Sierra Ferrell, Long Time Coming
If we’re being honest with ourselves, independent country – like its mainstream and Red Dirt counterparts – has a female problem, and here, I’m talking about the lack of an immediately recognizable female superstar one could say in the same breath as, say, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, or Jason Isbell. Morgan Wade seems like a promising candidate, but only time will tell. And while I hate framing conversations around meaningless statements like, “this act is going to be the next big thing, y’all!!!,” there has been a lot of buzz surrounding Sierra Ferrell’s aptly titled debut. For context, she initially drew attention for her old-time inflections, huge range and eclectic musical style that recalled a lot of old-fashioned jazz, blues, calypso, bluegrass, and country … and found a breakthrough through a little something more modern called YouTube.
Now, I’ve always said that I’m a bit of a tougher sell for these purposefully retro projects, if only because it feels like an indulgence in fetishism that overtakes actual discussions of quality. I enjoy Long Time Coming, but I will admit it’s another project from this year where I’ll have to distance myself from the rest of the independent country crowd going crazy over it. To be fair, the fact that there is a healthy balance of styles on display here means that the album largely feels like a reflection of Ferrell’s West Virginian roots, and that it doesn’t rely on old recording techniques either means this album doesn’t necessarily feel all that kitschy, either … but I don’t know. There’s something about this album that can make it feel more reliant on showmanship than actual depth or nuance in the compositions themselves. And for as much as Ferrell is a crystal-clear presence behind the microphone, I have to admit, I’m not getting a lot out of her as an emotive interpreter. A lot of these songs content-wise default to Ferrell being strung along by a significant other, and while that has its moments, it also means this album doesn’t blend together so much as just reflect a general lack of greater scope and ideas.
To be fair, these are mostly older tunes of hers that have been floating around for some time now pieced together for this debut, but for as fast-paced as this album can feel in the more bluegrass and calypso-inspired moments like the excellent “Far Away Across the Sea” or “Jeremiah,” I kind of wish it had more chances to breathe. The highlight is easily the closer, “Whispering Waltz,” which plays things much darker in the minor chord progressions and ethereal tones echoed in the mandolin work that find Ferrell caught by surprise when her lover speaks another person’s name in his sleep, confirming her confirmations that they’re cheating, and it’s the one moment that really showcases a deeper understanding of how to work around the song itself. Because, yes, there are moments that feel a bit underdeveloped in tone. The lazier trumpet rattling along “At the End of the Rainbow” feels like it’s downplaying Ferrell on the losing side of love, and having Billy Strings only on instrumental contributions on a track that could have benefited from his opposite perspective on “Bells of Every Chapel” just feels like a waste. I hate to go here – especially when I know this comment will make me come across as old-fashioned myself – but she’s best suited on the more country-inspired tracks that require more of a stronger lyrical premise and execution, and that suit her better as an interpreter and naturally draw out the hurt that much better, like “West Virginia Waltz,” “Give It Time,” “In Dreams,” and, again, “Whispering Waltz.” I definitely see the audience for this, and I want to be right there with them, but this isn’t quite connecting with me the way I want it to.
- Favorite tracks: “Whispering Waltz,” “In Dreams,” “West Virginia Waltz,” “Far Away Across the Sea,” “Give It Time”
- Least favorite track: “At the End of the Rainbow”
Parker McCollum, Gold Chain Cowboy
We’ve heard this story before – the one of the Texas-country darling who finds their way to Nashville only to record material that’s far beneath what they’re capable of before heading back down: the Pat Green or Jack Ingram legacy, if you will. Granted, we know how it ended for those two, but Parker McCollum seems determined to stick it out in Nashville, and while I do moderately enjoy his two independent projects, I wish I could say I even remotely liked what he’s done since signing with Universal Music Group. And with the buzz for this project seemingly not there – perhaps because of a terrible single choice in “To Be Loved By You” – I’m more curious as to what happens next.
Still, there’s a part of me that wants to praise Gold Chain Cowboy for what it doesn’t do. For one, it doesn’t like your average Nashville project these days. It’s a guitar-fueled country-rock project reliant on a mostly organic presentation that knows how to conjure up a great melodic groove on tracks like “Falling Apart,” and especially “Wait Outside.” But if I’m looking for what it does outside of that – or even that latter track – I don’t have much to work with. Part of it has to do with a lack of pure variety. A lot of these compositions feel undercooked and reliant on the basics or simply just lacking in greater mix depth, like the pretty low-key “Heart Like Mine” that’s just not hitting as hard as it should. Sure, we get some tasteful steel guitar on “Drinkin’” and some welcome harmonica on “The Rest of My Life,” but nothing that really elevates the tracks or feels anything more than fleeting attempts at something more. The hooks just aren’t landing as well as they should here outside of a few decent cuts, and the only track to try for something different is the closer, “Never Loved You At All,” which tries to go for a boozy, honky-tonk sound with the welcome saloon piano but feels unbelievably clunky and overdone in its execution and lacking in any real groove.
Granted, the singles are definitely the worst tracks here, if only because they’re unbelievably whiny, self-centered, and feature melodies that don’t work for McCollum’s nasal tone and limited range. He is definitely not an asset for this project, especially with the bad vocal production overtaking “Falling Apart.” And that’s the thing about the writing: it’s passable otherwise, but little more than that. “Drinkin’” is your predictable sad-sack country song that just feels too hung up on what used to be to evoke any sympathy, and “Heart Like Mine” is one of those tracks where you wonder why they broke up if they’re so perfect for each other. I just get nothing out of this project with every revisit, and while I do really like “Wait Outside” and even enjoy the darker subtext implicated in the burn out of “The Rest of My Life,” that’s about it. I’m not one to defend Texas artists as being automatically better than whoever is coming out of Nashville these days – that’s a tired and false philosophy, really – but McCollum is better than this.
- Favorite tracks: “Wait Outside,” “The Rest of My Life”
- Least favorite track: “To Be Loved By You”
Connie Smith, The Cry of the Heart
This is the right way to end this roundup – with a legend’s first release in over a decade. And with Connie Smith, the only crime is that she’s perhaps known a little too well for “Once a Day” while her other work gets overshadowed in comparison. For the most part, that golden voice hasn’t lost its conviction over the years; it’s just picked up a few rough edges that still lend themselves well to her impeccable tone, phrasing and power. If I’m being honest, The Cry of the Heart doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel, but that’s OK. It’s just good to have Smith back, and between the jumpier melody and bouncy pedal steel licks on “Look Out Heart” (courtesy of husband and producer Marty Stuart) and the galloping groove of “Three Sides,” this album definitely has a welcome, rollicking punch to it. With that said, it’s also an album made by a veteran meant to feel older, from the choice of numerous covers to song titles that evoke the cheesier simplicity of yesterday, like “Heart, We Did All We Could.”
And that’s fine, even if this is simply an album about heartbreak that doesn’t really differ much in tempo or approach and is decidedly for an older audience. “To Pieces” still has a fun hook to it recalling Patsy Cline’s famous standard, and it’s made even better in Smith’s hands, unlike Merle Haggard’s “Jesus, Take a Hold,” which ends the album on a weirder note of dated social commentary that’s always just felt like loose rambling anyway. Still, with great production, solid song choices old and new, and a lead singer to carry it all with aplomb, this is definitely worth the listen. And in a week that’s taken several legends from us both inside and outside the country music universe, we need to appreciate the ones still around and making music.
- Favorite tracks: “Three Sides,” “Look Out Heart,” “To Pieces”
- Least favorite track: “Jesus, Take a Hold”