August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

Natalie Merchant (Myth America)

From her days as frontwoman of 10,000 Maniacs through her last solo disc Motherland, produced by T Bone Burnett of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame, Natalie Merchant has always been a folkie at heart. On her latest, the singer reveals the roots of her music with a credible collection of 11 traditional and contemporary folk songs that you can imagine her singing at Lilith Fair. Indeed, acoustic, austere ballads like “Owensboro,” about the migration of mountain people to Kentucky mill towns in the late 19th century, seem tailor-made for Merchant’s rich, stately alto.

The traditional tunes, such as the old children’s song “Soldier, Soldier,” fit right in alongside the contemporary material, like Merchant’s country-dusted cover of the Horseflies’ 1991 song “Sally Ann” (featuring former Horseflies Judy Hyman and Richie Stearns on violin and banjo, respectively). Merchant is only unconvincing when she picks up the tempo on numbers like the bluegrassy ditty “Down on Penny’s Farm,” which is saddled by her leaden vocals. Consumer note: This CD, the first released on Merchant’s own Myth America label, will be available only through her Web site ( until next month, when it will also be sold at select retailers.

BOTTOM LINE: Fine folk

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