The first time I heard Elly Wininger play guitar, it was in her duo with the folk/blues songwriter Dave Kearny. They traded meaty song after meaty song, from timeless to topical, and with a pretty dazzling command of their traditions: the fine shadings of period, place, idiom and variation. Folk lifers, I thought: playful, knowledgeable and reverent without sanctimony, with none of the affectations of authenticity that often send me scurrying to the bar when the bearded young bards of Brooklyn take the mic and define history as something that ended, for their purposes, in 1963.
Nowhere was the effortless fluency more apparent than in Elly’s nuanced, tricky and deeply rooted guitar-playing. I knew nothing of her story at this point: that she is a 2014 inductee into the New York Blues Hall of Fame; that her guitar teacher was David Bromberg (it shows); that she was offered a recording contract by New York City’s Red Robin Records when she was 16 (her mother refused it); that she was a fixture on the NYC folk scene of her own less-storied generation, a Greenwich Village folk torchbearer and a serious practitioner long after Look Magazine had looked away from that first generation of bearded bards seduced by Delta blues and folk oracle. I just thought, “Shit, man, she can play.”
I’m kind of a genius like that.
Now I sit with Little Red Wagon, Elly Wininger’s lovely, spirited and reflective solo album out now on Rabbit Hole Records. Traditional in instrumentation and in overall sound, and with plenty of rural blues and café folk reference throughout, Little Red Wagon yet delivers a stern warning about doctrinal traditionalism in its lead track. “Clarion River” is no folk trope at all, but a jazz-inflected smooth acoustic pop tune in the early-‘70s mode of Joni and – especially – JT. Across the record’s 13 tracks, Wininger defines folk music inclusively and globally, scoffs (implicitly, for Elly is a nice person and does very little explicit scoffing) at retro purism and specious folk/blues identity play. She can go as pure as you want, but she doesn’t really see the point.
In fact, at first at least, the rhythm of Little Red Wagon is one of an alternation in which non-folk excursions and fusions alternate with returns to home base and bedrock: “Clarion River” into the traditional “Down the Line”; the Afro-Cuban, watercolor jazz reminiscence of “The Girl in the Tree House” into the near-Chicago blues of “Shade” (penned by the wildly multifaceted Woodstock musician Kyle Esposito); the almost-show-tune/torch-song “For Fred” into the Cajun rocker “Two Steps Forward.”
Wininger does not try to sound hip and world-wearied, and thank God for that. She sounds “real” in a different way. The moment finds her looking back a lot through various musical and lyrical lenses, the confessional and the historical intertwining. But the voice remains a woman in the present: experienced and generous; on the whole positive and keeping the faith, but with plenty of challenges and falters; a little square at times, but she owns that honestly, too. And throughout, of course, everything is brought home again and again by her exquisite guitar-playing and that of co-producer Stephen Miller.
Elly Wininger celebrates the release of Little Red Wagon with a performance at Green Kill in Kingston on Saturday, February 10 at 7 p.m. Green Kill is located at 229 Greenkill Avenue in Kingston. For more information, visit www.ellywininger.com.