I can only imagine how difficult it was for Maria Muldaur (b. 1943) to compile representative tracks for her 19 song single-disc collection 30 Years of Maria Muldaur: I’m a Woman. Beyond the licensing issues involved (she’s recorded for Reprise, Stony Plain, and Telarc among other labels) how does an artist unconcerned with commercial concerns like genre, demographics, and music videos even attempt to summarize herself to an essence? The probable answer is that Muldaur likely views the set as a joyful reflection, an efficient introductory sampler rather than a comprehensive overview. Muldaur ranks alongside Judy Collins, Jennifer Warnes, Linda Ronstadt, and Phoebe Snow as one of the premier interpreters of the “rock generation” to primarily establish her critical identity as an interpretive singer rather than a songwriter. (As I discuss elsewhere Snow is known as a singer-songwriter but her vocal gifts and unique interpretations are far more central to her critical reputation). Arguably though, she has recorded a broader variety of American music genres than her esteemed peers and thrived in a wider range of settings and musical communities. Her longstanding relationship to black musical traditions, musicians, and culture—particularly classic blues, 50s R&B, and big band jazz strongly distinguishes her from her peers. She has stretched beyond homage and actually integrated a true multicultural and multigenerational quilt of musicians including Johnny Adams, Del Rey, and Mavis Staples.
Not only has she interpreted a range of material in an array of arrangements, but she has also convincingly mastered a full palette of conventions and, in effect, created her own interpretive vocabulary. As Scott Yanow has rightfully noted in Jazz Singers, she would have to be included in any serious survey of vocalists recording in blues, R&B, pop, jazz, and folk music since she has firmly planted roots in all of these arenas and beyond. She sounds comfortable in just about any musical setting, a talent that harks back to singers as renowned as Mildred Bailey, Peggy Lee, and Kay Starr, though she is more folk and R&B oriented than they are.
Almost any review of Maria Muldaur’s recordings, and almost any interview profile, refers to her impressive eclecticism. She may have gained a public profile as a folk singer and fiddler, and achieved her greatest fame singing a cheeky folk-pop tune (“Midnight at the Oasis”). But she has long since moved beyond the narrow commercial paths these initial commercial routes might imply and defied classification. Given the regimented, demographically-steered nature of American pop music since her late ‘60s recording debut her survival is all the more remarkable.
The typical commercial cycle for American popular singers is short-lived. Performers score hits within a particular style and fans expect them to duplicate this success until they have fulfilled their contractual obligations and/or fallen outside of the commercial mainstream. Some depart from the recording industry, while others record for smaller labels but often retain the initial style that brought them success with hopes of approximating previous commercial success and maintaining their audience.
Muldaur is different since she has never had a single style, but has always had a smart audience open to eclecticism. Since there was never a formula to duplicate she has been free to explore in a way that most pop singers of her generation have not. In the process she is as relevant as she has ever been. In today’s fragmented music industry relevance is not only about being on the Billboard 200 (though her albums regularly chart well on the blues and jazz albums surveys) or parading around on awards shows (Richland Woman Blues and Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul were nominees for Best Traditional Blues Album Grammies in 2001 and 2005, and Garden of Joy for 2010’s Best Traditional Folk Album for the record). It seems more defined by artists’ abilities to actively record and perform even if their audiences are more specialized by age, region, etc. Considering the commercial decline of the music industry, her enduring affiliations with independent labels and strong rapport with “roots music” audiences were smart professional moves.
The one thing Bessie Smith, Libby Holman, Annette Hanshaw, Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie, Maxine Sullivan, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, and Sippie Wallace have in common (besides being legends) is their profound influence on Muldaur. Her singing draws on jazz’s swing, blues’s soul, gospel’s fervor, Hollywood and cabaret culture’s humor, R&B’s funk, and folk’s emotional accessibility. In this respect she is one of the few singers born in the 1940s who achieved commercial success during the 1960s and (as a solo singer) the 1970s who can legitimately be compared to figures like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Nina Simone. Like them she has rarely encountered a genre she didn’t like, or couldn’t handle. One of the main differences between her and the classic blues and swing influences on her singing is that Muldaur has always been an albums artist. She has regularly employed the long player (LP) format to express her catholic musical interests in various forms including eclectic cross-genre albums, jazz albums, “Bluesiana” albums of swampy funk and R&B, and in the 2000s a trilogy of wonderful American blues albums, focused on country blues and the “classic blues” traditions.
After singing and playing fiddle in the Even Dozen Jug Band and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (~1966-72), Muldaur went solo in 1973 and released Maria Muldaur on Reprise Records, followed by Waitress in a Donut Shop in 1974, and Sweet Harmony in 1976. These albums established her as a kind of modern “utility” singer in the vein of ‘40s pop singers like Kay Starr. She sang a wide spectrum of popular music very convincingly, though unlike most pre-rock singer she gained notoriety more as an albums artist than for her commercial singles. One of the main advantages of Muldaur entering the recording industry at a time when the album became the ultimate marker of an artists’ maturity and conceptual abilities is that LPs provide a fuller and more concentrated sense of an artist’s sensibilities than individual singles.
