Donna Lynn Caskey’s debut release in 2014 was a fairly straightforward effort. Simple arrangements and sparse accompaniment over a handful of banjo-driven songs. It showed an artist with definite promise, but overall it felt like someone who was still trying to find her sound and develop her writing.
It is with her sophomore release that Caskey has really come into her own. The Love Still Shows displays a tremendous growth as a writer tackling a diverse number of subjects. There are uplifting near-anthems like “Break Free” and “Beauty Queen,” personal confessional songs like “Look at Me” and “The Book.” And then there’s the outstanding title track, about the passing of Caskey’s parents. It’s a beautiful, haunting, yet still hopeful song. Hell, Caskey can even write a great comedy song as “Angel of a Cat” demonstrates.
Producer Ed Tree has also done a phenomenal job of finding the right instrumentation and an impressive list of players to accompany Caskey’s songs and give them even more depth. The Love Still Shows reaffirms Caskey’s role as the Banjo Queen of Ventura County, but also heralds her as one of the finest songwriters in the area. An outstanding release.
If the adorable cover photo of a prepubescent youngster doesn’t grab your heartstrings immediately upon picking up this CD, there’s still hope for you once you listen to the startlingly honest and evocative songs from this Banjo Gal. Donna Lynn Caskey may claim the banjo as her instrument, but in truth, it’s her heart and her voice and her writing that deliver her truths. She claims to be shy and an introvert, yet her songs are raw, powerful, and accessible. Anyone with a shred of decency still in them, and people with real feels and active minds will find themselves in these songs.
Through loss, struggle, anger and forgiveness and more, Donna Lynn’s voice carries you to places in your own heart and memory that help you heal, forgive, find strength, find a kindred spirit, and ultimately rejoice in a quiet satisfied comfort. Everything about Donna Lynn, from her disarming shy smile, to her perfect wardrobe choices, to her ready laugh, to her stunning performances is captured in this CD. A treasure. She is every one of us who ever felt misunderstood, insecure, and ultimately validated and comfortable in our own skin. Don’t miss it – please.
TITLE: THE LOVE STILL SHOWS
ARTIST: DONNA LYNN CASKEY
LABEL: CORDULIA MUSIC
RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 10, 2017
By Steve Werner
In troubling times, a voice of simplicity, humanity and compassion can go a long way to help soothe the worried and weary, be a salve to the soul and give hope where hope is running thin. It is in precisely these times that I find myself in my truck listening over and over to the new CD by Donna Lynn Caskey The Love Still Shows.
Introspective, gentle, vulnerable, confessional, quiet CLAWHAMMER BANJO. Wait a minute, what?! These words don’t generally occupy the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence. The reason they do now is because of this admittedly introverted but quite gifted singer/songwriter out of Virginia, now residing in her adopted hometown of Ventura, California.
The Love Still Shows is Caskey's second CD and follows 2014s Nameless Heart with another outstanding collection of eleven songs. The songs are deeply personal, and also deeply universal in their themes of love, loss, forgiveness and overcoming odds.
Nope, this is not your typical clawhammer banjo album, nor your typical cute chick putting her banjo corn pone on. It's much quieter and miles deeper than that. It ain't country. Though she is without a doubt a banjo badass, rather than impress by shredding, she chooses instead to bend the open-back banjo to her own warm and gentle style, crafting poetic songs which sound old-timey and brand new at the same time. Her playing throughout is so strong and natural that it becomes transparent, all in order to serve the songs who are the real stars of this show.
There is a quiet power to Caskey's songwriting. By sharing these very personal portraits of her own life as she struggles, and sometimes bumbles her way through, insecure of her own steps, we can easily recognize the same in our own unsure, lurching steps. "There is a song inside of me longing to break free," she sings on the opening track, illustrating her own inner conflict between shyness and showbiz. That she has found the strength to dip her toes in the latter is something we all benefit from.
