Over the course of around two dozen albums spread over the past 40-plus years, the always reliable Americana singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson has never made an album quite like Songs from the River Wind. She calls it a “love letter to the Old West,” and indeed it’s an album full of songs about wild rivers, peaceful valleys, sagebrush, wide open spaces, majestic hills; the emotional nourishment those places provide; and some of the characters you might meet there. Gilkyson should know: Many of her 71 years have been spent in New Mexico and Texas (OK, there was an L.A. stint in there, too), and of course she has folk and country music in her bloodline via her esteemed father, folk singer-songwriter Terry Gilkyson (1916–1999). From the old black-and-white photos in the lyric booklet of the young Gilkyson on horseback, posing with calves, and out on a trail, to the music inside, there is a warm, occasionally wistful nostalgia that blows through the album’s 13 tracks like a gentle wind.
Three of the tunes are traditional Western songs (with some lyric alterations by Gilkyson) and they help set the tone for the entire collection: “Wanderin’,” “Buffalo Gals Redux,” and “Colorado Trail.” Gilkyson’s own tunes, such as “Charlie Moore” (about an old Native American she befriended as a child), the moving tale of lost love “Wind River and You,” and “At the Foot of the Mountain” (co-written by her friend John Gorka) fit in perfectly with those old tunes, as do modern songs like Hugh Prestwood’s “Bristlecone Pine” and Heather McRae’s beautiful but sad “Taoseña Lullaby.” Gilkyson’s vocals are the golden threads that tie these songs together—masterfully recorded and produced by Don Richmond, her lovely voice has never sounded so intimate; from her lips to our ears, pure and unadulterated. It’s like sitting in the room with her.
Richmond is also the primary musician on the album, adding acoustic and atmospheric electric guitar (Gilkyson also plays both acoustic and electric), accordion, dobro, lap steel and pedal steel guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, bass, and fiddle. Guest players include Kym Warner on mandolin, Michael Hearne on acoustic guitar, John Egenes on autoharp, and Warren Hood on fiddle. Despite that long list of instruments, all of the arrangements are supremely tasteful and even spare—as if the space in the arrangements mirrors the vistas the songs describe. All the parts are designed to be in service to the songs, and there is barely any soloing, and certainly no showing off; just a flash of casual virtuosity here and there. Richmond is more interested in having instruments complement each other, sometimes pairing, say, an acoustic guitar and a mandolin in the left channel subtly playing off each other and supporting the vocal, while in the right channel a more prominent fiddle or steel guitar adds stronger colors. There isn’t a note too many nor a note out of place, yet close listening (it’s a great headphones album) reveals an unpretentious sophistication to the arrangements.
As for the guitars used on the album: Gilkyson played a 1965 Gibson J-45, a 1960s Kay Swingmaster electric, and a 1940s Regal parlor guitar. Richmond’s arsenal included a 1969 Martin D-28, an early ’70s Dobro-brand resophonic, a 1950s Hilo Weissenborn-style Hawaiian slide, a custom-made Evergreen Mountain Instruments guitar with a five-string banjo neck on it, and a modern Republic metal-body resonator. (Electrics included a custom Paul Millikan, an early ’70s Guild Bluebird, a Danelectro baritone electric, an old Harmony lap steel, and a Blanton pedal steel.) Obviously, a lot of thought was put into it!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.