Austin multi-instrumentalist Champ Hood's death from cancer in November 2001 smashed through Toni Price's world like a freight train taking out a Honda. She could see the damn thing coming, but no amount of preparedness could help her cope with the impact.
The results of her grief and her hopes for the future are laid bare in the 13 tracks of Born to Be Blue, Price's new album. Price says that each and every song is a separate tribute to Hood, who for nearly a decade sat in a chair to Price's far right, playing fiddle and guitar as part of her acoustic backing triumvirate -- arguably Austin's finest -- which also included Casper Rawls and Scrappy Jud Newcomb.
The liner notes include a hand-written note to Hood. "I tried to make my tears into something beautiful, like you did...I chose songs to make you smile. Thank you for the love and laughter, you damn rascal." And indeed the selection of old-timey ballads, swing and bluesy songs offers up just as many nuggets of optimism as expressions of sadness.
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Album-opener "Beautiful Garden," which was written by sometimes bandmate Vince Farsetta, is one of Price's most compelling vocal performances to date and truly encapsulates the overall mood she's trying to put forth. As Price sings about flying aloft through her garden and singing with the birds, the yearning for better days to come is thick and palpable.
The album is buoyed by the guest guitar and Dobro work of James Burton (of Elvis Presley fame), who picks up where he left off on Midnight Pumpkin, Price's previous platter. Most of Burton's contributions are on electric guitar, including the staccato riffs on the torchy standard "You Don't Love Me" and the laid-back jazz meanderings on the Mel Torme-penned title track, which sets forth a metaphor that describes Price's emotional state after Hood's passing. "When I met you the world was bright and sunny," she sings. "When you left the curtain fell."
But for every song that touches on finality, such as "Not Coming Home," Price includes another that carries the spirits aloft. "Blue River," a lilting bluegrass number sung by Rawls, with Burton taking a nice turn on Dobro, stands out in this category.
As the follow-up to 2001's Midnight Pumpkin, in which Price expanded her repertoire and sound into her most accessible and soulful collection of tunes yet, Born to Be Blue is what one might expect when her world was torn apart. Wisely, she focuses her energies on a sharply conceived tribute to Hood rather than a tossed-off collection of depressing dogma. The album truly is a celebration of a life well spent, performed by the people who loved him best, not a by-the-numbers funeral for an existence that was cut short.