I grew up on Country music. And I hated it. In fact, I despised it. The twang. The steel guitar. The nasally voices drawn out in raspy growls and grumbles that always seemed to be singing about things and places that church on Sunday said were bad. My step father loved the honky tonk bars and riding bulls at the local pick up rodeo on the weekends, and my mother had a thing for cowboys. Eventually though, when they settled down to family and domestic life, the collection of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Chrystal Gayle, Tammy Wynette, and Willie Nelson records just seemed like a source of confusion.
When I did start to gravitate to music on my own, it was darker. I was a child in the 80s with a streak of rebellion, a head full of literature, and a music collection that showed it. I watched a French Joy Division documentary recently that made this connection: the world of punk was all about saying ‘f you’, and the world of post-punk was all about realizing ‘I’m f-ed’. This is very true, and the music that was resonating with me were these heady, UK bands that seemed to have read similar books and had these huge ideas about the world. Nothing in what I was gravitating to musically was taking me any nearer to country music.
Perhaps, and in fact, probably, the juxtaposition of these two ideas led me, wrongly I might add, to think that country music was simple. It was just a Lifetime movie with a twang. It didn’t say anything about the larger issues. It was not political, nor academic enough. Then, life happened. And kept happening. And somewhere along the line, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order and Nine Inch Nails started to become more and more mixed with Dead Hot Workshop, The Refreshments, Gin Blossoms, and Pistoleros, and the link between my home of Arizona, punk attitudes, and country music started to become more and more pronounced. I mean seriously, can anybody say there was no ‘fuck you’ in Johnny Cash?
Nowadays, years after the raised middle fingers, the skateboards, the crazy hair, and the eye liner – music is much more holistic to me. It is not about genre, really, at all. It is about poetry, it is about emotion, and it is about instrumentation. I have learned that any human being can write a poem about anything. And that human being can put that poem to a melody that tries to mimic the emotion from where it came from. Perhaps the eventual song will be fueled by rage, perhaps heartbreak, perhaps love. Perhaps one of the voices that communicates that song will be an acoustic guitar, or an electric one, or a steel one, a viola, or a saxophone. But all of them… relay story.
And I am a storyteller. And this idea brings me full circle to a characteristic of all music, but one perhaps that is highlighted well by the country genre. Storytelling. When I think back to some of my favorite songs in my youth, songs I still know by heart, a lot of Depeche Mode comes out. Blasphemous Rumors, Sacred, Strangelove, New Dress, And Then. Very cerebral stuff. Lots of abstract ideas. Not a whole lot of Lifetime material. But I also think of my parents listening to Marty Robbins El Paso, and that song still plays like a sepia toned film in my head. Lifetime or not.
This focus on storytelling, and weaving together a human tale with the emotion of music and harmony, is the characteristic that comes to mind immediately upon listening to Laura Hamlin‘s new album Love You Most. A member of the ensemble group Scattered Melodies, in this solo effort Laura’s set of 11 songs that seem to chronicle the scenes of coming of age and leaving home. Nostalgia and innocence, love’s gained and lost, roads of discovery taken, opportunities missed, questions that one is left asking during the journey. She does this by making a country album, but it brings in a wide range of Americana influences. At times, the songs are much more Bluegrass infused, akin to a band like Nickel Creek, other times, they feel most like classic country, more similar to Loretta Lynn, and then finally others are stripped down singer/songwriter songs, almost in the same vein as a James Taylor or a Joni Mitchell. This fusion marks Love You Most as an Americana album for me, more similar to Ivan Denis‘ Slow Burn, which I reviewed a while back than say Jim Bachmann & the Day Drinkers new album, Arizona Burrito, which I will be reviewing next.
The first four tracks of the album seem to focus on the reminiscing part of the story. Lehi weaves a scene of simple small towns, green hills, and blue skies as seen over the handlebars of a child’s bicycle. But that idyllic memory is haunted by the feeling of Spinning Wheels and Love that somehow only feels right when it isn’t. Love You Most is the most classic sounding country song on the record, and it is also probably my favorite. It has wonderfully poignant lyrics, and a great bridge. Illuminate Me is a list of questions, sung simply and beautifully, that paint that scene of a youth coming to a close with the dawning of so many unknowns.
The middle of the record feels like a journey to me. We are going from a place that left too many questions to be answered by staying still. Paradise Awaits is a hopeful, almost ragtime song (this and Real Man feel the most like Scattered Melodies tunes to me, and incidentally, the least country-ish) about hitting the road and feeling that sensation of resurrected freedom. Down the Road, the second single released from the album, similar to Spinning Wheels this is another softer song fused with bluegrass elements. These two songs bring to mind the comparison to Nickle Creek. (Which, incidentally, is not at all bad company!) Waiting, with its beautiful use of Banjo and tempo switches is my second favorite song on the record, with its more hopeful spin on waiting on fate, whereas Into the Blue is the darker side of that waiting, feeling anxious and too drawn from all sides to feel confident with who we are or where we have chosen to travel.
The final three songs feel like arrival. There is nothing about being in a new place, or living a new set of dreams that feels finished. It is not ‘the end’. It means you have the perspective of seeing the twists in the road behind you, but you still feel energized by the River Wild rushing into your future. It means that you have come far enough to be able to see and reflect on opportunities that perhaps you let pass you by in All Reason Denied. And then, in the end, when the bright line of that journey, as is the case with so many of our human journeys, is the longings and learnings of love, perhaps the best most perfect way to close out that album is to turn up the ragtime tempo once again, and set those goals back in order with Real Man. Which, in this writer’s humble opinion is the third stand out track on this record.
Musically, Laura Hamlin called on a town full of absolutely fabulous musicians to help her deliver the depth of sound and sonic stories on Love You Most. Not only does she have Josh Montag and Jack Howell bringing in the rhythm section, (and Mandolin, Lap Steel, and Banjo – Jack!!!) but you have guest appearances from the incomparable Danny Torgesen, co-Scattered Melodies songbird Haley Green, Jack Saba on fiddle, Chaz Fertal on Sax, and Matt Ventre bringing in some additional steel guitar. Love You Most is a delightful album, with several really strong singles, and a depth of Life. Nobody ever said Lifetime had to be Hallmark. In fact, in the really real world… it never is.
Laura Hamlin is releasing Love You Most TONIGHT at Rooster’s Country in Mesa with the support of The Salt River String Band and The Cole Trains. Rooster’s is located at 3731 E Main Street Mesa, AZ 85205 and the party starts at 6 o clock!
Keep the Greasy Side Down, Amigos…. while you get your boot scootin’ boogie on!