Critic's Choice

In far tougher economic times than these, American homesteaders often burned their houses to the ground just to retrieve the nails -- then moved somewhere new with the hopes of rebuilding. Catherine Irwin, co-leader of the Kentucky-bred roots outfit Freakwater, borrows this idea of hardscrabble existence as a metaphor for redemption on "Needle in a Haystack," just one of several heavy-hearted tunes on last year's exceptional solo debut, Cut Yourself a Switch. Irwin, who opens for Neko Case on Monday, February 10, at the Gothic Theatre (a show that also includes folkstress Carolyn Mark), combines humor and Appalachian ache with a stripped-down simplicity that's a far holler from her punk-fueled days with the lesser-known Dickbrains. With sparse accompaniment on banjo or bottleneck guitar, the forty-year-old crooner traverses a dream-addled land where the roses grow so high that their thorns block out the sun. Howlin' like a stray against unbearably blue skies, Irwin takes the high-lonesome route with an emphasis on vocals over instruments. With a tasteful devotion to old-timey rural music -- Irwin honors the Carter Family as much as she does Patti Page, Hazel Dickens or Sara Carter -- the native daughter of the Bluegrass State avoids Nashville excess in lieu of the bare essential. For an earthy girlie who suffers from stage fright, Irwin locates that sweet spot just below the Mason-Dixon line and mines it till the cows come home.


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