Holding a Rose is the new album by Ken Lehnig. Releasing music on his own or as front man for the Burning Sage Band for many years, he has previously been heard from with his solo CD, 2014’s The American Music Show. That disc and this one share a roster of top-shelf local players in support, and 15 tracks, all Lehnig originals. He produced the last disc and co-produced this time, with John Hildebrand, and once again did the arrangements. While the sound is better than on Music Show, another thing the music has in common is that Lehnig is all over the map musically, with a strength in folk ballads.
In trying for an eclectic sound, Lehnig succeeds—and what he also does is add vocal affectations on some of the songs to match the genre. So, the guy singing the lovely soft folk “Nothing Sadder” doesn’t sound like the guy doing the outlaw ballad “Joe Penny.” It doesn’t spoil things, but recording decisions here and there raise eyebrows. Still, several of the best songs are simple folk tunes with guitar accompaniment, and perhaps fiddle accents.
“All I Know” opens, a personal statement about a long-term relationship: “She was like an old tune that would not stop playing in my head.” Throughout, Lehnig, an artist, poet, and writer, flashes strength as a lyricist—he paints pictures with words. “Ragged Man” takes a down-low, bluesy route to tell about his problems; it simmers and builds as horns join the keys, and churn away, a strong track. Then, as soon as it fades, “What Will Become of Me” kicks off, in the same key with a nearly identical blues riff and lyrics, about how he is continuing his rough road. A different bridge, some female backup singing, and Scottie Blinn on guitar and Robert Cowan’s harp differentiate this song from the track before it, as the listener wonders why.
“Joe Penny” is a clear attempt to tell a story about another place and time and succeeds on both accounts; a tale of highwaymen “riding like a shadow across the moon,” with Jamie Shadowlight’s fiddle adding haunting effects. “Thimble of Sin” is a real departure, a folk waltz with flute and softly played instruments, different yet effective. Then, the title tune, which for whatever reason has Lehnig singing through what sounds like a phase shifter fed through a heavily reverbed amp. “Make You My Love,” a simple folk song without studio gimmicks, is next, a disc highlight that puts Lehnig’s normal voice above a lattice of finger picked guitars with fiddle accents. Elsewhere late in the program, Lehnig is on a roll: “Blank Page” is another personal folk song, with a guitar and fiddle arrangement that clicks as he sings about a now-departed love. Lehnig gets bluesy again with “I Can’t Lose,” this time with acoustic backing, and he makes good use of a nice groove and Cowan’s harp work.
Ken Lehnig’s Holding a Rose is a good roots listen, offering a variety of musical textures.