Caskey further seeks and finds the strength to be herself as she writes in Look At Me:
Today I dress to please myself
A grey-green hat to match my eyes
Patchwork kaleidoscopic color
I feel at ease, shed my disguise.
Along the way on her quiet journey there are light moments, too as she sings in Beauty Queen, her ode to "strong smart women / Who were agonized by the size of their thighs." Or the delight of being adopted by a sweet-natured neighborhood kitty in Angel Of A Cat.
Produced by the multi-tasking and multi-talented Ed Tree, the CD shimmers and glows appropriately. It's a quiet record, it's tones understated and hushed. Tree adds some tasteful guitar to the proceedings and some tunes feature the astounding and beautiful fiddling of the one and only Gabe Witcher.
Odds Are For Beating is a sweet tribute to her parents and the strength of their love as they each faced their own mortality. My Blessed Child and The Book are two songs on the CD that are unabashedly old style Appalachian in spirit. These songs could have easily been written a hundred years ago. They are reminders that while Caskey is modern, her roots are southern. She has a natural Virginian's ear and an appreciation for the ancient chants of the hills and hollers.
The medley of the original I Am Willing and the traditional Down By The Riverside is her encouraging message for all of us in the challenging years ahead.
I'm not sure what I need to do
But I am willing to, I am willing.
But it is the final song on the CD that caused a bonafide tough guy like me to pull my truck over to the side of the highway and weep all over the steering wheel. Something about the simple parting message of The Time Is Here cut me deep as so much loss, personal and otherwise came boiling to the surface. If there's any justice in the world, they'll still be singing this song two hundred years from now.
Donna Lynn Caskey has this very quiet but powerful gift to lay on us. This shy "Banjo Gal” as she is known trods the boards of showbiz to help us all feel better and stronger about each other and ourselves. She is talented, that is a fact, and utterly unique. Her playing is strong and her voice warm and clear. Inclusively, she draws us in as confidants. She shows us her own private humanity in all its frailty so that we may see in it our own. I didn't know I needed this record as much as I did. If you're unsure in your steps, if you are feeling the pain of loss, the loneliness of modern society, fear of the future, well maybe you need it too.
A strict path is formed by Donna Lynn Caskey’s clawhammer-style banjo for The Love Still Shows, her recent release. The picking frames vocals that speak of a universal understanding of her fellow humans. Against sepia-toned songs with timeless themes, Banjo Gal Donna Lynn Caskey lifts spirits in her topical tales. In album opener Donna Lynn pines for the song ‘buried inside of me’, patiently waiting for her voice to “Break Free." The Love Still Shows displays big love for a furry presence with “Angel of a Cat," stands true to beliefs in “It Ain’t Personal," and lays bets on hearts changing course on “Odds Are for Beating” as Donna Lynn Caskey comforts “My Blessed Child” with tender acapella vocals.
The foundation for The Love Still Shows bases its music on the banjo work of Donna Lynn Caskey adding fiddle swoops to “The Book," viola on “Look at Me," and a heartbeat pound of percussion to “I Am Willing/Down by the Riverside.” Ventura, California-based Donna Lynn Caskey uses the title track to show longevity in the simplicity of commitment to prove “the love still grows.” The burden of vanity is crushed under the supportive wisdom that flows through “Beauty Queen” as Donna Lynn Caskey quietly ends The Love Still Shows with graceful strums letting go with the love that flows through the album with “The Time is Here.”
Donna Lynn Caskey
I heard her sing and play her banjo a few years ago, in the midst of so many musicians and songwriters playing their songs, and I never could forget her music. Simple and stark against beautiful driving rhythms and delicate passages of her fine 5-string banjo, her songs resound like modern spirituals. She writes and plays beautiful songs of enduring hope along the ways of being human. Her voice and words and banjo all seem entwined, so that her songs seem intrinsic, unforced, and genuine. Her message is earthy and affirmative both, a beautiful connection between the world of nature and of man, and her acoustic textures reflect this natural connection. “Who Will Care?” is a song of great specifics, and as such is universal, with the eternal open question of our own destinies, forever on a road on which we can’t see to the end till we get there. But in the meanwhile, we should sing and dance and rejoice in the natural music which lives in our souls. And the answer is “everything is possible, everything is possible,” which is a bright and good message to receive now when sometimes even extended survival seems impossible. This is delicate and dynamic music, unaffected, beautifully produced by Mark Hallman, full of spirit and calm focus. This is music that is good for the spirit – good for all that ails us – an acoustic antidote to chaos and overload. I hope this is the first of many. She’s very much the real deal.
