Carrie Ann Carroll,
You Should Know
(independent, 2014)

Kathy Kallick,
Cut to the Chase
(Live Oak, 2014)

Some years ago alternative country -- or "" as it was often called -- seemed to be a genre in the making. Instead, the anodyne and meaningless designation "Americana" rose to prominence in its place, and would be no more. Too bad. Recordings like Carrie Ann Carroll's You Should Know and Kathy Kallick's Cut to the Chase represent what a grown-up country music might have sounded like if over the past two decades the minions of Music City hadn't opted for undiluted swill.

Kathy Kallick has been around for a while, releasing mostly bluegrass records out of her Bay Area base. Like her compatriot Laurie Lewis she is no hillbilly but an intellectually sophisticated artist who came of age in the folk revival. Cut to the Chase has bluegrass touches and even full-bodied 'grass at points, but it's not what you would call a "bluegrass album." It is mostly acoustic, but its influences include classic country, pop, folk, jazz-inflected vocals and genre-unspecific singer-songwriter turns (e.g., "Franco's Spain," "The Time Traveler's Wife"). Perhaps not coincidentally, these last (the two just-mentioned, plus the not-for-the-faint-of-heart title track), are co-written with England's Clive Gregson.

Otherwise, the songs are all Kallick's solo creations. Many give the impression of being autobiographical, almost audibly carrying the weight of memory. "Rustler's Girl" takes its inspiration, though not its melody, from old ballads in which lovers are separated and, usually seven years later, reunited. "Not As Lonesome As Me" might be characterized loosely as a hobo song, but one that takes a standard theme in unexpected directions.

Though a younger woman than Kallick, Carrie Ann Carroll displays a striking maturity on the excellent You Should Know, aided by some of Austin's best, among them the great electric guitarist Redd Volkaert. The musical setting is recognizably country, and modern in the best creative sense. Carroll's themes are not as free-ranging as Kallick's; they're focused almost exclusively on relationships. What makes the songs interesting, besides Carroll's exemplary vocals, is the nuance and complexity of the expressed emotions. A song can ricochet all over a landscape, and a sentence can shoot forth multiple, even contradictory feelings, united in conviction and intensity. Her words bespeak a literary intelligence, albeit one that wears its smartness easily.

One effect is an unexpected realism which cuts through the romantic cliches of country songwriting. In any event, no Nashville hack will ever conjure up something so layered -- or so aggressively titled -- as "You Know What's Really F*cked Up? (Is Not the Way to Break the News to a Girl Who Used to Love You)." If a Nashville act were to cover this song and perform it with the deadly perfection Carroll achieves, I'd have to consider apologizing for the sentiment expressed in the last sentence of the first paragraph above. Not being particularly insane, I won't hold my breath. If you're looking to hear what country music ought to be about in the second decade of the 21st century, though, you've got You Should Know awaiting your attention. You can thank me later.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 June 2014

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