If there is such a thing as a Celtic music diva exists, Kate Rusby qualifies. Underneath the Stars, her fifth Compass Records release, displays the breadth of her mastery. Besides a ravishing voice, Rusby has remarkable musical sensibilities. She can take a traditional song such as the album opener "The Good Man" and combine its time-worn lyrics with an original tune to create a new composition that is not only fresh and contemporary but has the feel and flavor of a traditional song. Unlike the folk artists of the 60's whose "updated" renditions of traditional material merely turned the songs into pop ditties, Rusby's versions have a thoroughly genuine feeling that defies fad and fleeting fashion.
Along with Rusby's reinterpretations of traditional tunes and lyrics, Underneath the Stars includes several completely new compositions. Even these new works have the flavor of much older material. "Polly" is the tale of a girl whose lover is a sailor. He goes away but promises to "take you dancing on your wedding day." He doesn't come back, and she never dances again. Another song titled "Falling" describes the first feelings of love with the delicacy of a butterfly's wing.
Produced by her husband and longtime collaborator John McCusker, Underneath the Stars features sympathetic accompaniment by a fine core of traditional musicians. Ian Carr on mandolin and guitar, Ewen Vernal on double bass, Andy Cutting on diatonic accordion, James Mackintosh on percussion, Andy Seward on banjo, Neil Yates on trumpet and flugel horn, and Simon Fowler and Eddi Reader on background vocals join John McCusker's citern, whistles, banjo, and fiddle. Keeping with the family feeling Underneath the Stars is engineered by Joe Rusby, whom I assume is a brother. The sound is both sumptuous and seductive, as befits the music. Even when a full house of musicians is brought to bear, the mix never feels too thick or busy, but preserves a sense of air and space.
Perhaps somewhere there are musicians capable of creating more compelling traditionally flavored popular music, but I doubt you'll find them on this side of the mortal coil. Kate Rusby rules.