REVIEW: Tia McGraff – ‘Stubborn In My Blood’

For someone so committed to peace, Tia McGraff wearing a pair of boxing gloves looked an odd choice of photo for her new album Stubborn In My Blood. But McGraff’s imagery is spot-on. She and husband/co-writer/producer, Tommy Parham have delivered a knock-out blow. An impression of strength, resolve and passion runs throughout Stubborn in My Blood making this her eighth studio album, Tia McGraff’s most polished and best yet.

Musically, we owe Canada a lot. After all, many attribute the roots infused contemporary songwriting that marks the best of the Americana genre to The Band. Then there’s Lightfoot, Joni, Neil Young and many others. Stubborn In My Blood confirms Tia McGraff’s place among her country’s finest where all labels are secondary to the quality of songwriting. Throughout the record, her perfectly crafted lyrics tell stories that cascade along a stream of melodies.

Not that McGraff’s previous records weren’t good. They all contain memorable songs. What sets Stubborn In My Blood apart is the consistently high standard from beginning to end. At times she pushes herself to the limit both in expression and voice. Her previous full-length studio album, Crazy Beautiful, came out three years ago. As well as the songs themselves the production and arrangements reach a new depth and lustre.

‘Pilot of Change’ opens the record with assurance right from the first bars into McGraff’s textured voice. As she hits the chorus off she soars, “sometimes you just need some space to sit by yourself and rearrange/every constellation, every sign until you find a way of flying away/be a pilot of change”. There is a country feel but above all, it’s her vocal range that resonates most.

‘Hole In Your Heart’ is a stripped back statement about true friendship. The song feels like a much-needed arm around the shoulder. McGraff’s sympathy doesn’t lapse into the sentimental but she does recognise time must pass before before any healing can work,”don’t worry about tomorrow glueing pieces together again/ tonight it’s all about that hole in your heart, my friend”.

Life on the road is hard but she wouldn’t swap it for anything is the theme of ‘Travelin’ By Guitar’. The pace feels like driving to the next gig, knowing that “I’ve been down the road/to the corner bar/Playing for crowds/And tips in a jar”. But it’s worth doing if she is “stealing hearts and setting them free/ with a few chords and a melody”. Parham keeps up the backing rhythm that matches the tour, keep playing even if tonight they are “playing for the drunks”. Then it’s back on the road to the next one.

There is a strong country sound to ‘Own Your Sunshine’ with Parham’s banjo and McGraff’s rousing chorus that again soars up to the song’s title. The lyric, an urge to do as you believe, rings with strength in “no-one can own your sunshine anyway”.

A delicate piano opens the next song, very much about strength. ‘Let ‘em See Your Strong’ is no typo. This plea develops as McGraff leads the backing singers into what has the power of a spiritual. Against what she urges “strong” is not revealed. We can probably agree on several possible reasons but McGraff’s subtlety is to leave that to the listener.

‘Stubborn In My Blood’ is pure storytelling as McGraff reveals the strength in her Transylvanian and Scottish ancestry. Against a banjo and rhythmic single drum she shouts what sounds like a call to battle then explains what the title means, “I know who I am”. “ I got stubborn in my blood running through my veins/ it’s not in me to turn away”. If she had fought alongside her great-great uncle the Jacobites would have won.

A children’s story unfolds in ‘One Tin Soldier’. It’s a tale of the perils of greed and cheating on your friends. No matter how justifiable the cause may appear the result is disaster. McGraff does a simple love song, as in ‘Here With Me Tonight’. There are definitely shades of Joni here. Also effectively simple is ‘Far Away Man’.

After that solo interlude, ‘The Faithful Ones’ returns to the almost hymnal, spiritual, struggle. A song of mass movement, certainly biblical, the lyrics speak very directly to today’s world. The sparse accompaniment, mournful banjo picking adds to its power.

The album closes with ‘Forbidden’. Through its late-night sultry feel love prevails amid all that’s wrong with the world, “tonight it’s just me and you”. And considering all that’s going on, why not?

Tia McGraff is an artist with many admirers, including Bob Harris. She performs constantly, and on the strength of Stubborn In My Blood deserves a much wider following.

Lyndon Bolton