Natalie Hemby – Puxico

The discussion of which music is authentic and which isn’t is one we at Archaic Triad actually feel is  relevant. There is a genuine difference between the underground stuff – the knife-and-lighter wielding black metallers, the drug dealer rapper, the mentally ill industrial noise smith, the deeply believing Christian rock vocalist – and many mainstream artists; boardroom inventions, American Idol products, opportunistic once-greats who have lost their way. The lines are there, though forever blurred. It could well be argued that The Beatles were really as much of a record label construct as any modern boy band (though you’d have to be a little bit creative in your argument). Some artists begin in the basement, but end up on the big festivals scene mere clownish actors, far removed from the vision and conviction of their youth.

Perhaps nowhere are these lines more difficult to explore than in country music. The number of clichéd and vapid country bands rival the stars in the night sky about which they sing. While class conceit and the disgust with the rust belt and southern working class common among a certain type of culture elite may be one factor that has an impact on how country is viewed (especially in Europe), mass production and low quality is certainly at least as much a reason. This reviewer has spoken with people whose experience with country music has been so negative, that they are actually surprised to learn that “Johnny Cash is usually seen as country.” These are people to whom David Allen Coe, Willie Nelson or even Toby Keith (for whom Natalie Hemby, incidentally, has written songs) are unknown. Granted, these are conversations held outside of the United States, but no doubt similar mechanisms are at work in the homeland of country music too.

Natalie Hemby is no David Allen Coe, but nor can she be accused of being vapid or commercial in her approach. On Puxico, she glorifies her inheritance and her roots in a series of deeply personal songs about rural America (she was actually born and raised in Nashville, with the Puxico of the album being her “second home”). The album is released in tandem with a documentary of the same name, chronicling the little town of Puxico and the life of her 87 year old grandfather.

The first track, “Time Honored Tradition”, is perhaps the countriest country song you’ll ever hear, with the cowboy/train beat and gospel influences, but as the album goes on, many other strains become ever more clear. Natalie Hemby has declared herself a huge Sheryl Crow fan (“her records were like Bibles” to her growing up – Alanis Morisette, on the other hand, was just “OK”), and it shows in her vocals, and perhaps also in the way she structures her music.

Unhappy crossovers have long been a feature of unimpressive country music, while good ones are the motor that keeps the genre fresh. Hemby pulls off most of her sojourns over the borders between country, rock and pop music very well. The country sound never disappears entirely in the influences, rather they marry them in a very happy fashion (cf. “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me”).

Closing track “Return” is probably this reviewer’s favorite, as it closes out the album with a beautiful story of homecoming and home. A perfect end to a great music experience.

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