Minstrel in the Gallery

On The Route to the Harmonium, James Yorkston offers a paean to those he lost along the way

James Yorkston / photo by Ren Rox

Beyond the blues, folk music has historically conveyed the most direct and personal form of musical communication.

While the blues generally provides the means for expressing personal pain and despair, folk music vets the wider realms that affect society as a whole, offering a means by which an artist can urge others to take up arms against injustice and find the path forward.

James Yorkston has generally skewed this approach in the past and sought a way to progress from both a personal and polemic perspective. In his liner notes to his striking new album, The Route to the Harmonium, he states, “I guess, as a musician and writer, I find myself reacting to what goes on around. So, this album is about life, the life that carries on around me.” He then goes on to mention ties to family, life entailed in touring, and, most emphatically, departed friends….“the hows, the whys. When a friend jumps ship it’s always a haymaker to the guy, you know? And this album is about them, but it’s more about us, us who are left behind….”

The Route to the Harmonium on vinyl

So there we have it. A mission statement that’s a clear and concise as can be. And indeed, on the album’s very first song, “Your Beauty Could Not Save You,” the singer imagines the dearly departed being embraced in the afterlife by those who came before. Weaving a tangled mass of guitar, autoharp, accordion, mandolin, flute, brass, and other accoutrements, Yorkston  creates an atmospheric template that sets the course for practically every song that follows. By the time the album reaches its conclusion with the tearful “A Footnote to an Epitaph,” the tempest is toned down to the instrument name-checked in the title, with paired vocals, trumpet and piano. The lyrics are especially telling and an apt summation of the album’s theme overall…


“Life isn’t something I cling to

Like some Desperate Harry or some Handsome Jack…

How I wish you were here my every single one of you
But when I think of you — I think of you well.”


There’s no mistaking the emotion or the intent, and while that giveaway may negate the mystique, it also makes the effort as a whole so much more poignant and personal. Yorkston’s no mere traveling troubadour. Granted, his hoary delivery and erstwhile narratives find him operating solidly in a folk vernacular — with more than a slight tinge of his natural Anglo embellishment to be sure — yet here again, Yorkston’s eager to state his sentiments. The rambling “My Mouth Ain’t No Bible” does so decidedly. “I could have been a lifer,” he declares, name checking a series of trad troubadours tied to a folkish noir. “A Martin Carthy, a Michael Hurley, a Michael Chapman, a Peter Brotzman…”

Yorkston doesn’t intend any put down, but he’s also clearly eager to provide perspective. For all its dark and dense circumstance, both through music and motivation, Yorkston won’t allow himself to be tied to classic convention. His delivery is emotional, evocative and flush with questions and concerns that intrude on life’s byways. The Route to the Harmonium is poetic in the surest sense, giving voice to questions that confound us all. Mostly though, it’s a realistic requiem — for companions since passed, and for the regret and reflection left unresolved in their wake.


Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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