Red House Records
P. O. Box 4044
St. Paul, MN 55104
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Steve Barnes
Well, this wasn't what I expected! Acoustic music fans will be familiar with Peter Ostroushko's considerable talents as a mandolinist, fiddler and tunesmith, from his work on The Prairie Home Companion, and from his numerous solo instrumental albums. His pure, clean mandolin tone is instantly recognizable, but it may come as a bit of a surprise to some that on Pilgrims on the Heart Road, he is a singer/songwriter and his mandolin makes only a cameo appearance. This CD is described as the second in a series of albums by Ostroushko that are loosely based on physical and spiritual journeys. The first in the series is the gorgeous, all-instrumental Heart of the Heartland. On Pilgrims on the Heart Road, all songs are sung by the writer, with lush instrumental backing on mainly acoustic instruments, and with drums and some electronic keyboard here and there. Dean Magraw's acoustic guitar work is outstanding and the vocal choruses are augmented by names as famous as Bobby McFerron.
So how does the master instrumentalist stack up as a songwriter? Quite well, in short. The song Mandela is a stand-out and is remarkable for a song about a theme which has been well worked-over through the years. It is a powerful number with strong gospel undertones. You Don't Know what Lonely Is deals with the personal experience of childhood abuse- not an easy subject to get across, but Ostroushko's is a sensitive and moving treatment. Down on the Plain of Reeds is a big song, inspired by reflections on the Vietnam war. It's a strong number but it would have been far more powerful at half its nine minute length. In fact, the length of the songs is a bit of a problem in general; nothing comes in at less than six minutes and, in many cases, less would have been more. The song My People, however, is my personal favourite. It is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Ostroushko's sour-cream Ukrainian roots and is an ideal foil to the serious tone of the rest of the album. This is the one track where the musicians really cut loose and have fun.
The strength of the songs on this CD lay mainly in their melodies. It's clear that Ostroushko is a songwriter with a background in writing interesting instrumental music, and we are spared the all-too-common anonymous bland tunes of many a 90's singer/songwriter. Probably the weakest aspect of the recording, however, is Ostroushko's singing, which has a certain raw honesty but which lacks the shading that the dramatic, emotional nature of most of the songs calls for.
Don't be put off by this criticism, though. This is a strong album of meaty material, marked by outstanding musicianship and memorable tunes and it displays another string of Ostroushko's already formidable bow. Personally, I prefer his instrumental work and I would very strongly urge fans of quality acoustic American music to pick up a copy of Heart of the Heartland.
Edited by Kerry Bernard