Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kenny Foster and Pillbox Patti

Kenny Foster – Somewhere In Middle America

I imagine there will be ecstatic reviews across the board for this album, which I’ve known about for a year. Kenny had finished it in 2021 and wanted to play it to key UK reviewers and, also, me. I didn’t take any notes about the album, some of which was played live by Kenny in a room under a pub, but I was swept away by the concept, which is clear in the title.

Kenny has since become a father and wisely took a sabbatical before unleashing the album on to the rest of the world. He’s a regular visitor to the UK, playing songwriter showcases as well as festivals like Millport and Country2Country. His face is as well-known as his love of Tottenham Hotspur, while many fans fell in love with his album Deep Cuts way back in 2017. Not many fans also shared a train journey back from Birmingham to London with Kenny and his wife Sara, but I couldn’t possibly say who that fan was.

Somewhere In Middle America has had support from Bob Harris, making Kenny the latest in a long line of Bob-approved acts like Jason Isbell, Charlie Worsham and Sam Outlaw. Those three acts combine to form the sonic template for the album, with a mix of wide-open anthems and the sort of inner monologues common on Deep Cuts.

The kid from Joplin, Missouri looks back on his younger and more vulnerable days. They called him and his friends the Poor Kids, the ‘got-it-from-the-goodwill-store kids’ with ‘a mattress for a trampoline’. The production on that track and throughout the LP is radio-ready. The voice is direct and pure even before the sublime middle eight, perhaps the musical moment of the year, arrives after the second chorus.

A man who writes hundreds of songs a year – including one called Safe Word which didn’t make the tracklist!! – Kenny has picked 13 of his finest here on a country theme. They include Said To Somebody, which has a heck of a kicker (‘things you wish you said to somebody’) which should prompt the listener to call a loved one. Find The Others is a jubilant campfire singalong of universal brotherhood which may turn into his career song and a longterm set closer.

There’s a lot of affection for, one presumes, Kenny’s own dad on closing track The Same, which complements Copy Paste Repeat. Both are sombre, humane summations of small-town life – he sings ‘graduate, find love, get married’ on the latter – and Kenny, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter, has spent his career in opposition to it. Indeed, Country Heart could be about Kenny himself, with the song’s avatar a ‘city girl…a wildflower child’ who hears crickets in the chorus. Smartly, we get crickets chirruping in the song’s fadeout.

You can’t escape your upbringing in Middle America, because you learn about life there. Driveway, with its huge drums and percussive guitar part, is another reminiscin’ song with a magnificent chorus. Farmer is a welcome ode to rural life as Kenny realises he has inherited some of the traits of men who till the land; after all, ‘most of the work the folks don’t see’ can be applied to songwriting, fatherhood or being a good husband.

In another arrangement, For What It’s Worth could be gospel but comes out as a country boogie from a ‘worn-out sole on some borrowed boots’. The uptempo love song Dreams Change and the dobro-dusted Good For Growing Up (which is a riff on legendary song The House That Built Me) remind me of the sort of tunes that Charlie Worsham writes about the passage of time and the importance of a strong romantic partner and a front porch to sit and think.

Balancing that pair is The One, where Kenny realises that he was only a detour as his former belle treated him as a warm-up act for her eventual suitor. ‘I was almost but not quite’ is the most sombre lyric on the album. For a true country music album full of wisdom even beyond Kenny’s advanced years, right up until the final Day In The Life-type chord, head to Somewhere in Middle America.

As a postscript, here is one of the finest ‘About’ pages on any artist website.

Pillbox Patti – Florida

No sooner had she popped up on Lindeville, the new project helmed by Ashley McBryde, than Nicolette Hayford’s alter ego gets eight songs of her own, collected on Florida. Written with the same guys from that writers’ retreat – Ashley, Aaron Raitiere, Benjy Davis, Connie Harrington, Brandy Clark and others – it also comes out on Monument Records, the imprint run by Shane McAnally.

I’ll refer to Patti as Nicolette, which is a cool name for a singer too. With a voice that has the same lingering ennui as those of Kassi Ashton or Natalie Hemby, she begins with Good People, about people with ‘bad habits…even Jesus had his reasons for turning water into wine!’ That’s not the most shocking line on the record.

Valentine’s Day is a three-minute movie with sparse accompaniment, foregrounding Nicolette’s story of what seems to be a teenage abortion, ‘lying on a cold steel table’ with people protesting outside the building. Suwanee is a happier tune, with an opening tableau of Stepford Wives-type figures with ‘big ass earrings’ and bombastic boasting from Nicolette about being ‘free bird free in an endless summer’.

Eat Pray Drugs must have been a title one of the many A-Listers had carried around with them for a while. The song that resulted is a credo of small-town life and those three pastimes. Young and Stupid is a reminiscin’ song where Nicolette compares her current life to when ‘all I needed was a Pontiac’. Her delivery reminds me of that of Taylor Swift, which would make Pillbox Patti a decent opening act for Taylor.

Hookin Up is the album’s centrepiece and seems to be influenced by weird indie-rock acts like St Vincent and Panda Bear. Its chaotic final minute contains a brass instrument, perhaps a trombone, and assorted vocal contributions from the gang. It’s kooky and charming.

The smouldering driving song Candy Cigarettes (‘who’s a big girl now?’ she asks herself) is immaculately produced by Park Chisholm who – fun fact! – is mates with Kevin Costner. Album closer 25 MPH Town is driven by a one-note piano motif which sets another lyric about teenage love: ‘Never grow up even if you get out’ must chime with listeners who came from small towns and moved to a city like Nashville.

As with Hardy, who provided both Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen with hits before becoming a noted solo act, Nicolette has stepped out of the brackets in the credits and into her own artistic journey. I hope she gets over to the UK soon.

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