By Letitia VanSant. Self-released (letitiavansant.com), 2018. 11 tracks. $15/CD or LP; $10/digital download.
Letitia VanSant, Quaker indie folk and Americana singer-songwriter, recently made a big leap in her professional life, leaving a nonprofit career (at Friends Committee on National Legislation) and moving into full-time musician life. Gut It to the Studs, her fourth album, reflects the courage, faith, and artistic and personal maturity represented by that move. The world has recognized it too.
In 2017, she won the Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition, a long-running event that attracts the likes of Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Anais Mitchell, and Caroline Spence. Songs from her new album have also won critical acclaim from the Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest (Gold; Folk Category), Falcon Ridge (Emerging Artist), and Rocky Mountain Folks Fest Songwriting Contest (First Alternate).
VanSant’s songwriting has come into its own as well. Friends will recognize themes of living a life of integrity off the beaten path; seeking to take back one’s life from fear; retaining hope and grounding in the midst of challenging political and personal circumstances; building community that reclaims what is true out of the metaphorical cracks in the sidewalk; and having the courage to be a part of social movements, rather than remaining an onlooker. VanSant wrote all the songs in this album except for two: one co-written with longtime musical collaborator Will McKindley-Ward, and a powerful cover of the Buffalo Springfield protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” which brings an historic perspective to the police brutality protest movement. VanSant is never short on historical perspective. “Sundown Town” reflects on how our obsession with safety contributes to historic and contemporary segregation and racial injustice.
Musically these songs are less adorned than in her last album, letting the strong songwriting shine through. Expert arranging, side players, and production make this a more polished piece of work, while honoring the essential core of the music. Folk fans will be glad to know that you can hear and understand every word, which is wonderful because you will want to soak up the wisdom, encouragement, and challenge in the lyrics. The one I am left humming is the title track, a great reminder that returning to what is core is often necessary work in order to be able to offer our best to an aching world and to each other.