i've been in a renewed country phase, obviously, partly under the inspiration of the amazing nashville. so i've been on a hopeful quest for younger female neo-neo-trad singers. i've had some misses, so to speak, but also some hits. one stunning change: girl singers now have names like 'ashton' and 'ashley.' i'll talk about three artists, all more or less at sophomore stage.
first: ashton shepherd, who works in a strongly traditionalist vein. she's compared here and there to patty loveless, which is apt because of the vocal range, low for the female side, and the style. but i say she needs some seasoning. start with dynamics: she hits hard and in vibrato on almost every note of every song. it sounds sort of intense moment by moment but the effect over several songs is incessant and numbing, though listening to almost any one song is impressive, because she can really, really sing. also a lot of the material is good. alright ash, start by thinking about three different levels: an intimate thing just above a whisper, an almost conversational tone with some ornament for verses, and then a volcanic intensity for fairly rare occasions. listen to those tammy wynette records over and over.
i have to admit that one of the reasons i cultivated my love of country music was precisely because the people in my immediate vicinity hated and despised it. i'm like that. so despite the fact that i used to be a country-music columnist etc, i don't know how much of my audience, if any, is into such things, but it wouldn't surprise me if i am alienating whomever i have left. at any rate, the two singers i really want to recommend to your attention if you like such things are ashley monroe and sunny sweeney.
ashley got all dolled up in lingerie and stuff for pistol annies, which could have been worse. but before that she was a songwriter and did a fine album called satisfied for columbia in 2007. she got the shaft in a way that is typical of the era of major labels and that shows why it is rational to want them to die: columbia refused to release the album after the first couple of singles didn't do so well, and then dumped it in finally years later. that would piss you off, especially if this was your initial portfolio as a songwriter; i talked to many artists over the years with similar experiences. suddenly from the initial flush and flattery of signing you go into years-long anger and despair where you think you might be waitressing again or whatever. anyway, ashley's been listening to keith whitley as much as anyone, though she has a girlish soprano. and then plus she translates country themes in an interesting way by gender (as on "a dollar short and two weeks late" from like a rose (2013)); the writing is strong, i say.
[no one is dolly. but there's no reason blake shelton shouldn't be at least porter.]
sunny sweeney is no doubt the most limited singer in this trio, but also she's my favorite. really quite the tex-ass drawl. her first album, heartbreaker's hall of fame (2007), is about as good as it's liable to get in this vein: incredibly catchy songs on traditional themes, arrangements heavy on fiddles and pedal-steel. but also she doesn't sound quite like anyone else (from the last wave, for example, the fine lee ann womack comes uncomfortably close to being a dolly tribute act). sunny is rowdy without the artifice of the big rowdy n-ville girls, but can also do something delicate and lovely, such as "lavender blue." she obviously tried to compromise with the charts on the second album, concrete (2011), and actually had quite the hit with 'from a table away,' which is good.
one thing that's obvious from a lot of this material is the weight of the history that all these artists self-consciously take up: all the references to the history of country music in the lyrics, but also in the instrumentation and vocal styles; all these records are dense with allusions. in a way this makes it obvious that this history is alive and well, especially considering the excellence of some of these songs. but also it begins to feel like a bit of a re-enactment or a costume drama, and if this is a neo-traditional phase, it is probably the fourth revival. on the other hand, i choose these particular artists because i think they transcend that as well and find genuine emotion inside the tradition as well as meaning there.