Eclecticism defined the early 1970s and Muldaur, alongside such singers as Rod Stewart, Ronstadt, Snow, achieved commercial success as an interpreter who could tackle material drawn from multiple genres but unify it with a strong musical persona. Unlike these peers, however, her eclecticism was far less dependent on commercial singles and songs written toward the ears of post-1955 audiences. For example, her debut features interpretations of a few standards like Jimmie Rodger’s “Any Old Time” but is dominated by ballads written in the 1970s including two by Wendy Waldman, and one apiece from the McGarrigle Sisters and Dolly Parton. Rather than reproaching rock ‘n’ roll and R&B hits like Ronstadt and Stewart, she is interested in modern versions of classic forms—notably folk music, country music, and the pop-folk hybrid style of Waldman. Even most of its originals have a timeless stylistic feel including the swinging “Walkin’ My One and Only” and most notably her biggest hit the winking guitar driven “Midnight at the Oasis” which rocks, but would not necessarily feel out of place being sung by Mildred Bailey or Peggy Lee. On her debut she establishes herself as a new voice with a truly contemporary sensibility capable of bridging gaps between genres and eras without ever sounding like a nostalgia act.
Her 1970s albums overtly juxtapose various strains of American pop and folk music compositions together in a seamless blend. To put it simply she sings sophisticated pop songs and standards as folk music, and elevates folk, gospel and blues to “art” songs. The issue is less arrangement than attitude. She gleefully glides from genre to genre and each song feels embedded in her constitution rather than alien or jarring. She has gained confidence over time such that 1998’s Southland of the Heart flows more smoothly from song-to-song than 1976’s Sweet Harmony, but they share a similar underlying principle.
Muldaur’s voice is central to her genre dexterity. She is a textural master who has mined the confines of her soprano to an apex of flexibility. True, she does not have a traditionally “big “voice. But she profoundly understands how to generate sandpaper grit, ooze cool sheets of air like horizontal smoke rings, and most importantly their narrative function. She’s outwitted the modesty of her physical range by subtly shading her voice to achieve a desired sound and lyrical effect. This vocal flexibility and precise phrasing—in which she has grown more confident—has helped her travel across a spectrum of compositions. Over time her instrument has deepened in texture as has her sense of control.
Waitress in a Donut Shop further fleshes out Muldaur’s eclectic palette by more overtly displaying her initial mission of bridging the accessibility of “folk” forms—including folk, gospel, and blues material with the deftness and sophistication of jazz. Her rollicking version of Peggy Lee’s “I’m A Woman” was a perfectly modernized and personalized rendition that became her requisite hit single and drew attention to the album. “Woman” became an anthem for Muldaur and is surrounded by an arresting blend of material, played by some of the most outstanding musicians working at the time. Muldaur hired jazz arranger Benny Carter to arrange three songs including the opener, a sultry rendition of “Squeeze Me” a signature for Bailey that Muldaur inhabits beautifully; the lilting ballad “Sweetheart”; and the saucy “It Ain’t the Meat it’s the Motion” her boldest swing performance yet. Carter understands her voice and creates arrangements that complement it, and she is generous enough to let the songs breathe so the soloists have the opportunity to shine.
Muldaur’s association with Carter continued on her follow-up album and they also performed several concerts together during the 1970s. She duplicated her debut’s affection for Waldman (“Gringo En Mexico”) and Anna McGarrigle (“Cool River” co-written with Audrey Bean), and integrates material drawn from bluegrass (“Honey Babe Blues” featuring guitarists Doc and Merle Watson) and gospel on her a capella rendition of “Travelin’ Shoes” harmonized with Kate McGarrigle, Amos Garrett, and Greg Prestopino. This is a truly collaborative “band” album unified by Muldaur’s emotionally vibrant, musically adept style.
1976’s Sweet Harmony was less commercially successful than her first two sets which is somewhat ironic. Song for song it is more overtly contemporary in its ratio of newer songs to pre-rock style material as it includes Smokey Robinson’s title track, Neil Sedaka’s “Sad Eyes,” the R&B number “I Can’t Stand It” as well as two Waldman ballads and Kate McGarrigle’s “The Lying Song.” Her first albums showcased Muldaur’s gift for making new material sound “classic” and classic material sound contemporary and relevant. So it seems logical and commercially savvy to push contemporary material a bit harder. Her wistful performances of Waldman’s “Back by Fall” and “Wild Bird” certify her as the finest interpreter of Waldman’s compositions. Thanks to her rendition of “Lying” she ranks with Linda Ronstadt as the most significant popularizer of the McGarrigle Sisters’ intricate folk-pop songs. Alongside these gems she floats through Carter’s languorous arrangement for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” which features Carmichael’s vocals and further solidifies her lineage to Bailey. She also has immense fun singing with Ellen Karney and Mary Ann Price (humorously listed as the Bezbo Sisters in the album credits) on an energetic rendition of the old swing song (previously sung by Annette Hanshaw) “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye,” in a lively Carter arrangement evocative of the Boswell Sisters. She also successfully tackles the folkish “Jon the Generator” and ends on a vigorous gospel note with “As Eagle Stirreth in Her Nest.” Her bridging of genres and eras showed her to be an apt student of American pop which was fairly anomalous at the time. Disco, punk, and other youthful styles were on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough, but she understood the value of the past and the riches of the present.
In sum Muldaur’s first three albums represent one of the most daring triptychs of albums by a contemporary popular vocalist. As a whole they support Stephen Holden’s proclamation in a 1976 review of Sweet Harmony that Muldaur was rock music’s finest interpretive singer, and an inheritor of Lee Wiley’s throne, thanks to her expert phrasing, stylistic diversity, and tonal command of her material……
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