Donna Lynn Caskey’s new album Nameless Heart certainly won’t leave her as a nameless entity in the folk world. Her old time banjo accompaniments are the perfect backdrop for her artfully written lyrics, traditional in nature and uplifting in message. Track one, confident in its delicacy, seems to be a theme for the album as a whole. She encourages the listener to, “Take off your watch/Hide all the clocks/Today we’ll tell time by the sun and the sky/Rest you head a while/Close your eyes/May now be the time of delight.” There is delight to be found in many of the tracks. She sings of “gold to be found in the mud” in track two titled “The Good News.” And her closing track “Worthy” is a beautiful summation, as she sings, “I am a lonesome traveler/Needing a friend to talk to/You say, come just as you are/You take my hands, warm my fingers/Worthy, you are worthy/Speak your truth, tell your story/In all your shame and all your glory.” It is an anthem for community, unity, and love.
Her vocal style is reminiscent of singers of the past like Ola Belle Reed and her melodic styling and accompaniment echo that era, but she has merged tradition with the modern world in her stories, whose characters deal with current social problems. “Slot Machine” showcases a gambler’s struggle with addiction, while “Who Will Care,” takes a look at one poor woman’s struggles with health insurance coverage and welfare. And there is a sparse, haunting melody sung against the backdrop of a drum (I believe to be the drum of her banjo) called “They Go On.” It laments the death of loved ones in war and captures the difficulty, yet necessity, of endurance in the face of loss. There is also humor to be found in the colorful caricature “The Dragon Lady,” who lashes out at outsiders who trespass into her enclosed life. The title track “Nameless Heart” contains a wonderful Middle Eastern string filler between verses, while the muted banjo style conjures a modern percussive rhythm. Her voice takes on an angry wail in this one, while she takes on a soothing, dreamy tone in her one track you could call a love song—the reflective and dream-like “Good For What Ails Me.”
With her ability to create tunes that sound traditional, I would have liked to hear her cover a true traditional tune or two—I believe her interpretation would be enjoyed by many traditional enthusiasts. And just from a writer’s standpoint, my only minor gripe is that in some of the tracks choruses, the repetition of one or two lines so many times gets a little monotonous. Sometimes a “less is more” approach is better.
There is lots of color, shading, undertones, and light to be found in the musical pictures that Caskey paints in her new project. Her fresh approach to traditional style unites the “old” with the “new” in a way that is refreshingly unique and enjoyable. If you enjoy traditional sounding music with a modern slant, I highly recommend Nameless Heart to you, an album that is a wonderful addition to the folk genre.