Sylvia Hutton (aka Sylvia) was a hot newcomer when I first became seriously interested in country music in the early 1980s. She enjoyed a string of hits from 1979 through 1987 and then largely disappeared from public view when she was dropped from the RCA roster. During her hit-making days she was often criticized – with some justification – for being too slickly produced, but I always felt that there was more to her and her music than her detractors gave her credit for. She re-emerged in 1996 when she released an album on her own independent label. She has recorded only occasionally over the past 20 years, but the music she has released during that period has had the substance that many felt was lacking in her major label days.
It’s All in the Family is her first full-length album in 14 years and the fourth for her Red Pony Records imprint. About halfway through 2016 I had heard that she had a new album on the way and checked her website from time to time for updates. Somehow I managed to miss its release and hence, the delay in reviewing it. But better late than never.
Like its predecessors, It’s All in the Family is a highly introspective collection of serious songs. There are no catchy numbers like “Nobody”, “Drifter” or “Snapshot” to be found, although it does occasionally have a less artsy and more commercial feel than her earlier independent work. Her longtime collaborator John Mock is back on board as her co-producer. He also plays a majority of the instruments on the album, from guitar, banjo and mandolin to the bodhran, tin whistle and concertina. On the instrumental number “Grandpa Kirby Runnin’ the Hounds”, he and Stuart Duncan play the fiddle and banjo that belonged to Sylvia’s grandfather Connie D. Kirby, who had played at local barn dancers in the early part of the 20th century. There is also a little pedal steel here and there, and quite a few of the tracks feature an orchestral arrangement consisting of cello, violin, viola, clarinet and French horn. The orchestra, although tastefully restrained, provides a little more oomph than the more stripped-down sound of Sylvia’s other Red Pony albums.
As the title suggests, It’s All in the Family is mostly a look back at Sylvia’s childhood and family history. Sylvia had a hand in writing nine of the album’s twelve tracks. She recounts her memories of passing trains in “Every Time a Train Goes By” to a mother’s reminiscences and advice to a daughter on her wedding day in the title track, and the final moments of an elderly woman on her deathbed in the closing track, “Do Not Cry For Me”. The Celtic-flavored “Immigrant Shoes” recalls the arrival of Sylvia’s ancestors at Ellis Island. The inside album cover is decorated with photographs from Sylvia’s family album, dating as far back as 1911, through a 1984 photo of her with her musician grandfather.
Although there are no direct references to specific events, many of the songs deal with overcoming adversity, failed relationships and difficult circumstances, and one gets the distinct impression that Sylvia has faced her fair share of challenges. She remains optimistic through it all, however, stating in “A Right Turn” that it was “worth every long hard mile”. Although she occasionally feels discouraged as in “Hope’s Too Hard”, written by Kate Campbell, she ultimately concedes in “Here Lately” that given the chance to do things over, she wouldn’t change a thing. One of the album’s more mainstream-sounding songs, featuring some nice pedal steel, advises to “Leave the Past in the Past”. “Cumberland Rose”, a 2011 single written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig, also appears on the album even though it doesn’t qite fit in with the theme.
It’s All in the Family is a collection of well-crafted songs, beautifully sung and tastefully produced, that lays to rest for once and for all the myth that Sylvia was just another pretty face. It’s more thoughtful and cerebral than anything that gets played on the radio these days, and with its folk and Celtic influences may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who remember and enjoyed Sylvia’s 80s music will like this collection.