Sandy Carroll,
Last Southern Belle
(Catfood, 2015)

Dori Freeman,
Dori Freeman
(Free Dirt, 2016)

Dori Freeman's eponymous debut album comes burdened with hype and anticipation that it couldn't possibly live up to, perhaps explaining my lackluster response on first hearing it. Freeman has generated some degree of excitement, I understand, in Americana circles, a virtual guarantee that it would excite more than a degree of skepticism here. As far as I can tell, Americana is no more than a would-be genre seeking a definition. I nominate roots music without roots.

None of this, naturally, is Freeman's fault. The early buzz on her, however, was sufficient to draw the attention of Teddy Thompson, who is a more than usually gifted singer-songwriter with the mixed professional blessing of being the son of Richard and Linda, whose shadows are long. Happily if unsurprisingly, he does an impeccable, sure-handed job producing Dori Freeman, which consists of original country and country-pop. In short, nothing here to shake the world, nor does it need to. All you need for a successful project of this kind are some solidly melodic songs, and this one has them. They're written and sung by a young woman who knows what she wants to do and does it satisfyingly.

As with nearly all country music, the songs, all but one concerned with romantic relations, lay no claim to radically inventive conception. As an impressive vocalist, though, Freeman has a way of spinning lyrics that sometimes affords them markedly more weight than they would have if one simply spoke or read them. At least two of the cuts immediately leaped out to worm themselves into my ear, the trad-country "Go on Lovin'" -- even with a supremely unpromising title, it delivers the goods -- and the closer, "Still a Child," a chillingly adult love song.

Oddly, the one song that does not address conventional relationship matters, namely "Ain't Nobody," takes off unabashedly from Tennessee Ernie Ford's cover of Merle Travis's "Sixteen Tons," a hugely popular hit in 1955. (I wonder how many of Freeman's fans and contemporaries have ever heard it. Not many, I'd wager.) Travis introduced the song -- an earlier version of was allegedly written by Kentucky musician/radio personality George Davis -- on his destined-to-be influential Folk Songs of the Hills album in 1947. Unlike Travis's, Ford's arrangement is more night club than coal mine.

Freeman resides in Galax, Virginia, a town long known, through its celebrated fiddlers' convention and surrounding population of old-time folk artists, as an epicenter of Appalachian music. You wouldn't discern as much from this recording, which could have emanated from just about anywhere. Still, it's a worthy effort, offering promise of even better to come.

Sandy Carroll has been around rather longer than Dori Freeman. The two have a Southern background in common; Carroll was born in West Tennessee. Carroll's music, however, draws on a broader range of rooted modern musical styles -- rock, blues, r&b, country, gospel -- and addresses subject matter that as often as not goes beyond boy-girl hand-wringing.

Last Southern Belle is a semi-autobiographical view of Carroll's life, beginning, she writes, as a "'Southern Belle' in training" when she was too small to understand what her family had in mind for her. As it happened, Carroll's musical talents took her in other directions, geographical and attitudinal, away from Southern provincialism, and she would discard the region's reactionary politics and irrational prejudices (not wholly confined to the South, of course) without ever losing her affection for Dixie's enduring virtues. She eventually returned to her native state, where she now lives with her husband, also producer, Jim Gaines.

So the album is a thoughtful, nicely balanced survey of Southern life, largely her own but sometimes incorporating the history, as in the affecting folkish Civil War ballad "Boys of Shiloh." No fewer than three of the album's 11 songs -- all originals, most of them co-writes -- boast "Southern" in their titles. At moments, I couldn't help reflecting that if Englishman Richard Thompson, whom I count among my favorite songwriters, were Southern and female, he might sound something like this. Thompson certainly could have conceived, for example, the line "Truth hurts more than the lies," from the dark, Thompson-esque meditation "Driving Toward the Sun." One only occasionally encounters the genre designation "folk-rock" these days, but Carroll's effort to incorporate tradition, musical and other, into her rock-based approach sometimes calls it to mind.

In the early weeks of a New Year, I habitually take note of the first great song in a particular genre that comes my way. No contest: so far 2016's choice for gospel is the incandescent "Water Run Deep." And the afore-mentioned "Driving Toward the Sun" tops the road-songs division. As with her previous recordings Carroll, seasoned pro that she is, shows she knows how to write a song, and how to sing one, too.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 January 2016

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