What’s next for you and your music? Where are you going from here?
Betty: I am planning to get out there again and tour. I also want to take time to write and record another CD, hopefully the gestation period will be shorter than the last. I have started a workshop series, Old Taproot Tunes, instructing harmony singing from basic to complex, learning by ear in the oral tradition.
GUFF: That sounds wonderful Betty. I have to say that I’ve not been a huge fan of country but I certainly look forward to the next album. Thank you so much for the CD and the opportunity to delve into your process, and your music with you.
Betty: Thank you so much for your interest, Anthony. I’ve had to do some delving of my own with this interview. It was fun!
Original Article at Guff Media