There’s a whole lot of dollar in country music, enough to fill a million-gallon Stetson, possibly twice over. Stateside there’s even a special country version of the grim spectacle that is ‘American Idol’ in ‘Nashville Star’, and that’s not the only entanglement the genre has with reality TV. ‘Gone Country’ is a show that follows a by now desperately overfamiliar arc in which celebs long out of their heyday attempt to become something they were, with a few exceptions, never meant to be: in this case, a country star. The first season saw the likes of Wilson Phillips singer turned gastric bypass poster girl Carnie Wilson, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider and, gulp!, Bobby Brown lose out to Julio Iglesias Jr., and this year’s ongoing instalment features ‘Fame’/‘Flashdance’ singer Irene Cara, actress Sean Young (‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’, ‘Blade Runner’), ex-Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach and Jermaine Jackson, among others.
Gruesome stuff, for sure, but it hasn’t stopped 2008 from officially becoming the year of the country makeover. Jewel’s effort was passable, Jessica Simpson’s laughable and Snoop Dogg’s just plain weird. Fortunately, Vermont folkie Anaïs Mitchell’s country crossover is more Nashville Skyline or Almost Blue than the slick crapsville sludge we’ve seen from her peers, skirting around the edge of the genre with a lightness of touch and gorgeous vintage production. Teaming up with good friend and occasional touring partner Rachel Ries, Mitchell proves her mettle as a versatile writer and as a harmoniser par excellence. With commercial suicide not really a concern for these two relatively under-the-radar performers, they were free to concentrate on nailing the organic sounds and appeal of their onstage chemistry, letting the sentiment of the music speak for itself.
Anyone familiar with Mitchell’s previous releases should easily spot which of the songs sprung from her pen and which from Ries’s. There’s two apiece, with a fifth song comprising a cover of Louis Ledford’s ‘When You Fall’, and all feature some of the loveliest duetting since Emmylou took up with Gram. Mostly it’s neither country nor not-country, and too humble by far to wear the alt-country tag. Banjo and pedal steel figure prominently but never to excess, even on the livelier numbers. As Ries puts it, “These [songs] are a bit more sly, not quite as straightforward as most country.”
Ries’s songs are affecting character studies of loss, sung in a sweet, plaintive voice that’s her Sarah Harmer to Mitchell’s Stacey Earle. ‘Grace The Day’ could easily be Sarah Harmer, it sounds so akin to much of her I’m A Mountain, while ‘MGD’ is full of the kind of thoughtful ruminations that seem to resonate the most while staring at the bottom of a pint glass in a saloon bar full of drunks and hard-luck tales (MGD = Miller Genuine Draft). The Mitchell-penned ‘O My Star!’ and ‘Come September’, in contrast, are more celebratory while sticking to the “high lonesome” feel of the EP as a whole. ‘Come September’ is positively upbeat musically with a jaunty acoustic guitar melody that works brilliantly with Mitchell’s characteristically errant and gleeful phrasing to create an effortlessly natural sounding standout number.
The vocal interplay between the two is just lovely throughout and there’s no misguided attempt to reinvent the genre. As Mitchell says of the EP, “It’s a snapshot of our friendship — a chance to make music together and to honour some of our friends while we’re at it.” And while it’s the Ledford cover that gives the EP its truest country moment, it’s nice to see these two talented friends expanding their palette. Make no mistake, Mitchell and Ries are the most acceptable face yet of the current country makeover trend, blowing the pretenders right out of Bayou.
[Righteous Babe; September 2, 2008]