CD Review: Donna Lynn Caskey - Nameless Heart
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.
TITLE: NAMELESS HEART
ARTIST: DONNA LYNN CASKEY
LABEL: CORDULIA MUSIC/BMI
RELEASE DATE: APRIL 1, 2014
PROFILES IN COURAGE
By Ross Altman
A poet’s task is to name the world; as Woody Guthrie proclaims in his World War II song The Reuben James:
What were their names
Tell me what were their names
Did you have a friend on the Good Reuben James?
and maintains in his ode to the (at the time) nameless “deportees” that went down in The Plain Wreck at Los Gatos:
You won’t have a name
When you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees
and Bob Dylan celebrates in a children’s song Man Gave Names To All the Animals. So when Donna Lynn Caskey bravely calls her new CD Nameless Heart, it of course invites one to start thinking up names for it, as if it were a baby.
What’s in a name? This naming task, you see, is serious business; Donna Lynn Caskey’s Nameless Heart is no exception. This old-time banjo player with a radically new personal vision of what it is capable of, comes close to naming it herself in the nearly heretical song Good News, which may be taken as her personal gospel:
Pannin' for gold in muddy water
Good news is there's gold in the mud
Oh, my heart, I'm tired of muddy water
Good news is there's gold in the mud.
Indeed she does consistently find “gold in the mud,” just as Irish poet W.B. Yeats foretold in his classic poem of despair, The Circus Animals Desertion:
I must lie down where all the ladders start
The foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
That is where Caskey’s efforts at transcendence, transformation, finding love, and dreams of aspiration—Jacob’s Ladder—begins: in Yeats’ idea of the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. That’s where she is digging for gold, and as she says, “there is gold in the mud.”
How many songwriters will tell you they have Diabetes? Or that they were diagnosed at 15? Caskey does, in her most personal song on the album, Who Will Care? *
I’m in pain and I got no way to pay
The welfare office turned us away
I’m so scared
Who will care?
Who will care for you and me?
Anything is possible I do believe
Anything is possible I do believe
Diabetes since the age of fifteen
No insurance will cover me
I’m dying of a treatable disease
Treatment it is a luxury.
To get down to where Yeats said “all ladders start,” one almost needs to leave the world of singer-songwriters and go back to Yeats’ world of modern poetry—to the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath. For Donna Lynn Caskey consistently respects Robert Frost’s distinction between poetry and protest: Protest, said Frost, is about our “grievances;” poetry is about “our grief.” Caskey’s twelve new songs navigate this treacherous boundary and steers clear of protest for its own sake; she is far more interested in exploring our grief. And that clarity keeps her songs from falling into despair, self-pity or political rant. Think of them rather as profiles in courage.
In Lost Before Found she confronts the death of a lover head on:
Lost before I ever found you
Twirling in circles around death the thief
Lost before I ever found you
Time cast a shadow between you and me
Hair in tangles past your shoulders
Cotton dress to the knee
We danced barefoot on the damp grass
Then you slipped away from me.
In Slot Machine she addresses the gamble that is love:
Losing odds and flashing lights
Losing odds and flashing lights
I gamble while you ramble
Maybe today you’ll treat me right.
And in They Go On she both laments and celebrates the war-torn dead and those they leave behind of the title:
She’s home alone with the babies
He’s off at war far away
She thinks to herself how life doesn’t match
The romance of their first summer days.
