Album Review – Margo Cilker’s “Valley of Heart’s Delight”

Thank goodness for the strong and resilient women of country music who unquestionably face a more perilous road in the business compared to their male counterparts, but fight and claw their way forward because the music is in their blood and soul, and they know nothing else than to write and sing it. They can’t imagine backing out or turning tail, or switching genres when the going gets tough. They’re here to stay, adversity be damned.

Margo Cilker is a superlative example of this. She sings country music like others breathe. Her roots are in Carolina, her heart is out West, and her songs are inspired by both coasts and everything in between, including a little breakfast place in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and what sounds like one hell of a hamburger down in Texas. Geography is often Margo’s muse, and she weaves it into splendid songs and stories that are plenty entertaining on their own while imparting wicked little insights into the struggles of life.

Sorry to those anticipating a sophomore slump from ol’ Cilker after her well-received debut Pohorylle. Now seasoned as a songwriter and performer, and with many more miles on her Michelins, she’s got even more skill and material with which to send hearts reeling and stir souls. Valley of Hearts Delight is the ideal mix of fun reels and killer heartbreakers all rendered in a country a style by Margo and producer/ drummer/songwriter Sera Cahoone.

Margo Cilker songs are always taking you somewhere, with the rich language evoking the places, landscapes, and characters in your mind in stark relief. The song “Lowland Trail” is about much more than finding your way through rugged terrain. But the visions it evokes in the mind’s eye primes the imagination to accept the song’s true meaning. Same goes for the sullen love story behind that little breakfast place in “Santa Rosa.”

At other times Cilker forgoes all allusion and goes straight for the vitals. “Beggar for Your Love” leaves little up for interpretation as it tears at the heart and wets the eye. “With the Middle” speaks better than most to the difficult and sometimes Herculean slog every single day can feel like to many people.

Cilker’s strong and confident, yet ever so endearingly flawed voice loses nothing in the translation from the emotional inspiration for a song, and the performance of it in the live or recorded context, especially when singing with her sister Sarah who regularly accompanies her on stage. When the Cilker sisters send it to the higher portions of their range, the moments can get exceptionally heavy.

One of the great things about Margo Cilker and Valley of Hearts Delight is the range of emotions and material it covers. “Steelhead Trout” written by Ben Walden is just a simple sing-along. But in the hands of Margo Cilker, and with the smart arrangement including accordion and capturing the frenetic energy of a live performance, it makes the song feel downright anthemic, and helps give the album a Western flair that is important to understanding Margo’s lived experience now based in rural Oregon.

These songs aren’t just from Margo Cilker, they are of Margo Cilker. They come straight from her natural history, infused with all the character and contours of the moments they’re culled from. Adventurous and well-traveled, but at times speaking to the commonplace and even mundane, it’s songs like these from Margo Cilker that help reintroduce the color back into life like the best singer-songwriter country music can.


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