“Whiskeytown; a town like any other”, begins the album’s forty second Intro, and it’s unlike any album I’ve heard before. I’ve been playing this album for the last six months, and a UK release is finally on the way (CDs are the best gift).
Imagine riding in a friend’s Nissan truck one night, after watching a cafe gig, heading north from Tennessee, to her mountain home in Kentucky. It’s the end of a mesmerising holiday to the home of country music, and you’re flying home to the UK in a few days. She asks if you’ve heard of singer-songwriter, Erin Enderlin. You shake your head, no; her 2017 Whiskeytown Crier slots into the CD player.
During the first few seconds, a guitar and a male baritone voiceover welcomes you to the concept of the Whiskeytown newspaper, and the notion of life heralding some headline-creating stories. The voice caresses the night, and reminds you of the famed square bottle from Tennessee. You read online that the voice belongs to legendary songwriter, John Scott Sherrill. You settle back into your seat, phone temporarily forgotten.
And then the story of, ‘Caroline…just fifteen/way too young to know what love means’ grabs hold of your attention. Enderlin’s vocals are as clear as the mountain air, a haunting ring through the southern night as the three minute story unfolds. The fifteen-year-old girl, her no good boyfriend, a pregnancy and a vengeful daddy. Caroline; it’s the Brothers’ Grimm version of what could have happened to Trisha’s Katie and Tommy, had Katie’s Momma not stepped in.
You turn up the volume, eager for more escapades, and glad of a two hour drive.
Baby Sister warns of taking what belongs to your sweet baby sister, especially if it’s her man – ‘It’s the same old story, ain’t there always a man involved?’ Enderlin rhetorically asks. Indeed, ‘the whole things reeks of alcohol/Somebody ends up in jail.’ But this is country, and blood is thicker than exes, so she spares family, during her, ‘no tell, motel shotgun epiphany’.
A morning-after ballad plays next on Aint It Just Like A Cowboy. Melancholic romantic gestures usurped by knowing he’s wandered to another state and another woman’s arms.
“Who is this songwriter? And why am I only just hearing her music?” you ask your friend.
“You have heard of her – she’s written some big tracks. Let me see: Lee Ann Womack’s Last Call, Alan Jackson’s Monday Morning Church and Luke Bryan’s You Don’t Know Jack, amongst a bunch of other songs for Terri Clark, Randy Travis….oooh, and Miranda calls her a badass.”
“She’s not wrong – Enderlin’s vocals actually remind me of Trisha, Margo, Lee Ann. Clear, harmonious, resounding. She’s so freakin’ talented, I can’t believe we’ve never heard of her in the UK.”
Country meets bar blues on the next track, The Blues are Alive and Well, and you stare out into the crisp night, remembering your own lost relationships, moved by lyrics like, ‘as long as there’s whiskey, a song by Keith Whitley/ and my baby loves somebody else…I’m living proof that heartache still sells’. Heartache never sounded so inviting.
After back to back ballads, the up tempo Home Sweet Home To Me brings in the mandolin and pedal steel to tell the traveller’s tale of ending up in large American cities, and knowing that home is best. A great take on route 66. And the Jimmy Stewart reference didn’t happen by accident. Times gone by are the essence of southern living.
Motels are back on Till it’s Gone. The Chapin Carpenter sounding song offers lyrical parallels as a woman spends time dealing with heart break alone in a room, ‘just hold on, till it’s gone’; could be referring to the cigarettes or the emptiness.
The Coldest in Town, a sad country waltz and the album’s only duet – you learn online, with Randy Houser – demonstrates a love gone cold. The contrast between Houser’s rich vocals and Enderlin’s emotional range , at times reminiscent of Lee Ann, Tammy and Reba, blend beautifully, drawing the listener to the characters’ heartaches.
And speaking of heartaches, Whole Nother Bottle of Wine, takes the kick drum and electric guitar to a late night blues bar, and makes them feel right at home. We’ve all skirted around holding off the pain as long as we can.
Broken, with the opening lyrics, ‘He was a bastard, even though he knew his Dad” set against simple guitar picking and a steel guitar harmony. If your heart doesn’t break at Broken then you’re not country enough. You may not even be human. The tale of a woman recognising that she’s one part of ‘a broken limb from a crooked family tree’ is horrifically gorgeous because it’s so real, and that’s the genius behind Enderlin’s story songs; she follows her own arrow, and it lands easily on the bullseye.
“Oh, I love this next track – Hickory Wind”, your friend interjects. “Sixties legend, Gram Parsons originally performed this when he was with The Byrds. Emmylou Harris has also covered this. It’s such a sad and lonely song.” And Enderlin is spot on.
Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes mirrors Till it’s Gone, this time with a faster tempo, sharing the story of a woman dealing with the end of a relationship, thanks to Jack and her ex’s Marlboro Lights.
The gut-wrenching stories are back in His Memory Walks on Water, as a daughter adapts the memory of an alcoholic father to honour their relationship in his death, as she couldn’t in life, ‘she’ll let his memory walk on water, since he never could’. Love how Enderlin has obvious respect for phrasings, and settling on exactly the right word.
A cover of Tammy Wynette’s Till I Can Make it on My Own rounds off the album, and the first part of the journey. Piano. Pedal steel. Perfect.
There’s just enough time to repeat the stories before the truck stops. Your holiday is almost over, and you’ll fly back home all too soon. But how amazing would it be to watch Erin perform these stories in the UK, maybe at a songwriter’s show?