Songs I wish I'd written: #7

December 14, 2022 10:35 PM ET music

“Here and Heaven”
from The Goat Rodeo Sessions, featuring Aoife O’Donovan

First off, unless you’re familiar with this record, you probably don’t know it. It’s a record from 2011 made by four acoustic badasses: Chris Thile (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (violin), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Yo-yo Ma (cello). You might recognize some of these names, depending on how much of a music nerd you are. I grew up with some bluegrassers, so I’m familiar with Meyer and Duncan (and Thile) in that context (and, to be fair, Duncan from his work with Diana Krall and Lyle Lovett), and Ma from being the most famous cellist alive. A “goat rodeo” is, apparently, a term for a situation that has to go perfectly to avoid almost certain disaster (no doubt titled as such to reflect the idea of putting these players in a sort of band to create music of ... some ... genre or other).

Most of the record is instrumental, but two tracks have a guest vocalist in Aoife O’Donovan. This track in particular, which was co-written by O’Donovan, always struck me as particularly inspired (which is saying a lot in this company).

What I really love about this song is how the vocals complement each other. To me, Thile’s voice is unremarkable, but on this track they harmonize throughout and blend perfectly with O’Donovan. In the last chorus, each part has an “out” note that is perfectly placed and executed by each voice in sequence, pairing the two as equals even when each is standing out. O’Donovan’s tone and texture – breathy one moment, sonorous and dynamic the next – is the vocal addition the band needs, and she brings a soulful color that makes the song more interesting than if it were just sung by Thile. And that’s no slam: even Duncan has more than enough singing credits to his name to carry a song on this record, but O’Donovan’s ability to be simultaneously band member and soloist is captivating. As a friend of mine once said, “her voice is... perfect?” not as an uncertainty, but an incredulity that someone could fit something so precisely into a frame.

But let’s not ignore the band! This track is intriguing in the way it falls somewhere between bluegrass, chamber, and (if I’m being honest) rock, with a rapid picking rhythm propelling the ensmble from the first note. The vocals shine in harmonized perfection, in part because the acoustic backdrop is four players creating a tapestry to rival any rhythm section, and in part because that’s how you gotta be if you wanna roll at this level (and, to be honest, if you want to be able to perform live at a caliber befitting bluegrass players). Ma soars through the mix (weirdly, probably the most out of his element, though you would never know it) providing respites between verses. This is really a pop song in bluegrass dressing, with a dose of classical finesse, as if to prove to the uninitiated that, if you didn’t already know, bluegrassers are just as accomplished instrumentalists as you’ll find in rock, jazz, or classical music.

This is just one of several live recordings (which you don’t actually see verified until the 3:45 mark) of this song, but it’s a treat to see these musicians in their everyday clothes, without overdubs, absolutely nailing it. [I personally prefer the short and low vocal ending of the studio recording, but the fact that this performance shows that the song’s achievement is not due to studio magic makes me love this song even more.]

Apparently I like my bluegrass a little high-falutin’.

lyrics

With a hammer and nails and a fear of failure
We are building a shed
Between here and Heaven
Between the wait and the wedding
For as long as we both shall be dead
To the world beyond the boys and the girls
Trying to keep us calm
We can practice our lines
'til we're deaf and blind
To ourselves to each other where it's
Fall not winter, spring not summer, cool not cold
And it's warm not hot
Have we all forgotten that we're getting old

With an arrow and bow and some seeds left to sow
We are staking our claim
On ground so fertile we forget who we've hurt along
The way and reach out for a strange hand to hold
Someone strong but not bold enough
To tear down the wall
Cause we ain't lost enough to find the stars ain't
Crossed why align them why fall
Hard not soft into
Fall not winter, spring not summer, cool not cold
Where it's warm not hot
Have we all forgotten that we're getting old

And it's fall not winter, spring not summer, cool not cold
And it's warm not hot
Has everyone forgotten that we're getting old

And it's fall not winter, spring not summer, cool not cold
And it's warm not hot
Have we all forgotten that we're getting old