Jenny Tolman: Proving songs about small towns don’t have to suck since 2019.
And, in all seriousness, 2019 is when I first came across Tolman’s hilariously entertaining and unique songwriting, more specifically through her debut album in There Goes the Neighborhood. And since 2022 has been monumentally slow in dolling out new and exciting releases, I was looking forward to revisiting her self-made “Jennyville” once again in Married in a Honky Tonk.
Now, I shouldn’t be as conflicted on this release as I am, ultimately. On one hand, it’s highly enjoyable and delivers more of the same brand of witty fictional small-town anecdotes presented with their fair bit of theatricality by way of Pageant Material-era Kacey Musgraves. And on my first few listens I was convinced that some of the kinks of Tolman’s debut had been ironed out here. But, on the other hand, there is something a bit more conventional and kitschy about this revisit to Jennyville, and I do think personal mileage will vary on it.
On a positive note, the neotraditional country production is as textured and well-rounded as before, with plenty of great pedal steel and fiddle work augmenting the work, as well as a warm acoustical foundation on tracks like “Same Train as You” and “Afraid,” thanks to Dave Brainard’s touch. And tracks that cut a bit looser like “I Know Some Cowboys” and the title track reminded me in a good way of some of the more upbeat, sillier cuts from Pam Tillis or Patty Loveless from back in the day. Plus, Tolman is the kind of performer who exudes charisma and a playful charm that can play well to her strengths, whether it’s playing coy in the wild ride of the title track, delivering a clever kiss-off to a peeping neighbor in “Borrowing Sugar,” or just tempering something really sweet in “Same Train As You,” even if I also don’t think she nails the playful swagger of the “9 to 5”-esque “Working Woman’s Blues.”
Of course, the real star of the show is the writing, and though certain songs feel self-contained to fit within the mold of the fictional town Tolman has established for her characters, it’s never to the point where each part can’t stand on its own. On one hand, you’re not necessarily going to get a unified concept album, and perhaps there’s a missed opportunity there. But you are going to get a cohesive effort defined by small town drama that approaches real subjects, even if the more theatrical flair and kitschy framing sometimes dilutes the album’s greater impact and storytelling. And I think this album’s insistence to go a little more in on that silliness compared to There Goes the Neighborhood is where I’m left a bit colder on it, especially when how well this type of humor will land is inherently subjective and not easily defined. For me … well, the forced references to social media on “World’s A Small Town” didn’t really come together for me, even if I like that it updates an old-fashioned outlook for the modern era. But I seem to like the pun-heavy cheating song of “Home to Roost” more than other writers thus far. And though it boasts a fine sentiment, I’m not wild about how “Sweetest Revenge” or “Watering the Weeds” are carried more by their platitudes than their storytelling, which is also why “Same Train As You” feels like the better, more lived-in song compared to “Afraid.”
But between “Borrowing Sugar,” the title track, and “Same Train As You,” there are definitely standout moments that feel a bit more fleshed-out. And this is, at the end of the day, a highly entertaining listen. But I’m not sure it comes together quite as well as that debut, even if Jennyville is still one heck of a place to visit.
- Favorite tracks: “Borrowing Sugar,” “Married in a Honky Tonk,” “Same Train As You,” “Home to Roost”
- Least favorite track: “Watering the Weeds”