Roadhouse Album Review: Gráinne Duffy’s vocal talents shine in “Dirt Woman Blues”

Gráinne Duffy — “Dirt Woman Blues” — Blue Heart Records

Gráinne Duffy may not be a familiar name to fans of Americana music (roots, blues, folk, country, and all that), but it should be.

Her fifth album, “Dirt Woman Blues,” should help a bunch. Not just because she traveled from her home in Ireland to Southern California to record it (although I’m sure that made a difference), but because she’s a first-class singer, songwriter, guitarist and storyteller.

She and husband / guitarist Paul Sherry wrote the nine originals here, and then filled out their musical lineup with guitarist Marc Ford, formerly of the Black Crowes, Gary Clark Jr.’s Austin rhythm section, drummer/percussionist JJ Johnson and bass/keyboard player Elijah Ford (Marc’s son), plus Grammy-winning producer Chris Goldsmith, Jimmy Hoyson, Sam Goldsmith, John Ginty and Peter Levin.

Duffy’s vocals on this session flow magically from ethereal to earthy; her musical framework roams freely from lyrical to roadhouse tough. And she makes it all sound easy. Her lyrics have made her a three-time Blues Matters Writers’ Poll winner.

The album opener, “Well Well Well,” rocks easily behind strong vocals that set a thematic and musical tone for what’s to come. “Dirt Woman Blues” follows with a slow, steady, rhythmic groove, and a darker story line: “Heaven and hell can’t help me now from the devil within….”

“What’s Going On” is a bluesy vocal turn toward the joys of love, “Running Back To You” is a soft and lovely R&B-tinged track with a lyrical guitar interlude, “Rise Above” delivers rootsy Celtic rhythms.
On “Sweet Liberation,” Duffy opens with slow southern rock feel and then shifts into a ripping Allman Brothers-flavored climax.

Duffy turns more soulward (if that’s possible in this heartfelt collection) with “Hold On To You,” then turns personally and musically defiant with the hard-rocking “Yes I Am.” The closer is “Killycrum,” a gentle, lyrical, acoustic guitar-led tribute to her home in County Monaghan.

In “Dirt Woman Blues,” Gráinne Duffy has given us a thoughtful, intelligent album filled with her soul-stirring vocals and the soaring music that powers them. Fans of all musical flavors should treat themselves to this excellent album and Duffy’s engaging talents.

Digression: The County Monaghan that’s home to Duffy is also home to the long-running (since 1991) Harvest Time Blues Festival, which returned last year after a three-year absence, and which has attracted blues performers from around the world. In addition to local and national artists, the fest has seen some names that are well-known on these shores, including Bobby Rush, Van Morrison, Honeyboy Edwards, Gary Moore, Philip Walker, Guitar Shorty, Eric Bibb, Johnny Dyer, Peter Green, Earl King, Melvin Taylor, Luther Allison, Byther Smith, Long John Hunter, Phil Guy, William Clarke, Coco Montoya, Tommy Castro and Walter Trout.

Now maybe it’s just a coincidence that Duffy grew out of this environment. But maybe not.

Here’s “Dirt Woman Blues”:

1. Well Well Well (4:07)
2. Dirt Woman Blues (3:49)
3. What’s It Going to Be? (3:12)
4. Running Back to You (3:22)
5. Rise Above (3:38)
6. Sweet Liberation (4:55)
7. Hold On to You (4:16)
8. Yes I Am (4:17)
9. Killycrum (3:31)

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