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CASSIE & MAGGIE MACDONALD - The Willow Collection 

CASSIE & MAGGIE MACDONALD - The Willow Collection 
Private Label CMM003

Rocking Celtic country might not seem the obvious choice for a review in The Living Tradition, but these sisters from Nova Scotia have enough of a background in the Scottish traditions of eastern Canada that those roots are clearly visible even in their more contemporary music. The Willow Collection is their third recording - first came the mainly instrumental Fresh Heirs based around Cassie's fiddle, followed by the vocal-led Sterling Road as Maggie found her voice, and now a concept album which combines fiddle, piano and song in a collection of mainly traditional music from Scotland and North America. The very versatile Dave Gunning and a couple of accomplices assist in turning this material into something as acceptable in Nashville as in New Glasgow, indubitably modern but with clear ties to older music.

Every track here has a connection to the willow tree, some more tenuous than others. The two instrumental sets are based on the song air Salley Gardens and the ceilidh dance Strip The Willow. The former misses the well-known Irish reel, but pulls in Father Kelly's famous Rossmore Jetty and Allan MacDonald's Buntata 's Sgadan. The latter combines Boston fiddler Hanneke Cassel's great composition Dot The Dragon's Eyes with the currently popular Last Mile by Mark Stewart and the evergreen Calgary Capers by Northumbrian fiddler Peter Tickell. The songs are a miserable bunch, of course - death, dereliction, despair, all those traits associated with the weeping willow. In this salicaceous selection there is only a single salacious song - Seileach, a Gaelic promise of flirtation and frolics - but if other Gaelic songs are any indication, this story does not end well. The opening Hangman is the only one with a happy ending - unless, of course, you're the hangman in question. Drums and guitar set up a kicking rhythm which is accentuated by the sawing and chopping of Cassie's fiddle before Maggie's high smoky tones tell the story of a seriously disappointing daughter who is only saved by a love-blinded dupe who surely doesn't know her as well as all the family members who are happy to stand and watch her swing for unspecified crimes. There's no justice in folk songs.

Be that as it may, Cassie and Maggie follow up with strong bluesy versions of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme and The Nobleman's Wedding as well as a surprising oriental ballad, Blue Willow, and a lullaby of their own composition. Down In The Willow Garden tells the murderous tale of Rose Connolly, and The Willow Hits combines songs by Johnny Cash and Alan Block into a catchy little country number of misery, loneliness and abandonment. The final track contains a familiar maudlin message from all folk traditions, just in case you haven't grasped it yet: everyone dies. Get over it. Enjoy this music while you still can. 

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 117 of The Living Tradition magazine.