Shelley King Brings Her Southern Gospel, Soul and Country Fire to Manhattan
Shelley King is a big deal in Texas. The Arkansas-born, Austin-based bandleader has a sizzling new album, Building a Fire – streaming at Spotify – and a free show tonight at 9 PM at Hill Country. If they give her any amperage in the PA, there won’t be a tourist there who can drown her out. King’s music is retro in the best way possible, drawing on oldtime gospel, C&W and soul, and the band on the album is killer. A couple of Subdudes do much of the heavy lifting: John Magnie on accordion and organ and Steve Amedee on drums, with Marvin Dykhuis on guitars, dobro and mandolin, Sarah Brown on bass and cameos from fellow Austinites Warren Hood, Cindy Cashdollar and Carolyn Wonderland. King’s soulful midrange vocals are down-to-earth but full of bristling intensity and a little grit in places: the influence of the southern gospel church is everywhere. .
The album’s title track is a swaying, subtly blues-tinged, ominous noir soul song. King follows that with Grace, a stark, stripped-down oldtime gospel shuffle with nifty accordion and slow-burning slide guitar. King gets even more intense on the traditional gospel tune I Know I’ve Been Changed a little later on, over more of that blue-flame slide work.
The best song on the album is The Ones You Don’t See Coming, a gorgeous backbeat country tune, King working her oldschool metaphors for all they’re worth:
Hidden from the radar in the still of the night
Left total devastation in the morning light
Rain-wrapped tornado, invisible storm
Never saw it coming, no sirens to warn
Worst are the ones you don’t see coming…
Things You Do is a brisk, hard-hitting soul-blues number anchored by dirty, distorted Rhodes piano, while The Real Thing offers the flipside of that vibe, roto organ propelling the wamly swaying soul ballad. King learned Larry Campbell’s bittersweet gospel anthem When I Go Away from Levon Helm, offering it up here as a darkly soaring tribute to her old pal.
The rustically waltzing 1940s Eyes mines a wistful acoustic string band vein, then King and band pick up the pace with the punchy organ-soul groove Hard Times Are No Match for Sweet Dreams. King brings back a bucolic, pre-bluegrass feel on the album’s closing cut, Moonlight.
There are also a couple of 70s style country-pop ballads here:, Talking ‘Bout the Weather and Lost in You, both substituting purist acoustic production values for Nashville big-studio gloss (and some tasty glockenspiel on the second one). Miranda Lambert only wishes she had material this catchy.