Album Review of

Written by Joe Ross
March 27, 2023 - 2:22pm EDT
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Singing about ghosts that haunt her life, Oregon-based singer/songwriter and guitarist Melissa Ruth turns to her music to lighten the load, persevere and endure. On her fourth album, Bones, she weaves tales of life’s passage, history stolen, dreams broken, love sustained and tough times weathered. With her slower-tempo’ed openers, “Edith Piaf,” “Passage of Stars” and “Nashi Lyuidi (Our People),” Melissa Ruth works a range of unique Americana themes. She marks her bluesy turf with strategic sustains, hesitations and lyrics that fashion a distinctive, compelling vocal persona.

“Poor Man’s Daughter” picks up the pace a tad as Ruth sings about liking cheap beer, expensive whiskey and the intrigue of loving a married man. Ultimately, it becomes a poignant statement about the resolve and fortitude it takes to escape poverty and suffering. Singing about her rural home in Oregon where she works as a music educator, “Yoncalla Moon” is a lively, spirited, celebratory exclamation to “kick off your boots, we stay tonight.” The song was inspired by the all-women western band, The Slow Ponies, whose work celebrated the unsung: pioneering souls, especially women, people of color and Native Americans who contributed greatly to making the West what it is today.

Ruth’s music makes a persuasive case for “less is more” by arranging most songs without backup vocals and stripped-down instrumental accompaniment of guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. “A Good Man” is a loving tribute to her lead guitar playing husband, Johnny Leal, who shines brightly on several tracks including “Holding the Light” that also enlists Stacey Atwell-Keister on background vocals.

Besides Leal, Ruth’s core band also includes Scoop McGuire (bass), Cameron Siegel (drums) and Matt Hill (keys). Hill’s muted trumpet colors “Wild Roses.” Although I was left longing for a few measures of Hammond B-3 organ, sax, flute, blues harp, mandolin, fiddle, resophonic guitar or maybe even some pedal steel on a few of Melissa Ruth’s songs, the band still lays down some deep-in-the-pocket grooves that take us to places of contemplative, reflective thought and tranquility more than to smoldering scorchers or sassy blues workouts. Ruth’s style is more one of seriously mesmerizing minimalism, lacing roots sounds with melodic and harmonic spiritualism.                   

“Edith Piaf” pays homage to one of Ruth’s earliest musical heroes. “Passage of Stars” traces her paternal lineage across Canada. “Nashi Lyudi (Our People)” laments the heritage lost when her father, born into a religious sect whose followers had escaped tsarist Russia for Canada, became one of 200 children taken from their parents and sent to a Canadian residential school in New Denver, B.C.  Coming at the environmental topic from different views, “Wild Roses” and “Logger’s Lament” address the complexities of places and people and their reliance and dependence on precious resources.

With the seed for Bones borne from the despair of the pandemic, Ruth once stated that the project felt, in many ways, “like casting a stone into water on a moonless night. There was a lot of darkness. Making this record - casting that stone into the water just to hear the sound - felt like an act of curiosity, resistance, hope, and even defiance.”

With each subsequent album, since her 2011 debut with Ain’t No Whiskey, Melissa Ruth has fine-tuned her signature sound that has evolved from her earlier “doo-wop twang” moniker to her latest catch phrase, “north-country western” with elements of introspective deliberation, placid percussion, tender vocals, relaxing blues guitar riffs, and an atmospheric rhythmic foundation.  

Ruth’s music, infused with spirits of artists, lovers, seekers, sinners and everyday people, makes observations of intimate interactions and transactions. The songs on Bones seem to come from very solitary places of love, longing, lamentation, loneliness or desperation. (Joe Ross, Roots Music Report)