Everywhere you turn in Nashville these days--on billboards, on radio, on country music TV--there seems to be some new photo-friendly female with a record out. Most aren't much more than would-be fashion models who can carry a tune.
At first glance, Chely Wright, Chalee Tennison and Julie Reeves would appear to be of this ilk. But what sets them apart is that these three grew up singing country music, and each of them places a premium on recording songs that have something to say.
Chely Wright: 'Single White Female'
Chely Wright, who performs today at the Bull Run Country Jamboree, isn't exactly a newcomer to Nashville's Music Row. But apart from grabbing the honors as best new female vocalist at the 1994 Academy of Country Music Awards, the Missouri-born singer has flown under the larger public's radar.
Wright's fortunes, however, have begun to change. "Single White Female," the Top-20-and-climbing single and title track from her new album for MCA, sounds like an early front-runner for country single of the year. Copping the loping signature riff from Steve Miller's "The Joker," the record is as unsinkable as Faith Hill's 1998 hit "This Kiss."
But perhaps the best thing about "Single White Female" is its subject matter. Instead of invoking an idealized rural past, the song concerns the kind of thing that country's increasingly cosmopolitan audience can relate to--placing a personal ad. "Yeah, I'm a little nervous, I'm not sure if/ I shoulda put it in writing/ It might have been a little reckless, a little desperate/ But I think I did the right thing," Wright sings, pondering her decision to turn to the classifieds.
Nothing else on the album is as undeniable as "Single White Female." But taken as a whole, the album, galvanized as it is by punchy pop-country production, hangs together as a sustained--and fairly compelling--song cycle about one woman's search for intimacy. "I need to know that someone cares/ That I drink my coffee black/ That I sing when I drive/ That I sleep with the TV on," sings Wright on the willowy "Unknown."
Not every track on the album has Wright yearning for a man: "She Went Out for Cigarettes" and "The Fire" portray moments in which she seems better off without one. "He's dating a lawyer with a gentle nature/ Says she ain't nothin' like me/ And there's fire and there's water and all I can offer/ Is a temperament he don't need," Wright snarls on the latter.
If Wright's alternately gritty and sultry alto occasionally suggests Patty Loveless or Lorrie Morgan, her true antecedents go back a generation to the heroines of heartbreak of the 1960s. "The Love That We Lost" is a steel-and-string-drenched slice of country-soul worthy of Tammy Wynette; the Southern gospel strains of "Why Do I Still Want You" recall early Dolly Parton; and on several songs, Wright summons the heart-in-throat conviction of Connie Smith.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)
Julie Reeves: 'It's About Time'
Much as Wright's album does, Julie Reeves's debut, "It's About Time" (Virgin), plumbs the meaning of romance and commitment. But where Wright is searching and contemplative, Reeves, who is five years her junior, is mostly vim and vigor.
"What I Need," "All or Nothing" and the title track all find the 24-year-old eastern Kentucky native spelling out what she wants in a relationship. On the last of these, in what may be a first for country music, Reeves half-sings and half-raps her terms to her lover. The song's lurching rhythms and serpentine rock guitar wouldn't sound out of place sandwiched between hits by Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain on Adult Contemporary radio.
Reeves displays Shania-like panache--and crossover appeal--throughout her debut, but perhaps nowhere so much as on "Party Down." "In the same breath you told me it was over/ You said in time/ I'd find somebody new/ And as you walk away I'm sure you wonder/ What will I do/ My first night without you," Reeves sings in a dulcet mountain soprano. Then, answering her own question, she blurts, "Party down/ Celebrate/ Paint the town/ Stay out late," as a burst of roadhouse rock helps her shove her narcissistic ex out the door.
As good as the up-tempo numbers here are--"Trouble Is a Woman" is hillbilly rock at its turbo-charged best--it's on the ballads, notably "What I Need" and the incandescent "If Heartaches Had Wings," that Reeves soars. Taking her cue from fellow Kentuckian Patty Loveless, Reeves fuses Appalachian grit with latter-day pop and rock influences to devastating emotional effect.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)
The back cover of Chalee Tennison's self-titled debut for Asylum Records claims that she sings "pure country songs," but don't believe the hype. Although Tennison's album has more twang, cut for cut, than the new CDs by Reeves and Wright, its production is still plenty pop. Not only that, the album has more than its share of the hard-rock guitar ("A Stolen Car") and soulless booming drums ("There's a War in Me") that Nashville producers can't seem to get enough of these days.
What is country here, though, is the catch in Tennison's gorgeous Texas-bred alto. And when the arrangements keep at least one foot in the honky-tonk, it's easy to see what the liner notes are getting at. "Just Because She Lives There" is a wrenching jukebox weeper, while "Sometime" and "Handful of Water" recall Reba at her feisty best (before she turned diva and stopped using her last name).
Even more country than Tennison's throbbing vocals, however, is her story. A thrice-divorced 30-year-old mother of three, Tennison (who pronounces her first name "Sha-lee") has certainly earned the right to sing "Someone Else's Turn to Cry."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8163.)
CAPTION: Chely Wright, above, and Julie Reeves: Placing a premium on songs that have something to say.