Welcome to my overview of women in country music, with reviews ranging from folk and bluegrass to honkytonk, rockabilly and Nashville pop. This is the first page covering the letter "E."
Steve's little sister Stacey currently looms on the horizon as a big star in the acoustic folk scene. She's an endearing performer who's been pegged as having a more than slight vocal resemblance to Nanci Griffith, yet on her latest self-released record we find Earle moving steadily away from the Nanci-soundalike style of her previous album, into broader musical territory. Her voice still registers as chirpy, but with warmer and more confident phrasing. Likewise, her arrangements have expanded to include the sort of compelling pop-folk melodicism that lures listeners towards artists such as Slaid Cleaves and Dar Williams. Most importantly, Earle's a great songwriter, with a knack for a bouncy melody and a memorable chorus (particularly on the album's centerpiece, "Is It Enough?"). Like her well-known older brother, Stacey Earle's lyrics have an elusive, almost mystifying, quality -- along with a faint whiff of an autumn breeze on a back porch swing. Keep an eye on this gal.
A nice live set with Earle and her touring/life partner, guitarist Mark Stuart. Live, her likeness to Nanci Griffith becomes even more pronounced ("Thank yeww!") although her folkiness is also more to the fore. I guess I prefer her studio work, although these are fine, fragile, friendly folk performances. Fans will be pleased.
(Produced by Richard Marx, Robin Wiley & Keith Stegall)
Bland, generic, Britney Spears-ish pop, half-heartedly masquerading as Nashville 'mersh... The teenaged Edwards was apparently a protege of Lance Bass, of the pop band 'NSync, and this record shows how the apple doesn't fall far from the tree... Other than a little bit of tacked-on pedal steel, there isn't much that's "country" about this album... Nor is there much that's interesting. Edwards is a pretty weak singer -- she could do alright on one of those TV talent shows, but her clunky phrasing sinks her every time. Apparently the Nashville establishment agreed: despite the studio work of producers Keith Stegall, et al, this disc went nowhere on the charts. Good thing, too.
(Produced by Tony Brown & Jimmie Lee Sloas)
At the tender age of sixteen, Oklahoman Katrina Elam got her entry into Nashville as a published songwriter, and here on her full-length debut, the 22-year old wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs; pretty impressive for a newcomer. I can't say I care much for her vocals -- too much soul-ish swooping and sexy cooing -- but she sure does have the current Nashville rock-pop formula down pat, complete with the bombastic, swelling orchestrations and wave after wave of electric guitars... I'm not into it, but it has the feel of something over-the-top enough that it might just go over really, really big. I'm sure Elam will go places, soon enough.
Katrina Elam "Turn Me Up" (Universal South, 2007)
An inoffensive, but insubstantial mix of modern teen-pop and glossy contemporary country. Elliott doesn't have a great voice, and her penchant for untwangy, mid-tempo power ballads only serves to underline her shortcomings. The songs mostly seem like wordy, B-list material, with a few exceptions, such as Matraca Berg's "Some People Fall, Some People Fly," which has a strong thematic hook, and the bluesy title track, which allows Elliott to explore her superficial similarities to the young Tanya Tucker. Her mild snarl is undercut, though, by her nice-girl image, particularly on abstinence anthems such as her self-penned "You Wanna What?," which has the album's most vigorous guitar work, but is lyrically a little over-obvious and speaks to a limited audience. Overall, she strikes me as an artist who has potential, but still is pretty callow and too young to really bring much emotional resonance to her songs. Similarly, her phrasing needs time to grow, she seems pretty limited, and in particular she seems unable to transcend the confines of the stock country-pop arrangements that surround her. Here on her debut, Elliott doesn't even qualify as a second-stringer, but I'd still be interested to hear what she does a few years down the line...
