MINNEAPOLIS -- Becky Schlegel, the darling of the Minnesota bluegrass scene in recent years, has moved beyond her musical roots with her latest album.
"Red Leaf," the first compilation of the Twin Cities singer's own tunes, will be unveiled at a "special release concert" March 6 at the Dakota Bar & Grille in St. Paul.
A dazzling display of originality, the CD marks a turning point in the 29-year-old singer's style -- so different from her earlier efforts that Schlegel herself has difficulty describing it.
"I have no idea what to call my style," said Schlegel, who burst into public attention in 1997 as a headliner at a Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association event.
That performance, with her band True Blue, was followed in quick succession by a series of television and radio appearances and the release of her critically acclaimed "This Lonesome Song" debut album.
The Minnesota Music Academy later nominated the release as bluegrass album of the year in 1998.
True Blue even showcased the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual convention a year later, before winning a Minnesota Music Award as bluegrass band of the year in 2000 and again in 2001.
But if "Red Leaf" is any indication, traditional bluegrass has drifted to the edges of Schlegel's latest musical canvas.
"No, there's not much bluegrass in my new album, but I've grown as a singer and I wanted to do something that was my own," she said, attributing her stylistic change to the decision to write and record her own music.
To the listener, her latest album is an eclectic mix of folk and country and even a little pop -- with bluegrass influences hovering just out of sight.
What is consistent with her earlier work, however, is her distinctive voice, described by one reviewer as "a pure, chiming miracle" of unparalleled sound.
The 10 cuts on "Red Leaf" give Schlegel plenty of opportunity to show the full range of her voice, from its seemingly unlimited range to its remarkable clarity, even at a whispered level.
"I've learned to recognize my boundaries," she said. "I can't hit many low notes but it seems like a never ending scale on the high side. I don't want to get up too high because it can be annoying for the listener.
"But my comfort zone can be sky high," she said with a chuckle.
A familiar performer to the statewide bluegrass audience, Schlegel was a featured act in last year's Brainerd Community Concerts series at the Paul Bunyan Nature Learning Center.
The series is co-sponsored by an area resort owner and the state Bluegrass and Old-time Music Association, which has routinely promoted Schlegel's career.
A native of rural South Dakota, Schlegel moved to the Twin Cities in the mid-1990s, where she continues to work a full-time job with an eye clinic.
She shied away from songwriting until a friend's sudden divorce inspired her to draft her first song. The experience freed the genie, she said, and songwriting has since become her daily passion.
"I never recorded that first song because I ended up writing better ones," the musician said. "But I found out I could do it. And I've known for a long time that if I wanted to succeed in this business, I had to record my own songs" rather than cover tunes.
Schlegel said most of her songs are inspired by personal struggles, lost love, betrayal, aging and other often-traumatic experiences.
And the "Red Leaf" compilation shows it, including the title cut, a changing-of-the-seasons metaphor for the aging and dying process.
"Your Everything," however, is an ode to the new love of her life and the album concludes with "My Love," an uplifting, redemptive tune of love's promise.
John Nieman on guitar, Peter Ostroushko on mandolin, Kenny Wilson on steel guitar, Heath Loy on banjo and an assortment of other musicians will back up Schlegel at her March 6 release concert.
For reservations, call the Dakota at (651) 642-1442. Show times are 7 and 9:30 p.m.
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