Kayla Ray - Yesterday & Me
I doubt you’ll care but there is a battle raging amongst Country music fans and professionals about the state of the industry. Whilst, in my opinion, it has always been a broad church of a genre with novelty records as well as more serious songs then there is fury that something known as Country Pop has eaten it.
Country Pop is formulaic and what US radio stations want to play. The formula? Exclusively male artists, limited lyrical topics - drinking beer, driving a pick up, tight black dresses and quite a lot of Jesus. Layered into this confection is a predictable Rock sound with a dance rhythm, similarly placed electric guitar solos, repeatable choruses and any other tedium that the same session players can take to their next studio date. Even more infuriating to the supposed ‘Keepers of the Flame’ is that these automatons are infusing Country with Rap. I agree this is deplorable and Florida Georgia Line should be imprisoned for a long time or at least until they show some remorse.
Me? Frankly there is enough Country music that is wearily called ‘authentic’ to still go around. Yes, there is every chance that Sara Evans, Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack’s revenue stream is being hit. The kids just want to dance and luxuriate in a lightweight tuneful chorus rather than explore the dark recesses of 9/11 or divorce.
Amongst all this ire then if you just look at releases from many artists on small record labels there is enough magic to go around. And so it is with the above gem. This album came by an email from a PR company and I’ve loved it ever since. Lyrical themes are family rifts, infidelity, substance misuse and the proverbial lessons of life.
Ray has been playing for some years despite still being a millennial and graduating to being in front of a microphone by band management (Jason Eady). This diminutive tour de force has a Texan drawl you could cut with a knife made more special by that achy breaky fragility that heaps on the emotion. “Camel Blues” refers to the cigarettes rather than the quadruped. She ruefully sets the scene as regards a moody and independent man:
He smokes his Camel’s blue,
Drinks his Label Black
Three fingers whiskey,
The man ain’t coming back.
We discover that she’s apparently to blame for the schism despite “it taking two hard working fools to build a wall, but it takes two fools still in love to make it fall”. In the meanwhile the pedal steel produces magic complemented by some other deft electric guitar over a shuffling rhythm. What a start!
“Once A Week Cheaters” is a Keith Whitley composition she duets on with Colton Hawkins. The pedal steel provides the colour whilst the acoustic rhythm section plays a slow waltz. A familiar Country theme of two illicit lovers making a rendezvous to dance. Drenched with sadness, frustration and loss weigh this down with raw emotion you can barely guess at.
So that’s the serious bit. “Pills” she says is about the advance of “big pharma, vulture capitalism and the perpetuation of addiction”. With a lively fiddle playing the dance melody she talks of the proliferation of these tablets available from all sorts of credible medical practitioners including more unusual sources including “my very favorite electrician buddy from the east side of the river back home in Waco who we call Sparky!”
Above I distanced myself from the debate about authentic Country music, however, I love it. Texas seems to be the epicentre of all that’s traditional Country at the moment. Ray has released an album that might have been accumulating accolades in the 1960s. This was when Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn were playing the victim with such lasting profundity. “I’m Still A Woman” is a slower ballad that dares to talk about her sexuality and needs despite her secondary role in a man’s world. Again Joshua Barnard’s guitar picks the correct note every time as Ray’s voice captivates at the front of the mix.
Every track is a true joy and Jason Eady’s production could not be more sympathetic or understanding of this talent. My favourite Country album of 2018.