Annie Lou – End Zone
Near North Music – 2018
Looking down at me whenever I sit at my desk to write is a lovely framed photograph of my late mother. I was at her bedside when she passed in 1993, aged just 61, and not a day goes by without my glancing lovingly at her sweet face, or internally telling ‘her’ some thoughts or personal news. Back then I knew her end was approaching, thus was as prepared as one can be in such circumstances, so when I learned that the title of Annie Lou’s fourth album, End Zone, refers to the period of time when she knew her own mother’s passing was imminent, I was intrigued as to how she had captured the experience in song.
As it happens, despite the personal grieving expressed in the final verse – It’s gonna break my heart, mother / It’s gonna break my heart / When they tell me that you’re gone, mother / And finally we must part – the lyrics are set atop a whimsical, pretty melody. In its way, the sweetness of the tune somehow captures the resignation to the inevitable that anyone facing an impending passing (including our own) must accept in order to square up to it, and it also does so lyrically in comforting universal language:
When you gonna go, mother? / When you gonna go? / Down the last road, mother / Down the last road / Where we all go / When the story’s all told / Living in the End Zone
Considering that Annie Lou’s lyrical brilliance has drawn comparisons to the writings of Mark Twain, it comes as no surprise that such a contemplation on death should be presented in this quietly profound manner. I have loved this lady’s deeply poignant and witty lyrical observations, and her joyous folk/old-timey/bluegrass music since first encountering it in 2013, a year after she relocated to Parksville on Vancouver Island from the Yukon, via Haida Gwaii. Annie Lou’s move here was circuitous and unintended, being brought to Parksville when her mother-in-law, who lived there, fell ill. She passed away, leaving Annie Lou’s husband her house, and appreciating the coastal city’s charms, the couple decided to stay.
After a relatively late start in the music world, buying her first guitar on her 30th birthday and beginning with kitchen jams in the Yukon, the former baker Annie Lou first released two good albums of singer-songwriter fare under her own name, Anne Louise Genest, and has now issued four as Annie Lou. Growing up in Toronto exposed to the Grateful Dead courtesy of her four siblings, despite Jerry Garcia’s adventures in bluegrass and acoustic music it was not until her second album that the fledgling artist Anne Louise Genest was magnetically drawn towards those sounds, and listening to her material since it is obvious she is a total natural as a writer and performer in these roots styles.
My introduction to Annie Lou was her second release, the wonderful Grandma’s Rules for Drinking album, whereupon I interviewed her for a profile article in a local community magazine. Since then, as if it was possible, she has become an even greater songwriter, delivering 2014’s tremendous Tried and True, and now this gorgeous new offering.
Before further ado, just as she would wish/insist I must credit the cast of incredible musicians that Annie Lou has surrounded herself with for the creation of End Zone. Regular collaborators Andrew Collins (mandolin, mandola, guitar, harmony vocals and producer) and Max Heineman (upright bass, harmony vocals) – both of Toronto’s fantastic bluegrass combo, The Foggy Hogtown Boys – and fiddler Sarah Hamilton form the core group. Joining them for guest contributions on certain tracks are fiddlers John Showman (The Foggy Hogtown Boys) and Trent Freeman (The Fretless); pedal steel player Burke Carroll (Justin Rutledge, Hayden, Oh Susanna, Kathleen Edwards, more); dobroist Ivan Rosenberg (David Francey, Chris Coole, April Verch, more); young banjo maestro, Frank Evans (Slocan Ramblers) and harmony vocalist, Sofia Harwell. And included in the 13-voice ‘Miner’s Chorus’ dwells none other than fast-rising Canadian alt. country star, Sarah Jane Scouten. For the uninitiated, trust me that this is a phenomenal ensemble.
In the company of these greats, Annie Lou plays banjo and acoustic guitar, delivering her beguiling lyrics in a strong, yet plaintive voice often compared to Sylvia Tyson and the McGarrigle sisters. Of the thirteen songs on End Zone, ten are sparkling originals, while two (You’ll Be and Angel [Sail Away Ladies] and Farewell Nellie) are traditional, and the other, Fire in the Hole – the lyrics to which were penned by John Sayles and American composer, Mason Daring – was previously recorded by Hazel Dickens for Sayles’ movie, Matewan.
Such are the skills of all present that, like Annie Lou’s previous releases, as a whole End Zone sounds totally effortless, which obviously it is not, but the soul with which these beautiful songs are performed is tangible. Whether heart-rending explorations of human existence such as the moving title track (heart-stoppingly reprised in English and French to end the album); lighthearted tracks such as Them Government Blues, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter (being the sole, punctuative lyric) and the instrumental Home Fires, or swingin’ country songs like More Than Blue, it is an absolute delight from top to tail.
In some ways, it is a blessing that Annie Lou came to songwriting and performance later in life than most, as she arrived with a life already ruggedly half-lived, full of experience and maturity to pour into her songs. Even so, Anne Louise Genest was evidently already unknowingly possessed of a natural rare talent, an uncanny ability to summon heavenly melodies in which to set her eloquent poetry. The consequence of her belated decision to give it a go has resulted in Annie Lou becoming one of the true treasures of contemporary Canadian folk music, and the architect of a sequence of albums I cannot recommend highly enough.