The title of this piece is horrifically sexist, but country music really did refer to ladies who appeared onstage as girl singers. Never mind the latter-day reputations of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris as artists in the Joni Mitchell mould; not that Joni was ever a ‘girl singer’.
We’ve already had a memoir from Brandi Carlile and there’s one on the way from Margo Price, plus a podcast looking at every aspect of Dolly, one of the key country music performers of the commercial era along with Hank Williams, Ray Charles and Garth Brooks.
Amanda Shires – Take It Like A Man
Amanda Shires, the fiddle player whose husband Jason Isbell might also be bracketed with the figures in that last paragraph, formed The Highwomen along with Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.
Natalie helps Amanda on this album’s closing ballad Everything Has Its Time, a song which encapsulates the mood of the collection. A reminiscin’ song which seems to have moonlight in its chords, Amanda sings how ‘it’s easier to stay inside, you’re too tired to go anywhere’ when you have hit that comfortable point in a relationship.
The ten self-written songs are produced by, and sometimes written with, Lawrence Rothman. Lawrence is a non-binary Jewish songwriter from St Louis who also put out an album of poetry last year, and I’ll be getting into the past material soon.
How’s this for a writers room on Don’t Be Alarmed, a song in the little-used 12/8 time signature: Amanda and husband Jason, plus Liz Rose (who helped Taylor Swift back when she needed to write country songs) and Ruston Kelly, a songwriter who will forever be Kacey Musgraves’ first husband. It’s a very adult song that will hit home with plenty of listeners. It might even be Amanda’s career song, her very own Cover Me Up and a nice little earner for the family business (the album is released on the indie label ATO).
The big impact track is the one which leads off the album, Hawk For The Dove. ‘You can call me serious trouble’, Amanda sings over reverbed guitars and tom-tom drums, asking to ‘feel something again’. Her vocal reminds me of Martha Wainwright or Morgan Wade (who is hot right now), while her narration is in the tradition of women who want to be loved and possessed. It takes two-and-a-half minutes for Amanda’s pentatonic fiddle part to come in, which is suitably impassioned.
The title track, one for Now That’s What I Call Thinkpiece Country, follows it. Light organ and a steady beat ground a track in which Amanda’s narrator throws her voice like Dolores from the Cranberries or (more likely) Dolly Parton, to match the ‘quivering’ she undergoes. There is a fine instrumental passage where guitar and violin battle. Someone will snap this up for a TV soundtrack for one of those dramas.
Empty Cups has a twinkling piano opening which is at odds with the extreme vulnerability and the heartbreak in the lyric: ‘the sound of silence rings in every room…a rainbow of tears’ and a well-placed swear word. It reminds me of some of the tunes by UK writer Hannah White (who will incidentally be out with Ricky Ross in the autumn), as does the gloomy Fault Lines, although the piano part makes me think of Schubert’s Winterreise.
Here He Comes perks things up a bit, as if Amanda knows she has started the album with a lot of doom, and Bad Behavior has a charming vocal hook to reflect the lyric (‘so what if I do?’). For all that, Stupid Love (‘can I say that I caught you?’) has a retro Muscle Shoals feel (which is code for horn stabs and organ lines) and a fine structure. Lonely At Night is a proper song in the vein of Carole King or Dan Tashian, with an expansive arrangement and melody.
It says much about me that I was more attracted to the second, happier side of the album than the morose first. Which will you prefer?
Nicolle Galyon – firstborn
Nicolle Galyon also has a husband, songwriter Rodney Clawson, as well as a stepson, Brad, in the industry. Along with Natalie Hemby, Nicolle is a mother hen figure in town who has worked with young pups like Kelsea Ballerini and RaeLynn. She got her start with It Ain’t Pretty, a remarkable ballad made famous by Lady A, and she won awards for Tequila, the heartbreak song by Dan + Shay, and Automatic, the Miranda Lambert reminiscin’ song she wrote with Natalie.
Nicolle set up the Big Loud imprint Songs & Daughters in 2019, using her experience to shift further into the back rooms of Music City, guiding the careers of Tiera Kennedy and Hailey Whitters. She does perform herself, as I saw at the Thursday night C2C opening performance in 2018. Her fragile voice and mellow piano chords stuck out against the power of Luke Combs, Kip Moore, Brett James and even Natalie, who performed a wonderful version of the Labrinth track Jealous which I will never forget.
Until summer 2022, we’ve not had a Nicolle Galyon album but, moved to do so by imaginary grandkids googling her, firstborn (whose title and tracks are expressed in the lower case but I’ll use sentence case) is that debut album, released on her birthday. So what will those future grandkids learn of Grandma Nicolle, who had songs on something called the radio back in the days of President Trump who they learned about at school?
She is a Winner, according to the album’s opening track that could only have been written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. Winner was the town in South Dakota that she was born in, though she lost her dad at three but ‘what good is being a winner if all you’re doing’s keeping score?’ The second verse talks about body issues and the horrors of Music Row, which will still be prevalent in 50 years’ time. Her ‘greatest victory’ today is being a mum.
Five Year Plan was written by Nicolle and Rodney. It namechecks Ford, their son who may give birth to those grandchildren! Husband adds harmonies to a chorus that tells the story of their marriage: the line ‘being a singer got knocked off the top of my list’ emphasises that matrimony cannot run alongside a career. ’Thirty seconds into my 15 minutes’ is a very good line. This will be a writers’ round song.
Nicolle also wrote a pair of songs which have been recorded by others and which she includes on her own set. Consequences was written with Amy Wadge and Camila Cabello, who recorded it for her debut solo album in 2018 and gave voice to how ‘loving you had consequences’. The advice song Boy was written with Jon Nite and plucked off the shelf by Lee Brice. Rodney adds his harmonies again.
History may show there are fewer better songwriters of the era than Hillary Lindsey, so Nicolle’s grandkids will hear some of grandma’s work with auntie Hillary. Boy Crazy, also written with Kelsea Ballerini, is a gender examination on how only girls are called names even if boys are unmarried or carrying more weight around their middle. The song has been arranged with synthetic strings and harmonies which possibly come from both co-writers.
Contemporary issues surface on Self Care, a song which will appeal to young girls unsure about their appearance (‘I think I like me’ is a t-shirt slogan). Younger Woman is a song about age being nothing but a number and how growing up is about maturity, while Tendencies ups the tempo in a song about Nicolle’s foibles, namechecking her daughter Charlie who may well inherit some of her mum’s particularities.
Pop writer Sasha Sloan was in the room for three songs. Sunflower addresses Nicolle’s younger self and her insecurities. It opens with images of unworn high heels ‘cos I’ve been taller than the boys since I was a sophomore’. In lyric and production it sounds like Kacey or Kelsea in its sparse instrumentation. I spotted that word ‘superpower’ in the chorus, which turns someone’s differences or perceived weaknesses into strengths. Disneyworld includes words like ‘self-sufficient’ and ‘common sense’ in a kind of love song to Rodney, who is ‘patient with my mum’, she says.
Death Bed was written with Sloan and the album’s producer Jimmy Robbins, who seems to have been listening to Billie Eilish and has created similar soundscapes. Never mind her grandchildren, whose parents are ‘one hell of a legacy’; a listener in 2022 will find lots of comfort in this album. I hope Nicolle can bring the kids over to the UK soon to perform the album, perhaps opening for Kelsea or Miranda.