And finally, in the closing song Worthy, she calls to mind some slender threads of hope where Ishmael found it (in the Book of Job), “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee;” that is, in simply speaking your truth and telling your story:
Oh, you holy travelers...
Take your place beside the fire
Make the circle wider, brighter.
Worthy, we are worthy
Speak your truth, tell your story
Everyone is worthy
In all our shame in all our glory.
Her final line, “In all our shame in all our glory” captures Yeats’ “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” in its twin commandments of facing the shame to eventually climb into “our glory.” That, after all, is Caskey’s “gold in the mud.”
But it is not sufficient to reduce this wonderful new folk album to its underlying premises and ideas. For Nameless Heart is the album of an accomplished musician—a banjo player of extraordinary skill and imagination. Donna Lynn Caskey is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, where she received a scholarship to take the class “Clawhammer Banjo by Ear.” Her old-time roots are evident throughout, but she has taken the banjo into a vast new territory as well, where her songs often modulate between major and minor keys, shift rhythms without hesitation, and always find the perfect note to meld tune and meaning together into a seamless whole.
As Emerson said to a certain Good Grey Poet who had requested him to review his first edition of Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
*Note: Caskey does not actually have diabetes but sings from the point of view of a character who does in the song "Who Will Care?"
Donna Lynn Caskey blazes her artistic trail, releases new record
Because she grew up as the youngest of 10 kids, Donna Lynn Caskey (aka the “banjo gal”) had the run of the place by the time she was 9 years old. It was the Tidewater area of the Virginia coast, and there was music in the air, handed down through the maternal lineage from Caskey’s great-grandfather to her granny to her mom. The older siblings also contributed to Caskey’s musical education with far-ranging influences, from Buddy Holly to the B-52s: “I remember old 78s with scratchy fiddle music they had from yard sales and thrift stores. Sisters also introduced me to the wonders of the record bin at the local public library,” she recalls.
There were also MTV dance parties, college radio shows, mix tapes and live music in the house, as several of the Caskey kids played instruments — violin, viola, guitar, banjo, flute and piccolo. All of it combined to form a passion for music that is both wide and deep, and one that Caskey leans into for her own artistry. “There’s still nothing quite like hearing a beloved tune spontaneously turn up on the radio, to have a new tune catch your ear and touch your heart,” she muses.
With her eclectic palette and a fondness for hymns in tow, Caskey made her way to the banjo, partly due to watching lots of Austin City Limits as a kid. She notes, “I went to college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and would go listen to old-time and bluegrass jams on the weekend. I absolutely fell in love with the music, banjos in particular. I heard Mike Seeger [Pete’s half-brother] play a show. He made music and banjo seem so accessible, so I bought my first banjo as a college graduation present to myself.”
The banjo became her security blanket, her morale booster, her nerve calmer. “I was a shy, closet singer for much of my early life. Nerves made it hard for me to sing solo for a long time. Playing banjo helped me get out there and get over it enough to do it.”
And do it she did. A mythological studies program at Santa Barbara’s Pacifica Graduate Institute lured her — and her banjo — from one coast to the other around 2001. Though she only took one semester of the program, California had called and Caskey had answered. “It felt like the right move. And I was right — it was as though a whole life was waiting for me. My first day in town I met a fiddler at the farmers market up there. He invited me to a weekly old-time jam and those people are still part of my extended musical family. It felt right to stop school and focus on learning banjo.” Part of that learning came in Ojai from Brad Leftwich, an old-time banjo and fiddle player, who gave Caskey lessons.
As her musical craft has progressed, her artistic creativity has spread outward, and Caskey puts a good amount of energy into visual art as well. “Creative process is creative process in a lot of ways. It doesn’t matter what the medium is so much. I love images — you can create images with words and sounds just as much as you can with paper and paint, for instance.”
Collages are Caskey’s main mode and they often coincide with the themes in her songs or, as she explains, “They can cross-pollinate each other. The flow of collage can get a song flowing, can help me find a word, a color, a feel.” And by piecing scraps and scratches together, be they musical or visual, Caskey makes her mark.