Record Of The Week # 44

May 29, 2018

Erin Enderlin – Whiskeytown Crier

There is a movement of angry souls who feel that the ‘Big Three’ record companies have hijacked Country music (and Nashville) and now clog US radio with ‘Bro-Country’. This sub-genre is where the money is and it is maddeningly narrow in terms of gender, type of tune, instrumentation or lyrical content.

As I step back and look at the artists – usually photogenic males between 25 to 35 years old – I temper my disappointment as not every chart success coming from Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt and Brett Young is unacceptable. However like an invasive species of animal it has evicted artists who are certainly female and purvey anything approaching the historic legacy of Hank, Merle, Johnny or Dolly. That is, a three minute soap opera of a story, lashings of pedal steel or any deviation from sub-Rock n’ Roll.

Maybe in another place I should expand on the failure of traditional Country music to remain contemporary rather than blaming some fat cat record executive, on the 31st floor of a sky scraper, who has no appreciation of the heritage and is funding vacuous ditties about tight black dresses, cold beer and pick up trucks (on a Saturday night).

If keepers of the flame are in retreat then there still are signs of life. Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margot Price and Lee Ann Womack are shifting considerable units whilst self righteously declaiming Nashville. Some recent music from the above has been fabulous but I’m taken with the emergence of the songwriters getting in front of the microphone rather than their clients.

Brandy Clark is now well known and ploughing her own furrow whilst being accepted on her own terms. Exceptional music presented in a very understated way with few frills, rock riffs, photo shoots or sponsors selling fried chicken (Reba, what were you thinking?). Other interesting songwriter releases in 2017 came from Kendell Marvel, Travis Meadows and Radney Foster. However, Erin Enderlin’s wondrous 2017 USA release Whiskeytown Crier is a tonic for those losing their faith about the absence of exquisite talent writing and singing traditional Country music. In June 2018 it makes its UK debut.

Enderlin has already had some compositions picked up and made popular by Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan and Lee Ann Womack but it is timely for her to get some personal recognition.The simple arrangements and instrumentation takes us back to the 1990’s with just enough accompaniment to leave the vocals and sentiment as your focus. If you were looking for an album dripping with staggering Country melodies saturated with melodrama and heartbreak then surely this is it.

She’s been a Nashville resident for nearly 15 years and has called on some very illustrious friends to help her. Jamey Johnson has had a hand in the production and former flat mate Chris Stapleton lends his vocal talents to a couple of songs.

“Baby Sister” starts the album with that mischievous Brandy Clark “Stripes” vibe. Her sister has problems with her disappearing with her former beau:

“See, my sister Gina, she always was the pretty one
Just like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
She coulda had any man so I thought he was just another one
Till that no tell motel shotgun epiphany”

She turns up with a pistol to break up the tryst. An assertive vocal with a flat drum beat starts with her laying out the case for the defence whilst name checking Reba and setting the Country music landscape of motels, firearms, potential hospitalisation and the volatile nature of relatives. Add a killer chorus and you have a winner. 

The single “Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy” places us in a world of heartbreak and resignation as she expands on the reality of sharing her man. In four and a half minutes we get a whole Box Set of pain where the characters reveal themselves. Ultimately his fake affection is accepted with Enderlin reflecting that maybe the failure is hers. It is all beautifully told with her strong and expressive voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar. The chorus hails a tasteful pedal steel and harmonies. The pace and finger prints of Jamey Johnson seem to be all across the track.

“When Broken’s All You Know” picks up the threads of two lost and reckless souls in a relationship from the wrong side of the tracks. She leads us through the inevitability of fracture and the decision to give away her child so that it has the best chance of escaping the downward spiral their lives follow. On this slow paced acoustic classic she gives her most accomplished vocal performance; it’s incredible that she hasn’t found the charts herself. Stapleton shares the harmonies. 

“His Memory Walks On Water” deliciously reveals her Southern accent. A lyric starts with a man’s death and the longing that his daughter has for a positive memory. This tragic yet distorted recollection of him has him “like John Wayne in a Cadillac” despite the reality that he was pretty useless and a drunk. It is Country music pathos played out with pedal steel and your heart strings.

I could keep describing each song, as they are all as captivating. She co-wrote them all barring the two covers. Those illustrate her references with Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind” and “’Til I Can Make It On My Own” co-written and made popular by Tammy Wynette. On the latter she manages to bring that world weary yet resilient determination that the original had.

If you been waiting for the brilliant ladies of Country music to re-appear with gold then you’re patience has been rewarded. This would nestle comfortably alongside anything by Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack, Nanci Griffiths and the best of early Reba McEntire. Guess what’s at the top of my ‘end of year list’ at the moment!

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