Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘Faulkner County’

The short version: While ‘Faulkner County’ started as a four-part series of EPs released throughout 2019, it comes together as a cohesive, breathtakingly beautiful collection of solid country gold.

  • Favorite tracks: “Broken,” “Tonight I Don’t Give A Damn,” “Till It’s Gone,” “The Queen Of Marina Del Rey,” “Hell Comin’ Down”
  • Least favorite track: “A Man With 18 Wheels”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: I’ve said this before, but, in relation to artists working through the modern age of music marketing and promotion, the Internet age provides its advantages and disadvantages.

On one hand, finding specific information on our favorite songs, such as writing credits, producer credits and other nuggets of information, is harder to come by, enough to where to it takes a social media movement from the Recording Academy to give credit to those working behind the scenes. On the other hand, newer promotional channels help music fans find those people anyway, especially songwriters who’ve got their own discography to explore. Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna aren’t exactly unknown names, after all.

In this writer’s opinion, if there’s one more songwriter who should be considered among the very best of the modern age, it’s Erin Enderlin, who, in addition to writing songs for Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack, also wrote one of the best songs on Reba McEntire’s latest album, Stronger Than The Truth, “The Bar’s Getting Lower.” While 2017’s Whiskeytown Crier was an impressive effort on its own, Enderlin looked to capitalize on that momentum, releasing the material on her newest album, Faulkner Country, through a four-part series of EPs, with heavy-hitters like Alison Krauss, Cody Jinks and Dillon Carmichael joining her for background vocals, and Jamey Johnson as part of the producing team.

And if that isn’t enough to at least satiate one’s interest, not only is Faulkner County Enderlin’s most expansive project to date, the re-sequencing of the tracks (in comparison to their placements on the respective EPs) creates an entirely new story for the album to follow. In other words, it’s a grand project that’ll be in contention for the best of 2019.

Considering Faulkner County is reportedly Enderlin’s love letter to her country music influences, it may not necessarily surprise fans, but it sounds excellent. If there’s one criticism for Faulkner County, though, it’s that, with a lack of variety in tempo, the album can start to run together, especially with the addition of some cover songs toward the back half. But when that fiddle kicks in right away on “I Can Be Your Whiskey” for a long, drawn-out moment in the spotlight, only to reappear as the song ends, it leads to an album that’s rich with atmosphere and texture. Most of these tracks are playing to familiar classic country tropes, but Enderlin and her team also know when to lean into the theatricality of some of the stories here. The lounge piano in “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” sounds like the lonesome defeat of one giving into their vices; meanwhile, when the tones are more soulful on “The Queen Of Marina Del Rey,” the shift in tone is more cohesive than one might expect.

Granted, it’s hard not to hear the Reba McEntire influence in that regard, especially when analyzing Enderlin as a vocalist. Of course, Enderlin has charisma, but it’s her range and vocal texture that’s most stunning on Faulkner County, bringing a distinct presence to her tone and writing that lets her take on many styles and make them her own – the lonely, desperate songs of loss, the one moment of pure optimism in “Run Baby Run,” where Enderlin doesn’t have to try much to convince the audience to root for her release from past troubles, and the story songs told from afar, like on “Hometown Jersey.” Plus, with her flair for narrative, she makes the lonelier moments hit that much harder. Of course, relying on theatrical melodrama can backfire, but Enderlin understands the emotive power of it and uses it to her advantage. It’s all understated, for sure, but the spark is still very much there.

And when it comes to lyrics and themes, Faulkner County is certainly playing into familiar territory for country music, but it’s the little details in between that set the project apart. Sure, Enderlin leans into her vices like most hard-hitting country performers would, but one always gets the sense on this album that Enderlin somewhat revels in it, if only because, when one reaches their lowest point, things can only start looking up after awhile. It’s bleak, but again, with Enderlin’s vocal flair, all the more devastating.

Still, it’s telling just how much Enderlin casts herself as the ragged, throwaway character who one shouldn’t root for, from throwing all caution to the wind in “Tonight I Don’t Give A Damn” to outright insisting that her lover continue using her as the “other woman” on “Use Me Again,” if only because she’s too broken to know what love is anyway.

On that note, though, of all the tracks brought over from Whiskeytown Crier, “Broken” is still the most cutting song Enderlin may have cut yet, showing how abuse and neglect from parents can warp children by turning into the same broken creatures someday, and in case you’re wondering, yes, it all comes back around in this song, sadly. That’s an important note, too, because while Enderlin does revel in the darkness at times, like looking on with fondness at someone who thought they were on top of the world on “Queen Of Marina Del Rey” and revealing, instead, a more sordid picture, the consequences are there. It’s just that she’s been through these ordeals before, enough to where the cycle doesn’t much bother her on “Hell Comin’ Down.”

Now, while some may mistake that as a streak of nihilism, when the subtext still aims to cast sympathy, it’s more evidence of Enderlin’s conviction, instead. Again, the drama is there, almost too much on a track like “Hometown Jersey,” a ‘90s-inspired track where the hook takes on a different meaning as the story progresses, though it does skirt the line of being overly cheesy and cloying. And of all the Lee Ann Womack tracks to cover, “A Man With 18 Wheels” is simply an odd fit for this project. For an album as downbeat as this one, though, it’s telling how much crunch and muscle the guitars have on that track, and while it’s an inessential cut, lyrically, it’s also a moment that catches one off guard.

And when it comes down to it, it’s the little details on Faulkner Country that really make it special: the muted, liquid steel and acoustic guitar combination of “Till It’s Gone,” another great addition from Whiskeytown Crier; the intensity to her performance on “Run Baby Run” that suggests she and her partner really do need to run away, because she’s done living in that slow-rolling misery from before; and the minor touches of “Broken” to suggest that, even if one can, sadly, tell where that song is about to go, it’s nonetheless gripping.

At 14 tracks, though, while some of the covers in the back half provide fine performances and a needed respite from the heaviness of that first half, it does feel a bit more jumbled than it should. Still, Faulkner County is the kind of album that reminds me, personally, why I love pure country music – not traditional, neotraditional, outlaw or otherwise, but honest country music that’s both modern and incredibly real, drenched in heartbreaks and alcohol; it walks that line between good and evil, is earnest but painfully self-aware, and is rough-edged while also vulnerable, too. In short, if Enderlin’s name doesn’t enter the same conversations as the aforementioned Stapleton and McKenna (as well as others), it’s a borderline crime.

(Strong 8/10)

Buy or stream the album!

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