Where You Been, Not Where You Gone
by Cat Celebrezze
The blues might easily be identified by its most frequented form, the twelve-bar progression in a I-IV-V pattern, but the heart of the blues is difficult to pin on an existential map. The history of the blues is long, reaching back to African musical traditions transmuted by people surviving the American Slave Trade in the 1800's and emerging as a distinctive sound in the early 20th century when the rural musicians migrated to cities and brought the songs of the south with them. Complicating the question is the well-documented music industry slice-and-dice that carved racialized genres out of this rich, proliferate, and varied music, pitting "Rhythm & Blues" (read: music for Black people) against "Country & Western" (read: music for white people).
If you look in between the lines of this false dichotomy, you'll find "Country Blues" - music that favors slide guitar, double-entendre lyrics, and regionalism's peculiarities over the homogenizing power of ubiquity. It's there that you'll find a contradiction that gives clues to what's at the heart of the blues: when you are singing about where you've been, it doesn't mean you've been gone. Sure, Country Blues are full of things that are gone, gone, gone: lovers, money, youth, freedom. But as first-person narratives, they aren't laments. Rather they revel in a storytelling that reveals the wild country of the heart where it happened. There's always a 'there' in the 'where you been', and the story of that 'there,' in its telling, brings illumination and visibility whether you're the one listening or doing the singing.
For Country Blues in contemporary action, look no further than Rachel Brooke and her newest solo album, The Loneliness in Me. It's a record with a sound reminiscent of the Golden Age of Nashville yet delivered with a decidedly 21st century sensibility. The songs, twelve in all, are meditations on the wild strangeness of loss - losing love and the familiar, old selves, direction, dreams. It has the beauty and charm of a shape-shifter, part classic country, part post-millennium mystic.
As always with Brooke, the songwriting is anchored in the classic country storytelling tradition of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Yet her narratives indicate an alternate timeline, where the blues of both prisons and skies are not places in space but interior terrains that, when we weren't paying attention, crept their shadows and vines and uncanniness onto the waking world, remaking the ordinary into oddity. The timbre of Brooke's voice lands somewhere between Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette but without the Americana/Countrypolitan sound cultivated by those artists. Brooke's voice has a directness in both mechanics and pacing that catches the ear like the truth of an unexpected confession or hard-won revelation. It does not truck in mythology, but rather has the quixotic sound of what happens when we find we've stopped casting our shadows, and instead, they are casting us. It's the deep combination of country bluegrass meeting gothic blues sung through a sage's smile that Brooke has been perfecting since her first self- titled release in 2008.
A lot has happened since her last solo effort, A Killer's Dream (2012). Brooke weathered the watersheds of losing a parent and having a child. She's put out two 7-inches and released music with her familiars - the Modern Mal collective (The Misanthrope Family Album, 2017) and long-time collaborator Lonesome Wyatt (Bad Omen, 2015). But she also filled her time with what we all know as "living life" - that unyielding task of meeting needs both at home life and at work (Brooke works with sexual assault survivors). These circumstances make it difficult to carve out time for music and the solitude necessary to court the divinations of songwriting. And for a while, there was an yawing absence of creative space. But instead of finding that absence immutable, Brooke found a quarry of inspiration.
"The whole time I was away from my music was really hard for me. There were some times it almost felt so far away that I would never reach it again... but then I found something there. That song, 'The Loneliness in Me" came first and sparked the rest. It's probably the most honest song I've ever written, it tells what exactly I was going through at the time," she recalled recently.
From the rollicking title track, "The Loneliness in Me," to the toe- tapping "Great Mistake," to the shuffle and bluegrass feel of "It Won't Be Long" and "The Lovells Stockade Blues," Brooke's unique voice and musical talent flow through the dual lenses of classic country rhythms and modern lyrical phrasing. Full of high lonesome, yet never sentimental or nostalgic, these are songs forged on a psychic anvil that has not yet wrought a new self, while the hammerer has long since gone spectral, still heard singing, not far off.
This isn't to say that The Loneliness in Me is just quarantine with dire wolves. There is plenty of sly-eyed humor, wry phrasing, and bolts of insight that is second nature to Brooke, given her experience as a girl playing bluegrass with her father. As with her previous releases, Brooke's accompaniment includes a trove of talented musicians, many of whom she feels lucky to count amongst her kith and kin. A stellar new addition is legendary Dave Feeny on pedal steel, giving this album a direct lineage to Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, on which he also performs on pedal steel. Listening to her weave stories amid the folk tones of fiddle and banjo, the unique resonance of Rhodes organ and pedal steel, the shuffling drums and slinging piano brings with it the feeling of being at a hootenanny, even when she's singing about stockade blues and alcohol-fueled visages of love long gone.
Recorded in Traverse City, Michigan with a whole hell of a lot of Detroit in its heart, the album is savvy to the contradictory heart of the blues, right down to its salt and tomato iconography. The songs were written by Brooke with her fellow musician and husband Brooks Robbins and mastered at Detroit's recently launched Third Man Mastering. Though geographically speaking that's quite a few clicks north of Nashville, it matters not. Because just like the time in which it drops - our COVIDverse of strange longing for what wasn't ever expected to be lost - The Loneliness in Me knows that, when proximity isn't possible, the only thing to do is to reach out with what one's voice affords: sound and emotion. We'll all need to tell the tales of about where we been with this pandemic, but if anything can assuage our pandemic blues, this record is it.
See our previous article on Rachel Brooke
Also see author Cat Celebrezze's music on Bandcamp: 3 For Lunarside
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