May 6, 2020
Feb 7, 2020
By Megan Bledsoe
As a rule, Texas country music comes in two flavors. There’s the thoughtful, introspective, singer/songwriter material being perfected by artists like Jason Eady and Jamie Lin Wilson, full of substance and heart and soaked in fiddle and steel. Then there’s the stuff with less lyrical substance, but no less heart and even more fiddle, from artists like Aaron Watson and Randall King. It’s not too often that a Texas country artist succeeds at both, but this is precisely what we get from James Steinle on his new album, What I Came Here For.
The lyrical standout of this album is undoubtedly the title track, as the narrator muses on what his purpose might be in life, or if he even has one. This song does a nice job of conveying a universal sentiment that we’ve certainly all felt at one time while also painting specific pictures of this mans life instead of broad sentiments that wouldn’t have the same impact.
The songwriting also stands out on “In the Garden,” as this song takes the clever approach of being told from a dead man’s point of view. This man is waiting impatiently for his soul to be set free and lamenting the fact that the world has forgotten him and others, never paying heed, as he notes, to "what’s lying down beneath.” This is such a well-crafted song, and it’s also helped by Steinle’s worn and weathered vocal tones, as are most of these tracks. The ability to write and choose songs to best showcase one’s particular vocal delivery is an underappreciated art, and James Steinle does this excellently well.
To balance out the deep songwriting, there’s some lighter, and frankly, just plain fun, material here. “Back out on the Road” isn’t going to blow anyone away lyrically, but it’s just so infectious, with the rollicking, carefree piano and joyful harmonies. And if the bluesy vibes of “Low & Slow” don’t put a smile on your face, you’ve become completely immune to good music.
That bluesy vibe is what separates Steinle from his Texas country and Red Dirt contemporaries; where Texas generally goes for a hybrid of country and rock, Steinle opts for blending country and blues in a way that really makes this record stand out in the scene. Blues and country have always been intertwined, but these days, we mostly see country blending with pop or rock, and the influence of the blues on country music has largely been lost or ignored. Songs like the aforementioned “Low & Slow” and “Black & White Blues” intrigue me and make me wish more artists would experiment with this type of sound. “Blue Collar Martyr,” a song about a factory worker losing hope in the wake of being replaced by machines, uses the bluesy licks, together with Steinle’s weather-beaten tones to create one of the coolest moments here musically; if you only listen to one track from the album, please make it this one.
Any fan of traditional country and the blues should certainly check this out. The style is such a great blend of the two disciplines. If you’re looking for something hard-hitting lyrically, try the title track. If you’re looking for something to brighten up your day, crank up “Low and Slow.” If you’re just looking for good music, check out the whole great record.
What I Came Here For is available today everywhere.
Nov 12, 2019
Jun 12, 2019
Apr 26, 2019
Jan 11, 2019
Jan 7, 2019
Dec 11, 2018
Oct 24, 2018
Oct 12, 2018
Sep 27, 2018
Sep 25, 2018
Aug 25, 2018
Jun 18, 2018
by Scott Colvin
Over the years, I’ve been to a handful of Sunday matinee shows at Annapolis’ Ram’s Head on Stage and one thing I’ve learned is that many touring artists are not used to being “on” for a 1 pm performance. Don’t get me wrong, Cracker, Rhett Miller, Robyn Hitchcock, and Lydia Loveless nailed their respective performances, but all joked in their own ways about not being used to playing so early in the day (kudos to Loveless at her show opening for Cracker as she was battling the flu).
That said, country vet Kelly Willis and her terrific band didn’t seem phased at all during their stellar early afternoon performance on Sunday June 10 where fans were more likely imbibing on bloodies and screwdrivers instead of the venue’s fine selection of their own microbrews (I was definitely in the screwdriver mood on this particular day). Yeah…
Willis, touring for her wildly regarded Back Being Blue (her first solo album in 11 years) made the most of her 90 minutes on stage focusing primarily on songs from the new platter and 1999’s What I Deserve, all the while peppering in songs from her nearly 30 years in music.
The title track from her new album, “Back Being Blue” kicked off the show. It was a perfect start to highlight her aching vocals that has clearly charmed FTM Grand Poohbah Trailer, who has already publicly stated it’s one of his favorite songs of 2018.
Willis immediately threw out a “bone” to older fans with an Easy track, the honky-tonkin’ rumbler “If I Left You” which featured killer guitar licks from guitarist/pedal steel guru Geoff Queen who spent the night seamlessly switching between electric guitar and pedal steel while adding subtle harmonies. Queen’s harmonies would come into play a few songs later during “What The Heart Doesn’t Know,” a song Willis admitted was her attempt at writing a 50s “country girl duo” song which she not only accomplished but added about her harmonist “Geoff does a good job being my back-up girl” which got a good laugh from the crowd.
Throughout her career Willis has had the good fortune to write with or perform songs from some of the finest writers in country music. She featured many in her set this afternoon including the title track to What I Deserve (Gary Louris of the Jayhawks), “Wrapped,” and “Not Forgotten You” by her husband Bruce Robison, “Sweet Sundown” by Damon Bramblett, “Find Another Fool” by Marcia Ball, and “Get Real” by John Leventhal.
One of the funnier moments of the performance was during the introduction of the country rocker/revenge song “Take It All Out On You” which was written by her first husband Mas Palermo and current husband Bruce Robison (who at the time of the song’s inception was on “a break” with Kelly at the time). She’s told the story many times over the years while touring with Robison and it still gets a good laugh as she explains that it’s the “song that qualifies me to be a country singer.”
Willis closed out her set with the last song off her new album, “Don’t Step Away,” which had boots a-tappin’…well her boots for sure…as most in the crowd were sporting flip-flops or sandals on a balmy spring day in our pleasant drinking town with a sailing problem.
Willis and her band triumphantly returned to the stage moments later to play What I Deserve’s “Cradle of Love” and the old-school rocker “Whatever The Wind Blows” by the legendary Marshall Crenshaw.
Kelly Willis is one of country music’s finest artists who sadly gets overlooked. She’s not glossy, stylish, or pandering to the masses. She’s the epitome of class with a sweet temperament that wows audiences with every achingly beautiful, twangy, bittersweet vocal. Her songs can elate as much as they can rip your heart out. And you should openly and freely let them do both when experiencing her music, whether it be in a live setting or listening to her records at home, because they are simply good for one’s soul.
Editor's note: You'll never get an unbiased review outta this guy. :)