My Girl The River is a family affair; Kris Wilkinson, Joe Hughes and on occasion their daughter Ruby. They release their second album Cardinal in the Snow on 1 May. Through Wilkinson’s perceptive and deeply sincere writing My Girl The River muse on love, confront death, peer into the future but above all, they exude hope. Wilkinson has a voice that ebbs and flows to fill all those pools of emotion. Cardinal in the Snow is perfect lockdown therapy.
In a way Cardinal in the Snow reflects Wilkinson’s musical journey as she draws from her southern US roots in Louisiana, her time in Nashville and her home for the past 20 years in England. Throughout she has kept good company having performed with Kim Richey, David Olney, Suzanne Vega, Sturgill Simpson and Laura Cantrell. Cardinal in the Snow has southern heat, country and folk all wrapped up in authentic songwriting.
Her spacious vocal range is this reviewer’s impression of Kris Wilkinson as a solo performer, but Cardinal in the Snow extends that natural talent in the studio. Recorded in East Nashville and produced by Neilson Hubbard My Girl The River are joined by some very fine local musicians; Will Kimbrough, Juan Solorzano on pedal steel and pianist Danny Mitchell. Hubbard also jumps from behind the mixing desk to the drum kit and sister Kristen Wilkinson multi-tasks between strings and co-producing.
‘Something in the Water’ is a luscious opener of hope, “we seek connection”, “it’s a beautiful day, kindness is king”. Wilkinson’s sincerity is as passionate as the arrangements. She creates a trance-like vibe before returning to the real world with a gentle talking reprise. Dad Joe’s bass lines and daughter Ruby Kate’s harmonies shows that My Girl The River is a tight unit.
Continuing the reflective pace ‘I Try’ is an admission that this woman doesn’t always meet the exacting standards she sets for herself in her closest relationships. From the warmth she exudes throughout the record she probably exceeds them.
Wilkinson extends her concerns far wider in ‘You Do Not Deserve My Tears’, a sweeping paen to downtrodden people everywhere still to love each other. “You do not deserve my tears/ they are reserved for those who love me”. This is the record’s anthem for its layers of strings swirling around the studio instruments.
‘Hot Chicken’ sizzles with southern spice. New Orleans sings out through jazzy lines cascading into a laid back southern rock vibe. Listening to ‘Christmas in July’ is impossible without thinking of Patsy Cline. The gentlest tempo blending keys and pedal steel sets up Wilkinson’s country voice beautifully.
Wilkinson has a real knack of conveying a message with the utmost sincerity that might otherwise verge into the trite. ‘Needy’ is lightly applied advice that sometimes the best option is just to let go. There, “doesn’t it feel good/doesn’t it feel better?”
Almost prophetic for today’s strange times is ‘The Last Branch’ written on a songwriting retreat organised by Jonathan Byrd. Chaos runs throughout the lyric as natural disaster strikes. The eerie folk sound builds into a furious crescendo as Wilkinson drives home the allegorical “they need the last branch of the tree” that could apply to many situations.
The cardinal is a bird that stands out. In temperament and colour it represents love as encapsulated in the title track. Wilkinson takes her time, the tempo is easy as she makes clear where she stands, “You want a cardinal not a dove/I am a cardinal not a dove”.
That unequivocal commitment to love and hope speaks for the entire record. My Girl The River never cross into sentimentality for its own sake, Cardinal in the Snow comes straight from the heart.