Sometimes the only thing more difficult than establishing a musical legacy is ensuring it endures. That was the feeling Michigan folk artist Mick Lane got after a journey to Berea to visit with his longtime friend, Kentucky mountain music matriarch Jean Ritchie.
Lane had enlisted Ritchie's help a few years earlier by asking her to contribute a tune to a tribute album dedicated to the music of folk giant Utah Phillips. Ritchie agreed, and the resulting 2009 recording, Singing Through the Hard Times, wound up with a Grammy nomination.
That got Lane thinking that Ritchie and her music were worthy of a similar honor.
"When I was down visiting her in Berea, she said, 'I suppose now that folks will just forget me.' At first, I kind of laughed and said, 'Well, you are Jean Ritchie.' But that kind of put some juice in the engine for this project. It was like, 'Look. Let's get this done while she can still enjoy it.'"
Lane then hit the recruitment trail. For nearly two years, he compiled new recordings of tunes written or interpreted by Ritchie that were cut by folk artists representing multiple generations. Among his recruits were Judy Collins, Kathy Mattea, Janis Ian, Robin and Linda Williams, Dale Ann Bradley, Alison Brown and many others, including, in one of his final recordings, folk legend Pete Seeger.
"Many of these people have recorded songs that either Jean wrote or were in her family tradition," Lane said. "But we didn't want old recordings. Every recording had to be new. The other thing that was a criteria was that the artists didn't have to sing the song like Jean. We wanted it to be about how Jean has influenced our culture and our music through the ages.
"We've got young folks on the record. We've got old folks. Some are very true to the Appalachian style. Some of them are not at all. But it's a lovely and elegant look at Jean, her music and her influence."
The resulting album, Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, is due for release this summer. But when one of the record's key contributors told Lane she was available on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend for a concert to promote the project, the wheels went into overdrive to bring Dear Jean to the stage.
"Kathy Mattea said, 'I've got that Friday open if you want to do a concert.' So we all got together and talked to (John) McCutcheon, who is another tremendous supporter of Jean's and a lover of this musical tradition. Then we got a Tennessee gal who lives in Los Angeles, Susie Glaze, and we put this concert together.
"These artists, there was no pretension to them at all when it came to this project. They love Jean with all their hearts. It was an absolute labor of love for me, too. The people who work to preserve Jean's heritage, well, they don't make a lot of money. We just want to enhance her legacy. We want young people to know about her. Preserving and enhancing the legacy of Jean as an artist, it can't help being a labor of love."
But what of Ritchie herself? Since suffering a stroke in 2009, the singer, who is now 91, has largely retired from public and performance life. But Lane said she may make an appearance at Friday's concert.
"It's my understanding that, her health permitting, she'll be there. Judy Hudson, her niece, told me, 'We went out and bought her a pretty new dress.' So I think Jean is pretty excited."
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.