Album Review – Ida Red’s “Harmony Grits”

What a great little record to lounge around the house or on the back porch with, or listen to while scuttlebutting around knocking out chores, or when rolling down the highway pretending it’s 1940 and you’re cruising on Route 66. But it’s also a worthy and resounding introduction to two titan women of guitar who are both at the top of their respective disciplines joining forces to equal something greater than the sum of their parts, and spin Western music magic.

They call themselves Ida Red, and the outfit sees stand up steel guitar player Rose Sinclair who you might have seen out with Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and Western swing and jazz guitar player Sophia Johnson reprise some classics from the Great American Songbook, along with adding some originals of their own, and steeping it all in the “twin guitars” style of vintage composition.

Think of the closeness of blood harmonies, only performed via electrified strings. It’s not easy even for the most adept of players, with much study, discipline, and anticipation and instinct with your partner required. But man are the results rewarding as you can hear in this duo’s debut album called Harmony Grits, recorded at Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Studios in Austin.

There’s just something universal and eternal about the melodies found on this record, whether its refining old ones, or perfecting new ones. In fact, the transition between old and new here is seamless. It all sounds timeless, and time-tested, while still delivering all of those enjoyable retro moments, including from the tone of the stand up version of the steel guitar that is distinctly different from its pedal steel cousin, and hearkens back even further in time.

Though mostly instrumental, Sophia Johnson also sings on multiple tracks, and quite fetchingly so. Guitar is not her only distinguishing discipline. Though I have to say, even if you tend to find vocal tracks more favorable for their accessibility, on this record you’re just as likely to get lost in the complex melodies and harmonious bliss of the instrument-only tracks, and even maybe find them as your favorites.

And even though the twin guitar style is what comprises the foundation of Harmony Grits, it’s the individual improvisation that really sets it off, with not just Rose Sinclair and Sophia Johnson administrating a clinic on their respective instruments, but adding in Emily Gimble on piano, and Lauryn Gould on saxophone rounds out the lead instrumentation with a host of talented women.

Named for a song originally recorded by jazz pioneer Mary Lou Williams and her band Girl Stars in 1946, Harmony Grits and Ida Red embolden the legacy of women in Western music, jazz, and swing by paying tribute to the past, and contributing to the present and future.


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