Being the children of famous people can have it's advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side is the automatic recognition that comes with sharing a well known name. On the downside there's having to live up to everyone's expectations of what the name signifies. On top of that there's also having to deal with those who will whisper about people only making it because of their relations. So, in the end while having a famous name might get your foot in the door, you're going to end up having to work almost twice as hard as the next person in order to gain the respect you deserve for your efforts.
For a lot of people the temptation might be to run as far away from their family name as possible in order to prove they can make it on their own. However, there shouldn't be any reason for them to have to do that. If you have talent it will show through no matter who you are or who you perform with. When Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie released their first disc as Folk Uke a few years ago they not only proved they could stand on their own two feet as song writers and performers, they also made no secret of their family ties. Let's be real, Willie Nelson's and Arlo Guthrie's daughters aren't going to be able hide from the world who they're related to, so they might as well own up to it. So both dads appeared on the first record in support roles.
While the first CD was fun to listen to the duo relied more on their sense of humour and intelligence than their musical abilities to impress listeners. There were only a couple of moments which hinted at the true nature of their talents. Songs like "Shit Makes the Flowers Grow" and "Motherfucker", seemed like deliberate attempts to distract listeners from the natural sweetness of their voices and how suited they were to an older style of country/folk music. Now, with their second CD, Reincarnation, being released on November 22 2011 on their own Folk Uke label, the duo, as can be seen through their choice of material, have far more confidence in themselves and their abilities as vocalists.
The opening track on the disc, a cover of Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me", tells the listener right away the direction Guthrie and Nelson have moved in. Nilsson's material requires just the right touch or it could easily slide into sentimental mush. Like a great many of his songs its deceptively simplistic while demanding a great deal from any who attempt to sing it. The temptation would be to go over the top emotionally in an effort to "make something" of the song. However, it's the song's very understatement which makes it so powerful, and Nelson and Guthrie understand that perfectly. Their vocal arrangement is simple enough to allow the song to speak for itself, while the unaffected sweetness of their harmonies captures its emotions without getting in your face.
Of course being who they are they haven't completely abandoned their rather wicked sense of humour. "I Miss My Boyfriend", with guest vocals supplied by Skeeter Jennings, is one of the most biting and non-politically correct songs about abusive boyfriends you're ever going to hear. In a letter from his prison cell an abusive boyfriend confesses to his girlfriend how he's had a wife all along. Not to worry though, for while dragging your wife around by the bra turns out to be against the law, he'll be out in a couple of years. With its sweetly sung chorus of "I miss my boyfriend/ will you hit me/give me the beating of my life/take off your belt now/leave me a welt now/treat me just like I was your wife", some might think the tune doesn't take the subject seriously enough. However, if that's the case, you need to look up the word irony in the dictionary and then listen to it again.
Still, the lasting impression you take away after listening to this disc is that of two wonderful voices raised in song. Whether it's the country type tear jerker "Long Black Limousine" or the title song "Reincarnation" - a love song that truly crosses all boundaries - Guthrie's and Nelson's vocals are a pleasure to listen to. Even on the aforementioned tear jerker they bring an honesty to lyrics that in other people's hands would sound cliched or downright stupid. They both seem to have the innate ability to open their mouths and sing unaffectedly. Whether one of their own creations or covering somebody else's material they have the confidence in themselves to simply serve as the song's interpreters and let it speak for itself.
On top of that their voices seem to have been made to sing with each other. Listen to the way they build their harmonies on "He Needs Me" and the effortless way their voices intertwine. It's not often you have the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the sound of two voices working together so well. In fact you have the feeling that it wouldn't matter what they sang, and it would sound great. However, the music they've chosen here not only suits their voices perfectly, the songs also show their remarkable emotional and intellectual range as performers.
Both Nelson and Guthrie could easily slide over the edge into being cloying and sweet, and probably make a killing in the adult easy listening market, but thankfully they've taken a different direction and we're the ones reaping the benefits. They might have famous musical parents, but this latest release only confirms that Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie are deserving of recognition in their own right.
(Article first published as Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation on Blogcritics.)
This article was originally published in 2011 shortly after the CD was released
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.