Some artists take tentative steps into kids music, but Andy Furgeson seemed to know exactly what he was doing from the get-go. Playing as Red Yarn, the Austin-bred, Portland-based musician and puppeteer brought the fervor of a revival to his first kids' album, 2013's The Deep Woods, and then doubled-down on that feeling with his 2015 follow-up, the appropriately titled Deep Woods Revival. Both albums brought energy and emotion to old folk songs to make those old songs sound urgent and vital.
After a 2016 detour into some stripped-down arrangements on Wake Up and Sing, Furgeson is back with the final entry in his "Deep Woods Trilogy," Born in the Deep Woods. If the first two Deep Woods albums sound like they were recorded in a church somewhere, this new album has a much more Southern-fried rock sound. Not quite in a bar, perhaps, but not exactly church pew, either. For everyone who ever thought what Red Yarn needed was more cowbell, Born in the Deep Woods is the album for you.
The title track, a Furgeson original, has a driving sound that might fit in more with the earlier albums, but "Old Mother Goose" definitely has that Southern "classic rock" sound even as it weaves together some traditional nursery rhymes like "Hey Diddle Diddle" and "All Around the Mulberry Bush." There are more completely original songs on this new album -- four or five depending on how you're counting -- than on previous works, but I think it's a testament to Furgeson's songwriting skills and his production work alongside co-producer Adam Selzer that it can hard be hard to tell his takes on songs sung for generations apart from the ones written for and inspired by Furgeson's two kids.
Furgeson knows how to have fun with a song -- check out the video for "Mockingbird," in which Furgeson plots the detailed musical background of the song with a detail rivaling the search for the Zodiac Killer -- but he seems particularly focus on the meaning of parenthood. Songs like "Little Baby Born Today," "Old Black Dog," and "Deep Woods Revisited" address life -- both birth and death -- in the tone of voice of a parent. The epic "Born Again" does, too, filled with slide guitar instrumental breaks and lines like "When we reach our destination / Across the river, across the nation / We find we're right back where we came from." Could the Allman Brothers record that song and have it sound a little bit like the Red Yarn track? Most definitely.
Born in the Deep Woods is not a kids music album, but only to those who haven't spent a lot of time thinking about kids music. There's an alphabet song on here that even though I'd listened to the album a half-dozen times I didn't realize it until I looked at the lyrics. (Which you should totally do if you decide to get a copy of the lovely physical copy.) It is an intricate album, and while it's appealing musically and not cryptic in any way, for some listeners, the simpler Wake Up and Sing may be the better entry point to the Red Yarn discography. You could put this album on for the 10-minute drive home from school, but it fits more a 45-minute Lego construction session.
I, for one, am looking forward to where Furgeson moves on from Born in the Deep Woods. The Deep Woods have been a rich source of inspiration for the Red Yarn albums, but I also think that his songwriting on this album in particular indicates he can look beyond the folk music tradition that's informed so much of his work. Not that he'd ever abandon that music -- and I don't want him to -- but I'm more interested at this point in seeing where he goes next than in further expansion of the Deep Woods mythology. I hope he comes back to the Deep Woods in time, but I'd like to see what he discovers when he ventures out further to explore. Highly recommended.
Note: I was given a copy of the album for possible review.