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Michael Kelsh

Harmony Sovereign – 2018 (Sonoita Records)

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

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CDs by Michael Kelsh

Michael Kelsh is a Nashville songwriter who has the admiration of peers like Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and Joy Lynn White. Multi-instrumentalist Kelsh, who has been away since 2001, has songs that don't grab you by the neck. Instead they sneak up on you. When you sit back and listen even more closely you can't help but marvel at his poetry that's been compared to such lofty writers as Townes Van Zandt and Jackson Browne.

Jack Sundrud, who pays bass, co-produced with Bill Halverson. Acclaimed engineer Ray Kennedy mastered while high profile session players Tammy Rogers (from The SteelDrivers on fiddle, mandolin) and Paul Griffith (drums) join Kelsh who plays a variety of string instruments and harmonica. Siobhan Kennedy handles the harmony vocals, which are especially sparkling with John Cowan on select tracks. The musicians and singers execute the album's title as they weave through Kelsh's generous offering of 16 well-crafted songs.

Often the music takes on a bluegrass feel through Kelsh's banjo and Rogers on either mandolin or fiddle. Kelsh has a knack for hooks and melodies which stealthily take effect. While most of the material is quiet and folk-like, hang in there. Some of the strongest songs such as "Death Penalty," with its urgent chorus "Which side are you on, boys?" and the endearing value of friendship depicted in "Harmony" appear in the back third of the album.

Apart from the gorgeous, finely rendered music, the strength lies in Kelsh's story songs, some written alone, most with co-writers. Take for example these lyrics from "Belfast" - "I went to Ireland to play in the pubs/I could feel all my ancestors by me/saw the face of my father/at the mouth of the shoals/heard the voice of my grandmother call me/you're in Belfast now."

Kelsh captures longing memories of a past home in "House on 16th Ave." with lines like these - "darling we have left behind/and leave behind these empty shelves and walls that knew us better than we ever knew ourselves." He completely captures heartbreak in the songs "Lonely Where a River Goes," cleverly using metaphors, before following it with his next song, "Hard Way to Go" with its indelible line '"a broken heart is a hard way home."

Kelsh may not draw the accolades of some of Nashville's bigger names, but he deserves to. This is one the year's best singer-songwriter efforts.