Powerful, Relevant Honkytonk Songwriting and a Rockwood Gig by the Honeycutters
More about that that really good Americana twinbill tomorrow night, June 18 at 7 at the big room at the Rockwood: Asheville, North Carolina’s Honeycutters are on it, along with the Hillbenders, who’ve gotten plenty of notoriety for outdoing the Who with their newgrass version of the Tommy album. The club’s webpage doesn’t say who’s playing first, but both bands are good and justify a $12 cover, which will probably double when the waitress swoops down on you and insists that you buy a drink.
Where the Hillbenders bring their sizzling chops to unexpected material, the Honeycutters are just as original, putting a current-day lyrical spin on classic honkytonk sounds. Their latest album, Me Oh My is streaming at Spotify. Frontwoman Amanda Anne Platt writes potently vivid narratives that mine the underside of hardscrabble rural America: her characters are people we all know. She sings in a purposeful, unaffected drawl over the twangy backdrop of multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith – who supplies guitar, dobro and pedal steel – along with Tal Taylor on mandolin, Rick Cooper on bass and Josh Miligan on drums. The playing and arrangements look back to a classic 60s Bakersfield sound, the mandolin adding a spiky Appalachian touch. The opening track, Jukebox, sets the tone, a swaying midtempo number with a cajoling cynicism: it’s sort of a “better enjoy this because this might be all we’ve got” scenario.
“They can lead you to the darkness but you don’t have to go quiet,” Platt reminds in the catchy, shuffling All You Ever Needed, a friendly warning to a pal who’s willing to settle for a place to sleep on the kitchen floor: it’s a potent portrait of dashed dreams and their consequences in Flyover America. “I had a baby but the Good Lord took her, she was an angel but her wings were crooked,” Platt observes in the slowly swaying, John Prine-inflected title track, a chillingly clear take on the downside of trying to start a family too young: “Some girls do better without that ball and chain,” her narrator explains.
With its hard-hitting beat, resonant organ and keening pedal steel, Edge of the Frame is a biting portrait of somebody who’s gotten too big for their britches. Ain’t It the Truth – which could be the Wallflowers with a pedal steel and a woman out front – is even grimmer, a study in the psychology of domestic abuse.
Carolina works another restless shuffle groove, while Texas ’81 paints a stark portrait of a relationship unraveling with the demands of family and responsibilities. The slow, moody Little Bird, with Phil Cook’s gospel-tinged piano, could be a prequel, a new bride pondering how long the honeymoon will last – or, more accurately, how long it won’t. Not That Simple keeps the slow-burning, morose vibe going, then Wedding Song brings some bluegrass-flavored optimism: “When you’re with me, honey, it’s like throwing loaded dice,” Platt’s joyous heroine exclaims.
Hearts of Mine opens with a similar acoustic atmosphere and then goes deeper into melancholy, swaying honkytonk. Then Platt flips the script again with the upbeat I’ll Be Loving, a dead ringer for Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere, with a delicious dobro/mando duel on the way out.
“I’ve got the mind of a junkie and you’ve got the heart of a child,” Platt muses on Lucky, a sobering but hopeful and propulsively crescendoing anthem. The final cut is the plaintive, guilt-stricken breakup ballad A Life For You. Fans of strong, insightful songwriting from Lucinda Williams, to vintage Springsteen, to James McMurtry will love this album – it’s more than a stealth contender for one of the best of 2015.