Once comprising one half of the ravishing country singing duo Copper and Coal, Mamma Coal, a.k.a. singer and songwriter Carra Stasney, has re-imagined Willie Nelson’s country music epic Red Headed Stranger into an epic of her own, inspired by her true life love for her son, and the maternal bond that holds creation together and ensures that life moves forward.
Though duty as a mother has given Mamma Coal new priorities in life beyond those as a musician, it has also compelled her to compose and perform her most ambitious musical effort yet. Attempting to reconstitute what many consider the greatest album in the history of country music is ambitious to say the least, arduous for sure, and some may even consider a bit ostentatious. But the proof would be in taking the theoretical concept and seeing it through to a thematic recording that could both honor the lineage from where the inspiration emerged, while also by expressing something truly original.
This may be a story about a mother and her child, but just like Willie’s original, Raven Haired Vixen is a Western. This isn’t just about lullabies and love songs from mother to babe. Multiple times along the way, guns are drawn, and blood is shed in the recapture and protection of the heroine’s son.
Just like Willie, Mamma Coal makes use of country songs from the classic country canon to interpret her story in song, and instrumentals work as interludes and ways to help build setting and mood into the minds of listeners. It’s not hard to imagine the wide open spaces and rugged vistas of the American West when hearing “The Streets of Laredo” or Mamma Coal’s yodels and calls on “Montana” originally made famous by Patsy Montana. Like Red Headed Stranger, this new concept is a repository for country songs that are just too good to be summarily forgotten—songs like Buck Owens’ “Together Again,” and “Do Right Woman” from the recently-passed Chips Moman that Mamma Coal turns into an incredible, soulful and bluesy ballad.
But unlike Red Headed Stranger, Mamma Coal relies mostly on original compositions to help the story unfold. Raven Haired Vixen follows a mother as she attempts to reclaim her child from the father who has seized him to be raised by another, and later when a stranger seeks to harm her child. Illustrations in the physical copy done by Aaron McConnell compliment the narrative of the record, which depending on your interpretation, may even have some tie-ins to Red Headed Stranger; you’ll just have to listen to find out how.
Meanwhile the real story of Raven Haired Vixen is the compositional effort put out by Mamma Coal and her studio collaborators who construct an involved recording with trumpet fanfare and excellent guitar work by Paul Brainard, and Mamma’s astounding voice that brings the songs and story to three dimensional life. Mamma Coal has such an effortless vibrato and unique texture to her voice, and the same caring with which she coddles her child and crafts this story is how she delivers her parts throughout the record, while still making sure to honor the spirit of Red Headed Stranger by offering more intimate, stripped-down moments, especially when treasured times are spent with mother and child alone.
As in the Golden Era of country music, where male performers would release songs, and females would release answers in their own perspective (ex. Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” and Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”), Mamma Coal has made an answer to Red Headed Stranger from a strong female point of view, and in a way that both rises to the challenge, honors the original effort, and perhaps most importantly, highlights her gifts to music as a singer and songwriter.
It feels like a bit of a shame that Mamma Coal is not more widely-known outside of her sphere of country music influence in the Pacific Northwest, or otherwise much more might be made of this ambitious and effective undertaking. But for those who make the effort to procure their own copy will be rewarded with and interesting and uniquely entertaining work that feels both familiar and original.
And who knows, maybe somewhere out there Willie will be passed a copy, and give his own opinion in the future.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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It is also available on Spotify and other streaming outlets