It was four years between the first time I heard Dayna Kurtz and the first time I got to see her perform live. These were a long four years of pining, of always missing her when she was within a two-hour radius due to some inconsequential but obligatory function at which my attendance had been requested. The first album of Dayna’s I purchased in high school was Postcards From Downtown. This was when you could say that you’d listened to an album with such frequency that indeed you had worn out your copy. Your favorite songs would skip, and always at the best parts, because of the way in which the disc had been mishandled in transportation from vehicle to walkman to stereo system.

The song that punched me right in the gut was the title track, that glorious and full-of-grace gem, with one of my favorite opening lines ever written. “I lost all my faith in love on those stairs that November.” That could be the only line, repeated over and over, and I’d still think “Postcards From Downtown” to be one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s one that I visited often when, in college, I felt for the first time what it was for your heart to break; to feel the actual, physical, tangible pain of love lost and the love leftover.
It was the summer of my sophomore year in college that I finally had the opportunity to see Dayna live. I was visiting for a long weekend another musician I greatly admire, and who had been so kind as to be a mentor to me for several years and also to be my host during my stay. She surprised me by telling me that Dayna would be playing that night at a basement bar and that we were without question going. It was among the most special experiences in my life, and solidified my faithful fandom in perpetuity.

Dayna’s latest, Secret Canon, Vol. 2, is very different from Postcards From Downtown, in that it makes me want to move where Downtown made me want to lie in bed and close my eyes, give myself over to the music. Listening to songs on this great new record like “If You Won’t Dance,” “I’m Glad,” and “Go Ahead On,” I forget that I am a person who is meant only to dance in private. There’s such jubilance to these songs, such vim and vigor. There are, of course, devastators like “Reconsider Me” in the middle of the record, lest anyone get too cozy. Listening to them, one finds it difficult to believe these are brand-new songs and not tried-and-true standards, such is the confidence and authority with which Dayna Kurtz makes music. And that voice could lullabize a pack of starved wolves.

Like any fan of the Dixie Chicks—and what’s your problem if you aren’t, is what I’m saying—I was ecstatic to hear that Natalie Maines would be releasing a solo record. Hers is one of my favorite voices in country music; nuanced and gritty and full of attitude. I was somewhat let down to learn it was primarily a record of covers, but once I saw the tracklist, I knew we as listeners would be in for something special. She was covering everyone from Patty Griffin to Jeff Buckley to Pink Floyd. And listening to the interviews she gave in advance of the release, it was impossible not to see some rebranding at work. This was not going to be a country record, she said, and she does not consider herself a country singer. Rather, she’s a singer who can sing country.

That distinction felt a bit arbitrary before I heard the record; after listening to Mother several times, I understand what she’s saying. This is, for all intents and purposes, a rock record. If we never knew Natalie Maines to be the lead singer of one of the most successful country groups in history, I highly doubt we’d think she’d be well-suited for such a position after hearing her first solo recording.

This is to say that the thing I like most about Mother is its versatility. It really does jump all over the place, which seems to work here. The titular Pink Floyd cover is wistful and stirring, and quite fascinating to hear as interpreted by a female vocalist. The same goes for “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” which, and forgive me if this is blasphemous to some readers, I think she sings better than Jeff Buckley ever could. [This is not to cast aspersions on Buckley; he’s a hell of a writer, just not my bag when it comes to vocals.] I also appreciated Maines’s unearthing of the great “Silver Bell,” a song off of Patty Griffin’s underground record of the same name.

My favorite song on the record, though, is “Trained,” a song written by co-producer Ben Harper. There are elements of Joan Jett and Patti Smith at work here as Maines sings, “You’ve got me trained like a heavyweight in his prime/You say to jump and say from how high.” It stands out as the strongest among the five originals, most of which are written by Harper.
Though it’s possibly unfair to evaluate the record in these terms, Mother does not make me long for a new Dixie Chicks record any less. I still miss them, as so many of us do, and hope that, in time, they will continue to make contemporary country a place where quality isn’t sacrificed and everything is done in service of the song. That being said, as a standalone record, Mother is well worth the cost, and it’s just great to hear Natalie Maines on the mic again.

Susan Werner is consistently reinventing the wheel, record after record after record, and shows no signs of stopping with her latest, fan-funded release Hayseed. To recap, in the last decade Susan has released: a jazz album that contributed new songs to the elastic American Songbook, an evangelical agnostic gospel album, a cover record of songs that found reinterpretation in a classical mode, and, most recently, Kicking the Beehive, a country/bluegrass/blues record with some of her best songs yet.

Coming into Hayseed, I knew only that the album would find Susan with a central focus on the land and the farmers that farm it. When she first mentioned this to me, I admit to wondering: how many songs can you write about that? How could this fill an entire album? But having borne witness to Susan Werner’s brilliance many a time, I had faith that she’d figure out something that would make her devoted audience awestruck by her wit, her intelligence, her talent, and her keen understanding of the world. That is exactly what she’s done with Hayseed.

The songs, pieced together, form the most wonderful collage of middle America. “Egg Money,” finds a farmer’s disenfranchised wife plotting his murder, and then carrying through with it. “City Kids” pits the titular metropolis-dwellers against the kids of the suburbs. “We were bailing hay, milking twice a day,” she sings, “and they were making smores.” The song embodies perfectly the overlap of Werner’s wit and perspective. The funniest song on the record, by a mile, is “Herbicides,” a song so clever that it would be ruining the surprise of it to say too much. Suffice it to say, you’ll be laughing by the time the chorus comes around. “Iowa,” is a love letter to the state of Werner’s birth, and to the people who call it home in times good and bad.
With Hayseed, Susan Werner proves that there’s nobody better—no one quite as clever, or as innovative, or as brave, or as wise—in the folk music circuit working today.

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