The Subtext Screams in Sarah Petite’s High-Voltage Hard Country Songs
Sara Petite‘s case new album Circus Comes to Town was fueled by the loss of her partner and best friend Johnny Kuhlken. Faced with a tragedy like that, some of us retreat from the world, others go off on a long bender, which is what Petite did. Eddie Gore, who produced Petite’s previous album Doghouse Rose, wanted to get her back in the studio fast to help her get back on track, and possibly because he saw that even as she was bouncing off walls, a lot of that energy was being channelled into her creative process. The result is a ferocious, electric hard country album. The band is sensationally good. Ex-Johnny Cash bassist Dave ‘Ro’ Rorick and drummer Rick Lonow – who played on June Carter’s last two albums – team up with Bob Britt on guitars and Ethan Ballinger on acoustic guitar and mandolin. As usual Petite’s songwriting is badass – most of the tracks here are high-voltage honkytonk tunes, and even the slower stuff steers clear of being maudlin.
The first track blasts along with a rich Fender Twin guitar tone and Petite’s sharp, Loretta Lynn-inspired rage and bite. And it’s funny – ” I can still smell her perfume, and I can’t stand the smell of her perfume,” Petite declares. Movin’ On gets a brisk electrified bluegrass shuffle in the same vein as Demolition String Band, right down to the snarling Britt guitar solo. Over a twangy midtempo groove, the aphoristic Barbwire chronicles a woman who’s too damaged to let anybody close to her. The album’s title track sounds like a shuffling rewrite of Mr. Bojangles, but Petite’s this-close-to-completely-falling-apart lyrics pack a wallop: “You laugh until you start to choke, and you’re choking on this lipstick and rouge, looky here, I’ve come down with the blues,” she intones, and it only gets more surreal and memorable from there.
Drinkin’ to Remember is actually not about drinking to remember but finding solace in “another bloody mary Monday morning, as dark as it can get.” She follows that with The Master, a blistering, sardonic Texas shuffle about a “lying cheating sonofagun” who still manages to play all the women. The funniest song here is If Momma Ain’t Happy, which takes an old fashioned country patter song into the hip-hop era. “The tighter the noose, the higher you sing,” the hen tells the rooster.
Forever Blue has a Townes Van Zandt feel, with its spacious, resonant guitar and pedal steel, a story of loss that works on many levels. The loudest song here is Scarlet Letter, a blast of electric bluegrass about how hard it is to “get away from them wagging tongues” – it sounds like Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons transported to Nashville. The most straight-up rock number, and arguably best song here is Someday I’m Gonna Fly, its defiance building to one of the most goreously anthemic choruses you’ll hear this year. The album ends with its lone death-obsessed track, Ashes, but even there it’s more resolute than resigned: “Live life to its fullest, if not for you then for me,” Petite’s doomed narrator tells the listener. Yikes! Somebody get this girl a drink and get her back in the studio.