For her eighth studio album Eilen Jewell has chosen the perfect title. Like the itinerant traveller Gypsy takes the listener along the many highways and byways that stretch across the map called Americana. There are pedal to the floor blasts down the main six lane routes of country and blues but also some interesting detours into western swing, honky tonk, swamp and folk. For the first time since 2015 Jewell has released a record, with a single exception, purely of her own compositions. Harnessing her expertise of so many musical genres Jewell explores new perspectives (she recently become a mother) looks back at older views and she also takes an unashamedly firm political stance. Gypsy covers a lot of ground.
Eilen Jewell comes from Boise, Idaho but much of her material is set far further south. She evokes Loretta Lynn as much as the hard rocking roadhouse band she and husband, drummer and producer Jason Beek have created.
Musically Jewell starts the album with the upbeat country rock that has defined many of her previous releases. But listen carefully as she wrestles with the opposites of action now and just taking refuge in the past. “I want to crawl right out of my skin/Go back in time, cake walk in red fringe/I Want solitude, don’t want to be alone/Want to put down roots, want to be a rolling stone”. This anxiety is nothing new, as Jewell admits to having worked on the song for eight years!
Swinging off the country road Jewell cuts the speed on ‘Miles to Go’. In a weary voice “miles and miles to go before I sleep” set to a slow, swampy, blues beat she just exudes life’s challenges.
‘You Cared Enough To Lie’ is the only cover, a song written by Pinto Bennett who Jewell and Beek had met in the dive bar he regularly played. They learnt a lot from Bennett as their friendship deepened. She admits that “this is one of the many songs I wish I’d written” but if the words aren’t hers she does give this classic an extra coat of country gloss.
A divide that seems to keep widening is the place of political views in music, particularly in country music. Artists who voice a view not shared by their audience are often told to “stick to your music” as if subject matter was some kind of optional extra. With ’79 Cents (The Meow Song’ Jewell takes up the case, made forcibly by Margo Price among others, of the inequality in women’s pay compared to what a man might get for the same job. Throw in ethnicity and that gap widens further. All I can say is good on you Eilen Jewell and others. There’s no reason for that and why shouldn’t you say so? If ever there is a time for protest through music it must be now. What does seem slightly odd is the jaunty melody to such a serious subject. But let’s not forget keeping some sense of humour can add weight.
Jewell returns to protest in ‘Beat The Drum”. Penetrating electric chords intermingling with a soaring fiddle around a relentless rhythm feels like a protest march that Jewell leads with her plea, “I believe in the dream”. Again, you can nitpick about what that dream might be about but it’s the artist’s art and if she wants to express a political view that’s her right.
Jewell returns to country with sublime pedal steel in ‘These Blues’. It is classic country as she skips along with voice clear and sparkling. ‘Witness’ is bluesy with some soul from perfectly added horns. Jewell wrings every last drop of emotion from her full vocal range in ‘Who Else But You’.
I’ve left the title track to last because, though a hard call, it is my favourite. To create a sound so sultry and moody Jewell and band, with special mention to guitarist Jerry Miller, show what a unit they make.
Jewell describes Gypsy as her favourite album. Whether it remains so, there is no doubt that in this new release she offers the most complete selection of her musical dexterity with lyrics that leave plenty to ponder.