Val Esway & El Mirage "Lovers, Losers, Liars" (Self-Released, 2005)
A charming self-produced 7-song EP from an SF Bay Area local has a strong whiff of Tarnation-style twang-meets-torch. A veteran of rock's Ramona The Pest and twang's Loretta Lynch band, singer-writer Esway scores a base hit (if not a homer) with the catchy opening track, "Someone I Used To Know," which has a nice, old-school country feel to it, and shows ever deeper roots on the sweet, Carter Family-flavored "Birds." This is amateur-hour, open-mic night stuff, and that's a big part of its earnest, open-hearted charm. If you like your twang to be locally grown, then you might want to check this gal out. (Available through www.staggeringsiren.com. )
Val Esway & El Mirage "Pretend To Believe" (Staggering Siren, 2007)
The SF Bay Area's indiebilly scene is well represented on this new album from songwriter Val Esway, formerly of the twangband Loretta Lynch... The disc opens with some thumping honkytonkers, "Whiskey Trail" and "Sweet Thing," and settles into a more introspective, poetic mode, on songs like "Birthday" and "Pretend To Believe," songs that bring melancholy folk divas like Linda Thompson, et al to mind alongside twangsters... With the exception of a Doc Watson tune at the end of the album, all the songs are Esway originals... Most of the lyrics tap into the sad side of the country tradition, but there's an underlying feeling of joy, doubtless the artist's own satisfaction from a job well done! (Available through Esway's own website, www.staggeringsiren.com)
Dale Evans & Roy Rogers "16 Great Songs Of The Old West" (Drive Archive, 1998)
Dale Evans & Roy Rogers "Say Yes To Tomorrow" (Homeland, 1995)
Dale Evans "Sweetheart Of The West" (Collector's Choice, 2003)
OK, sure, given her eventual huge success as a Nashville Top 40 artist, it might be a little bit of a stretch to call this album "alt.country..." Still, Sara Evans' traditionalist throwback sound was certainly unique for Nashville back when this album first came out .. Sure, there, have been neo-traditionalists up the wazoo in recent decades, but on this record, Evans struck a peculiarly rural note, particularly in her gruff vocals, which bear a remarkable resemblance to Melba Montgomery... What's cooler still is that a couple of the songs on here were actually co-written by Montgomery, so the likeness was no mere coincidence! From and alt-y point of view, later albums were a bit of a letdown, drifting into sappier, poppier terrain, but this disc was pretty swell, and Evans is certainly an artist to keep an eye on...
On the opening tracks, Evans is still keeping it real, but the success of the overblown title track hit single, with its lavish, bombastic arrangments, spelled out the future for Evans. This disc is a nice midway ground between her rootsier days and the soul-drenched leanings of Y2K's "Born To Fly." Some great songwriting is in evidence, and plenty of comparatively restrained musicianship backing her up.
This is where Evans really loses it, at least as far as the trad crowd goes. This disc -- which was a huge hit -- is packed with super-bombastic, overproduced neo-Nashville hokum... Evans (along with half of Nashville) went pop-soul koo-koo as the millennium turned. I guess this stuff sells, 'cause almost every song on here got peeled off as a single over the next couple of years, but it's really not Evans at her best. She's just so good when she sings real country ballads that it's disheartening to hear her lose all expressiveness and emotion as she strains to become one of those wailing, torturous, all-but-twangless, Celine Dion-wannabee, rock'n'popsters. It may make money, but it's not good music. Oh, well.
Another overly-lavish, rock/pop tinged outing, featuring lofty lyrics, synthy, orchestral arrangements and wild, swooping, soul-ish vocals -- perhaps not as Celine Dion wannabee as Shania Twain or Faith Hill's latest, but still pretty disappointing. The title track is stuffed with psycho-babbly Oprahspeak, about "no boundaries" and the like. It's all a bit much for me, but not overly dissimilar to her last album, which was also pretty florid and popped-out. Still, it seems like Evans is straining past her stylistic strengths, and would be better off just keeping things simple. Can't these country artists just play country anymore?
Sara Evans "Real Fine Place" (RCA, 2005)
Hillbilly Fillies - Letter "F"
Hick Music Index
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