“Country music is trauma music, with more booze, drugs and murder than all other pop formats combined. More rubbed-raw emotions. More take-this-job-and-shove-it worker rage, too. For all its alleged reactionary spirit, country-and-western lyrics address the indignities of working life far more than any other pop format. The folk-singing hippies who demonized working white stiffs never copped to the fact that they stole their whole shtick from Woody Guthrie and the coal-mining bards. While the Alternative Nation meows about personal fashion angst, the Appalachian Nation still sings about unemployment.”
- Jim Goad in The Redneck Manifesto
Jim Goad’s Redneck Manifesto is now fifteen years old, but still likely the most shocking, polarizing book about pop culture you’ll read. It will insult you and assault your assumptions, and in exchange you won’t put it down. You might even walk away from the confrontation with — gasp! — an appreciation of country music. Long the lightning rod of elite disdain for working white culture, country music is today as divided as rap was during the East Coast/West Coast wars (though thankfully not as driven to sectarian violence). Hardly represented by, say, the 2013 CMT Awards (where crooner Kenny Rogers seems to have been the sole participant representing an older generation), the big tent of country music ought to include everything from traditionalists and revivalists to the biggest pop stars. It just doesn’t anymore.
Country is the most categorically-dismissed genre in the world of pop music. Trust us, we run a record store and see it all the time. Consider this representative exchange with one of the Twin Cities’ most prominent DJs: Seeing a tall stack of loose 45s on the counter he eagerly began to flip through them. A few inches into what we thought was an awesome collection of uncommon gems (including this Louvin Brothers classic we posted last month) he dismissed the whole pile. “All country?” Pretty much, we told him. “Then don’t waste the sleeves.”
All this said, enter Jillian Rae with one of the most satisfying, realized debut releases of the year. On Heartbeat the long-time second-fiddler sounds surprisingly like some of the stars celebrated during “Country Music’s Biggest Night of the Year,” singing through ten tales of heartbreak like she’d recorded them in Nashville — not at all what we expected when she first mentioned recording an album with her new band sometime around the beginning of this busy year. Already in 2013 Rae has lent her voice and violin to the Brian Just Band‘s second disc of lush, 60s-style baroque pop (the effervescent Enlightenment, reviewed here) as well as Corpse Reviver‘s first volume of 20s-era folk and blues covers (which we wrote about here). On that second disc, a favorite around here for in-store play, she belts out Buell Kazee’s 1928 heartbreaker, “Wagoner’s Lad,” with such force that it actually stops folks in their tracks. And just last week Rae was on stage at First Avenue, adding a stunning solo to the Blackberry Brandy Boys‘ cosmic country take on the Replacements’ “Aching to Be.”
There is, to borrow Jack Hawkins’ catchphrase from Bridge on the River Kwai, “always the unexpected.” And we’re happy for the unexpected surprise of Heartbeat‘s successful blend of contemporary country and classic rock. The disc hardly sounds like a debut, given its big and vibrant production (by Matthew DiRose) and Rae’s confidence throughout. Take a listen to “Heartbeat,” which launches the new disc in the high-energy spirit of that combination:
Further in, there’s tracks like “Chains” and “Don’t Want You Back,” which seems more likely to find a fit on K102′s playlist — nestled somewhere in between Taylor Swift’s “Red” and the latest Keith Urban/Marinda Lambert duet. We’re a little worried, though, that that suggestion is going to cause some of our regular readers to turn up their noses at Heartbeat and miss out on a great album.
Yep, as much as your average local music fan/record collector around here says they loath “Minnesota’s Country Station,” tons of people don’t agree. Tons of people love it! In fact, K102 has the fourth-largest market share in the Twin Cities, followed by another country station, BUZ’N 102.9 in fifth place.
Some people just don’t say much about it — Loretta Lynn, who wrote about the same feeling in her 1976 autobiography: “When I’d tell people I was into country music they’d get this look on their faces. People were sort of ashamed of country.” Rae’s bandmate in Corpse Reviver, Mikkel Beckmen, had about the same to say in this interview describing people’s attitudes towards traditional roots music around the time Harry Smith’s Anthology was released twenty-five years earlier. “It was music people weren’t ashamed of,” explains Beckmen, when talking about the folk and country 78s collecting in Smith’s influential collection.
Heartbeat seems sure to overcome people’s bias — its first singles have already been heard around town on Cities 97 and the Current, and eventually folks will discover “Helpless,” the last track on the album which sounds more like the forgotten rockers on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers (“You Wreck Me,” “Honey Bee”) than anything on the country stations — It’s nice to hear high-energy closer on an album, something not so common these days –and this is a disc that hardly goes out like a lamb! Guitarist Eric Martin co-wrote “Helpless” with Rae (along with another rockin’ track, “Don’t Want You Back”) but they are not the only moments where he gives the album a little bit of rock and roll.
“Don’t Want You Back”
There’s really nothing in Heartbeat that hints at Goad’s Manifesto, or any of the socio-economic baggage that comes along with contextualizing country music — maybe it’s not fair but we’ve been meaning to defend the Taylor Swifts or Marinda Lamberts for a while, even if their music doesn’t sell very well on LP. It makes people happy and some of it’s really good. Besides, we spend a lot of our time over-intellectualizing the records we listen to because that’s what you do in a record store. That and make “top five” lists. Heartbeat should make some local lists, we think — especially if we’re singling out the top female singers in the Cities.
Rae’s songs are simple, straight-forward heartbreak stories — the bread & butter of country music. Sometimes the sadness or bitterness in her lyrics is even masked by the big production and her even bigger voice. It’s all a balancing act –”Its funny how something so simple can make or break how you feel,” she sings in one track. “When you’re hanging on the edge of disaster but only two steps from okay.” With one of the softest tracks, “Somebody,” Rae takes a mellower approach that reminds us of another favorite singer from up north, Brenda Weiler (who is sadly retired from music, but now happily running a yoga studio in Fargo). Weiler’s best work was characterized by an arresting vulnerability which sometimes made it feel like she was in the room with the listener. Even in the quietest moments, Rae is larger than life, what you’d expect from a star. The breakups are epic (we feel a little sorry for the hapless loser in “Don’t Want You Back”) and we’ll bet this first disc is just a step towards something much bigger.
Jillian Rae’s album release show for Heartbeat is Saturday night at the Cedar Cultural Center (details here). Gallupstar and the Honeydogs will play opening sets. Hope to see you there!