References to rivers in the song titles and lyrics of country and Americana music are far too many to count. It’s a go-to image for songwriters. But when water, in both its beauty and its destructive power, has profoundly altered the path of a life, those river references are more than an easy touchstone. North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Abigail Dowd has had her house flooded seven times in 13 months, turning her world upside-down and, at one point, leaving her wondering if she’d even be able to sing again. The pain and discovery that came from that chaos has bred Dowd’s third album, Beautiful Day, a record full of struggle and survival.
The record begins with “Beautiful Day,” which isn’t the sing-out-loud tune that the title might suggest. Rather, it glides along on acoustic guitar and Dobro while Dowd tries to find that one good reason to get out of bed – “Sometimes I get blue/And mamas try to make it all okay.” Through her own troubles, though, she’s found reason to give others the push they need – “So hold on my friend/No one sees clearly in the dark.” As with many of the songs on the album, she’s got friends to help her, too, as the full musical arrangements give each player room to breathe.
Dowd’s soulful country voice shines best in tracks like “Diamond,” a mid-tempo tune that’s also the first song that she wrote for the album. Here, Dowd sings about believing in herself and her inner self, rather than outside voices – “I used to call out to someone up above/I never heard a word/So I gave up.” Joe MacPhail’s subtle organ line lends a little bounce to this dirt road rocker. “Don’t Want to Talk About It” features a more spare arrangement, squaring the focus on Dowd’s voice as she steps into the shoes of a man who drinks as a substitute for coping. Rather than judge her character, though, she empathizes with his loneliness by singing from his perspective – “You look surprised that I pray/God’s the only one worth talking to these days.”
Back to that river, though, and the centerpiece of the album. Leading into “River” is an instrumental, “St. Vrain,” that Dowd composed while setting in the middle of, well, a river (specifically, St. Vrain Creek, which has had its own devastating effects on the beautiful Colorado town of Lyons). The sweet-but-sad, acoustic/electric/Dobro piece transitions directly into “River,” a dramatic tune which honors all that water can give and take away. With electric guitar burbling underneath, Dowd speaks of both pain – “My tongue is burning, it’s on fire” – and healing – “I’m gonna fill my cup in the river.” Coming, as it does, from one who’s lost (a home) and gained (a new direction) at its hands, Dowd brings a fresh (and hard-earned) perspective to an old metaphor.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Run,” for the great interplay between MacPhail’s organ and Alex McKinney’s Dobro.
Beautiful Day was produced, engineered and mixed by Jason Richmond and mastered by Kim Rosen. All songs were written by Abigail Dowd. Additional musicians on the album include Austin McCall (drums, percussion), Jason Duff (bass), Scott Sawyer (electric guitar), Alex McKinney (Dobro, electric guitar, baritone guitar, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, lap steel) and Joe MacPhail (Wurlitzer, organ, piano, percussion).
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