Country Jukebox Jury: Caitlyn Smith and Tenille Townes

Caitlyn Smith – High & Low

Exactly a year after High, Caitlyn Smith releases Low, which she has not just coupled with that 2022 release but instead has interspersed the new tracks among the old ones. Rather than review the new songs and treat it as an EP, instead I’ll run the rule over the whole project which supplements six tracks to the initial seven.

Caitlyn is a songwriter’s songwriter and a mum of two whom I saw in the film It All Begins with a Song writing with Bob DePiero in a candlelit writer’s room. Ed Sheeran was a fan of her album Starfire. Garth Brooks recorded her song Tacoma. Meghan Trainor is a friend and collaborator.

So is Miley Cyrus, with whom Caitlyn wrote High which I saw her perform at Country2Country 2022, bouncing around and strumming an acoustic guitar on the Big Entrance Stage. She also played Nothing Against You (as in ‘hold nothing against you but me’) and Maybe In Another Life, the former a jazzy number with a fine chorus and blissful middle eight, the latter full of imagery including a ‘purple moon’.

Lately is a moving-on song led by a piano accompaniment and featuring a showstopping chorus and a namecheck for Beethoven. I Think Of You is another break-up song where the narrator is assailed by thoughts of a lost love, where a string section underlines the pathos of the lyric (‘you threw your shit across the room’). It was written with Ruston Kelly so it would be fair to assume that he has put some of his own life in a song. (His new album, recorded in LA, came out the week before Caitlyn’s and is dominated by double-tracked melancholic vocals.)

Those songs are the lows, and there are plenty of highs. I Don’t Like The World Without You, with its lush diminished chords, has a meditative, tenderly fingerpicked arrangement, while the sex jam Good As Us has a gorgeous groove over which Caitlyn sings of fidelity. I still love the irresistible pop song Downtown Baby, which crams Kristofferson, Dylan and John Wayne into the opening stanza and ‘K-pop karaoke’ in the second one before opening up with a fine chorus.

Caitlyn’s music comes out on the Monument Records imprint and the man in charge of the label, Shane McAnally, and songwriter’s songwriter Lori McKenna were in the room for Dreamin’s Free, which puts a new spin on not having much money. ‘I can be your muse if you wanna be van Gogh’ is a great line, as you would expect from three crafters of modern popular song. Catch the quadruple rhyme of bees/knees/weeds/trees and marvel.

Bob DePiero was in the room for The Great Pretender, which rounds off this 13-song set as a definite low, ‘crying in a bathroom stall’ and putting on a brave face. Writing Songs and Raising Babies was written with Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey, who never have to worry about money because they wrote Amazed, a US Hot 100 chart-topper and perennial wedding song. Caitlyn sings of the ‘beautiful chaos’ of her ‘beautiful life’, with some massed harmonies on the chorus and another melody that flutters and soars.

American states provide inspiration for, and the titles of, two tracks. On the warm song to her home state, Mississippi (‘do you ever miss me?’), she is joined by a male voice which may belong to co-writer Troy Verges. She uses the far-flung nature of Alaska as a metaphor for a lover whose ‘heart’s in another place’. The poetic imagery Caitlyn deploys – ‘leaky air mattress’, ‘shake you like an earthquake’ – is enough reason for her status as a master crafter of country songwriting.

If this were a thinkpiece it would discuss how country music isn’t particularly compatible with motherhood. Look at how Maren Morris seems to be pivoting to activism but also look at Carrie Underwood’s Vegas residency. It’s something I’d ask Caitlyn if I ever spoke to her, even as her music speaks for itself and has the support of Shane McAnally, himself a parent of two boys.

Tenille Townes – Train Track Worktapes

While we’re on the subject of terrific songwriter/performers, Tenille Townes put out a five-track set of songs which were written when she was part of the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train event. This has been going since the late 1990s: the train stops at various food banks across the South of Canada and performers put on a half-hour show for people who bring food for the needy. In 2022, over C$1m was raised and 121,000 lbs of food was collected.

Lindsay Ell, Mackenzie Porter and Tenille herself all performed, with Tenille doing two weeks of shows during December, forsaking Nashville’s quiet Christmas period to do some humanitarian work.

The buoyant Home To Me has an appealing shuffle and a narrator who apologises for being ‘a travelling soul’. Coming Together starts by praising ‘map dots…where everybody knows the neighbours’ and the big ‘blanket’ of a sky. Tenille philosophically wonders if the stars only fall so that ‘we’d open our eyes’ and look at them. Both songs are charming, warm and empathetic.

On Wheels, her voice hits the very top of her range as she despairs that she can’t stop what is inevitable: ‘I thought I’d want a place to land but I don’t think I’m made for that…so I gotta run.’ Pieces of My Heart is Tenille’s life in a song, as she says that being on the road is ‘in my veins, it’s in my bones’. The organic production makes it sound like a Norah Jones recording, with the double bass anchoring a great set of harmonies and a vocalised ‘woah’ passage in the middle.

She throws in a faithful cover of the modern standard Landslide for good measure, with the ambient noise of the train coming through on the recording. A must-listen!

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