Natalie MacMaster is one of those artists that is described from time to time as a national treasure. She is that, but she’s a local treasure, too. There’s a video online of her going to play at Glencoe Mills Hall on Cape Breton with Bela Fleck in tow. The music, of course, is fantastic, though the most memorable part is simply when she enters the room. Nobody there treats her like a star, but rather as a friend who happens to play music—their music—with joy, skill, honesty, and love. Fleck tries to join in, but he comes from a world where virtuosity comes first, and he struggles to find a space in the mix. MacMaster is a virtuoso, though the world that she comes from is one where fellowship, connection, and seemingly no end of dancing, comes first. This is where she lives, and it shows.
This new collection, Sketches, continues the theme. It was inspired, as she writes in the liner notes, “when [guitarist] Tim Edey and I were just playing tunes together at my house.” Some of the tunes are old favourites, such as “Killiecrankie”—she writes that it’s one of her “favourite fiddle tunes EVER!”—though there are newer tunes, too, including one in honour of a family friend, Hannah Corkery. Indeed, if there’s anything that unites the material here, it’s friendship. “Patricia Kelso’s” was written for Yo-Yo Ma, who recorded it on a holiday disc. “Tribute to John Allen” is a collection of tunes in honour of John Allen Cameron, her cousin and 12-string guitar player. His son guests on the track playing his late father’s guitar. “Judy’s Dance” is for Judy, simply noted as a friend. The album ends with “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a tribute in a sense to Bonnie Raitt, a friend that MacMaster hopes one day to have: she writes “Bonnie Raitt where are you? Come and play with me!”
All of it is impeccable yet never precious; fun yet never fatuous. MacMaster has a smile as big as her sense of dignity, and it’s the personality that she brings to the music that has made her the treasure that she is. She plays our music, even if you’re hearing it for the first time, with joy, skill, and honesty. She makes music for friends, and when we listen to it, she enters our lives, our houses, and she’s our friend, too. If there’s a better album of instrumental music out there this year, please do let me know.
(Penguin Eggs Magazine, winter 2019)