“We write bridges, cross ’em and burn ’em
Teach lessons but don’t bother to learn ’em
Our mamas don’t know what we’re doing
Or why we stay out all night long
I told mine I was a drug dealer
She said, ‘Thank God you ain’t writin’ songs”
—Gordie Sampson and Bill Anderson, “The Songwriters”
[T]hese talented ladies all step forward with fresh approaches, even though only one of the eight albums discussed here is a debut. Taken collectively, they represent a wide swath of styles. More than anything else, they prove that terrific music is being made not only by the more widely-known (Emmylou, Lucinda, Rosanne and Patty) but by these women, too.
Blue Sky Thinkin’ is the album that Anne McCue always wanted to make, even though she didn’t reach her goal directly. She set out to make a blues album with her L.A. pals Dusty Wakeman, Carl Byron and Dave Raven who had played on her rocking Roll album in 2004. However, once she wrote Blue Sky Thinkin’s title track, she was drawn to the music of the 1920s and 1930s she used to hear while growing up in Australia. So, with references to Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday and Gershwin, among others, this gorgeous album showcases McCue’s songwriting, torch-like vocals and brilliant, mostly-acoustic guitar mastery. It’s a testament to her bandmates that she was able to lay down most of these tracks in just two days with additional help later from Nashville musicians like Jim Hoke for the horn arrangements. Among the many highlights is a duet with Dave Alvin, “Devil in the Middle.” I know that McCue searched long and hard for a label to release the album, which is a sad indictment of a music industry that should embrace independent artists. Give kudos to McCue for keeping up the fight and, by all means, give this a good, long listen.
Canadian roots and blues singer Robin Banks also takes a trip back in time, to the music of the 1960s and 1970s, with a dozen originals, aptly titled Modern Classic. Backed by Duke Robillard’s band and the Roomful of Blues horns, Banks proves to be a very engaging singer across both vintage sounding tunes and some that are sensually flirtatious, like “My Baby Loves Me” and “Crazy.” Her phrasing is flawless, her melodies are spirited and her lyrics flow effortlessly. She’s just so talented; it’s puzzling why she’s not aligned with a recognized label.
Alabama’s Lisa Mills is a versatile singer who now has a band with a southern rock pedigree as well as Grammy-winning producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Dixie Chicks) in tow. The resulting album, I’m Changing, consists largely of reworkings of songs Mills originally recorded in 2005. With Shoemaker’s remixing, only two tracks are totally re-recorded, while three tunes are brand new. The many styles of southern music (blues, gospel and R&B) come through in Mills’ powerful delivery. Her interpretation of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” is one of the best I’ve heard.
Okay, most of you may know Pegi Young (& the Survivors) as Neil Young’s ex-wife and backing vocalist, but did you realize she has a killer band, featuring iconic Muscle Shoals keyboardist Spooner Oldham? On her latest album, Lonely in a Crowded Room, Young proves to be a strong writer, penning seven of the ten tunes, ranging from rock to R&B and country. She and the band convey high levels of enthusiasm throughout the disc, most notably on “Better Livin’ Through Chemicals” and “Walking on the Tightrope.”
Muscle Shoals is the setting for Sarah Lou Richards’ first full band effort, and third overall: The Woman Behind the Curtain. Produced by Gary Nichols of the SteelDrivers, the Muscle Shoals-based band creates a large sound for tunes that Richards wrote with inspiration from Brandi Carlile and Patty Griffin. Many of these seem like a perfect fit for classic AM country radio of the late ’70s and early ’80s, especially her duet with Nichols, “I Ain’t Easy to Love,” and “Don’t Break My Heart.”
Holly Cole, Jana Misener and Krista Wroten are the Memphis Dawls, three talented songwriters and gifted musicians who apply classical backgrounds and Memphis grooves to their unique approach, resulting in the complex harmonies and string arrangements of their debut, Rooted in the Bone. Cole (guitar), Misener (cello) and Wroten (violin, mandolin and accordion) are fearlessly adventurous, bringing in Charles and Teenie Hodges from Al Green’s band on “Liar” and horns on “Shoot Em’ Down,” while ranging into both traditional backwoods string accompaniments as well as orchestral backdrops. It’s a refreshingly intoxicating blend, filtered through an array of southern influences. As with Anne McCue’s record, you’ll need to listen many times to appreciate the many musical textures.
Although New Jersey-bred, bluegrass-raised Nora Jane Struthers was once an English teacher, Wake is now her third album (and first with her re-formed roots band, the Party Line), shifting seamlessly between roots rock and bluegrass on Struthers’ personal, autobiographical songs. The self-produced album indeed goes in many directions, self-described by Struthers as “reconciling [her] love of both bluegrass and Pearl Jam.” Now based in Nashville, Struthers is quickly climbing the Americana charts with her punchy tunes like “Let Go,” “The Same Road” and the cleverly brash “Don’t Care.”
Fellow Music City resident Caroline Spence is also releasing her third recording, Somehow. This is her first full-length, solo effort backed by a full band, one that is more restrained than Sruthers’ Party Line but still has the versatility to rock and twang. With Spence’s soprano voice, somewhat like Emmylou Harris’, Spence’s band creates a soothing, meditative soundscape. Her ability to tell stories and express emotions is exemplified best on “Whiskey Watered Down,” “Kissing Ain’t the Same As Talking” and the opener, “Trains Cry.” Do yourself a huge favor: go beyond the familiar names on which you usually land, and give these ladies your full attention. You’ll have no regrets.
– Jim Hynes