January 23, 2004


What befits a respected sideman, er, sidewoman, who finally steps up to the mic? In the case of violinist Soozie Tyrell, who has worked with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Train, Carole King Southside Johnny, and some dude named Bruce Springsteen and who no doubt could have roped in an all-star cast of superstar guests for her White Lines solo debut, restraint ruled the day.

Oh sure. The Boss, along with Mrs. Boss, Pattie Scialfa, both turn up on a couple of tracks. Also present are guitar virtuoso Larry Campbell and Bassist Tony Garnier, from Bob Dylan's band. But by putting the focus squarely on the music - and Tyrell's previously uncharted but estimable skills as a songwriter - she wound up crafting one of the year's best under-the-radar sleepers. Think a female-fronted John Cougar Mellencamp's classic Scarecrow or Lonesome Jubilee and you won't be too far off.

So what, then, befits a sleeper? In a word (or two): memorable tunes. Striking an evenhanded balance between slow-burn ballads and upbeat roots/country-rockers and blessed with a throaty, soulful voice that compares favorably to that of Joan Osborne. Tyrell hits all the right notes. Notable tracks include the downcast, gospel-ish "Ste Genevieve" (about a river town wiped out by a flood, it features a lush string arrangement, with cellist Jane Scarpantoni adding her bow to Tyrell's), the optimistic Celtic/bluegrass-flavored "Ferdouganal" and a colorful, kick-up-the-heels rocker called "Out On Bleecker St." wherein Tyrell recounts her early days as a street busker.

In fact, Tyrell's adroitness at turning autobiography into compelling song narrative just may prove to be her greatest musical gift if she ever decides to hang up her fiddle. The title cut charts her personal passage, from moving around constantly as a child to standing by helplessly as her parents' marriage crumbled and to finally hitting the road herself.

Sings Tyrell, "A six-piece band is my family/And home is where we can get some sleep/Life sure ain't changed at 42/Still got my hand out the window, my hair's blowin' back/Still tryin' to catch them white lines on the road." I love this tune - a shimmering slice of fiddle-drivin Americana every bit as good as anything come out of Nashville - in the hands of a mainstream country-pop diva such as Shania Twain or Faith Hill and watch it storm the charts.

Or simply rush out and buy Tyrell's album. It deserves to reach as broad an audience as possible.