Southern Comfort continues Regina Carter’s rich exploration of family roots and regional song. It extends back to 2000′s Motor City Moments, her salute to the hometown hits of her childhood, and continues through the American popular songs beloved by her late mother on I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (2006) and the modern and traditional musics of Africa on Reverse Thread (2010). This time, the lineage of the father’s side of Carter’s family helps set the musical template for Southern Comfort. As with Reverse Thread, the violinist dug into field recordings for context and inspiration, this time from the rural American South. There are gospel spirituals and blues and there are songs from the Appalachian Mountains and the Cajun bayous. Carter also covers such classic compositions as Hank Williams’s “Honky Tonkin’” and Gram Parsons’s “Hickory Wind.”
Some of the band members are holdovers from Reverse Thread, most crucially Will Holshouser on accordion and Alvester Garnett on drums. Carter is a meticulous stylist and at its best, Southern Comfort feels not only handmade, but richly and delicately embroidered. Holshouser’s squeezebox often provides the sonic quilting for her thread-and-needle violin strokes, and Garnett’s drumming complements Carter’s preferred groove, which seems to relax into itself and let the current of the melody or the syncopation effortlessly glide along.
One reason Carter excels on these interpretive projects is that she has both the technical expertise and the visceral connection to the music’s roots to plumb its essence. She could bust out “Blues de Basile” into a zydeco-fueled romp, but she understands that it feels more authentic in its sing-song sway — the hedonism is in the texture and rhythm as much as tempo. And to hear her violin sustain the meditative, ballad-slow pace on the traditional spiritual, “I’m Going Home,” with a sparse, beautiful arrangement and adornment by guitarist Adam Rogers, is an intoxicating marriage of conservatory training and soulful reverence. It makes one hope there are more distinctive branches on her family tree that Carter is itching to climb.