Glenna Bell,
The Road Less Traveled
(independent, 2008)

This is not your ordinary country record. The Road Less Traveled is not quite your ordinary anything. It's not that Glenna Bell has invented a new genre of music or anything of the sort, it's just that she's found a startling original way of making the familiar -- heart songs and life-as-lived narratives, long the stuff of the country tradition -- sound almost as if she'd invented them.

There is a genre called country-folk, probably as good a characterization as any of what's going on here. Typically, country-folk singers are folk artists who are comfortable around country. Bell, on the other hand, is a country singer who knows something about folk. The folk in these (metaphorical) grooves is the peculiarly skeletal production, not at all like what's called "traditional country," which is very much a band sound with prominent fiddle or steel (or both) and electric lead guitar. Bell's acoustic guitar, sometimes with minimal accompaniment, is prominent on just about all of the cuts. Here and there a small ensemble joins her but never comports itself quite predictably.

Then there are Bell's clipped, brittle vocals, likely the first thing you'll notice -- as I certainly did -- on hearing this disc. Hers is one distinctive voice. It is nearly always effective, but never more so than on the shatteringly personal "The Texas Aggies Win Again," so raw and wounded that it may make you gasp. It's, well, incredible, everything a song can aspire to be. Her aching ballad of lost dreams, "The East Side," appears twice, once in a duet with Texas honkytonk hero Johnny Bush, the second time with John Evans. Somehow, each version finds its own personality, even if subtly so.

Most of the songs evoke life's dark side, but a couple of tongue-in-cheek tunes also appear. One is her "How I Found Out I'm Insane," a diagnosis pointing to her decision to marry and to become a mother. "Jackson," by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber (now, there's an unlikely pairing), is the 1967 Johnny Cash/June Carter mega-hit, possibly the album's one misfire. The Cash/Carter version is perfect beyond any other artist's capacity to touch it; Carter's singing is so deliriously raunchy that it feels over the top -- Carter had underrated comedic talents -- but not so much as to fail to generate sweat on the forehead of any heterosexual male within listening range. Whatever her other talents, Bell is just not up to that level -- or perhaps that kind -- of performance. On the other hand, the more somber (and often-covered) "Family Bible," written by Willie Nelson whatever else the composer credits assert, does it just right.

A resident of Houston, Bell is not in fact a honkytonk girl but a writing teacher with a graduate degree in English. Clearly, she knows how to put together an exceptionally fine song, and she also knows how to deliver it with grace, power and humor, all of it direct, unadorned and blunt. The emotions are laid as bare as emotions can be laid in a song. The Road Less Traveled is one highway no discerning musical wayfarer will mind passing down.

review by
Jerome Clark

3 May 2008

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