february 2009

Wy Being Wy

By David McGee


Wynonna's solo career has had its ups and downs, but of late she's been on a steadily ascending trajectory, with a strong live album in 2005 (Scenes From a Lifetime) and an endearing Christmas entry in 2006 (A Classic Christmas) signaling a return to form following some troubled times when personal problems put her professional life on pause. Sing, Chapter 1 continues a promising trend, and then some. In a sense this is her version of the standards albums others have used to prop up flagging careers; the big difference is she's not some washed up rock star trying to convince us these timeless songs were always close to her heart, even if she never sang anything remotely like them before. No, the fare on Sing, Chapter 1 is right in her wheelhouse, as a singer comfortable with pop, blues, country, gospel and R&B, all of which she's explored over the years, either on record or in concert.

Covering the waterfront in her song choices, she sounds perfectly at home spanning a musical and stylistic time frame ranging from the early '30s to the present day, from songwriters including blues woman Sippie Wallace, pop giants Victory Young & Edward Heyman, rock 'n' roll/R&B legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the unbeatable blues tandem of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall, and one of the great American songwriters of our time, Rodney Crowell, among others. And it's not only the singing that hits a tape-measure blast; the production team is Brent Maher and Don Potter, the musical architects of the Judds' hit-making machine, and they've not lost a step, either: their judgments are as sure-handed with regard to arrangements and supporting musicians as when they were crafting the gems Wy and Naomi deployed in cutting a wide swath through the New Traditionalist movement. That's Potter playing both the wicked, searing slide on Wy's nuclear detonation of Smiley Lewis's "I Hear You Knocking," and the evocative gut-string guitar fills and shimmering acoustic passages on the dreamy, string-enriched rendition of Young & Heyman's "When I Fall In Love" that Wy explores with sublime deliberation and conviction. The producers also made the smart move of hiring as their piano pounder the rising gospel star Gordon Mote, who might need to repent after getting so devilishly low down and blue on the Dixieland blues treatment (complete with clarinet and growling trombone) of Sippie Wallace's "Women Be Wise," to which Wy contributes a swaggering, Big Momma bit of philosophizing; in his defense, Mote does find a righteously spiritual place for some seriously introspective, haunting support of a piercing Wy lead vocal and a velvety background trio on a lush, anguished reading of Bacharach-David's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" that stands toe-to-toe with the classic Brenda Holloway and Dionne Warwick versions. Other stops along the way include a swinging rendition of the Boswell Sisters' delightful early '30s hit, "That's How Rhythm Was Born," with Fats Kaplan adding a frisky fiddle solo, Potter jumping in with a fleet run on archtop guitar, Ilya Toshinsky injecting some frantic arpeggio runs on banjo, and Wy's voice doubled by Vicki Hampton in a spirited Bozzie emulation. Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" opens up from a near a cappella intro into a lush, torchy ballad with the Nashville String Machine laying on the ache and Charlie McCoy putting the "lone" into lonesome with his arid, desolate harmonica solo. On the other hand, the fierce attack on Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The House Is Rockin'" is no frills all the way, with the lusty lead vocal aided and abetted by a tight little ensemble of bass, drums, electric guitar (Bob Britt, with a screaming guitar solo SRV could appreciate) and a pumping piano (not Gordon Mote, but Bruce Dailey, who does a good job channeling Jerry Lee Lewis). An album that starts a third of a way through the 20th Century ends up in the right-now 21st Century, with the first recorded version of the new Rodney Crowell song that gives this project its title. It's a perfect fit for Wynonna, who's spent enough time being tabloid fodder to get deep inside a philosophical treatise counseling self-expression and -assertion as the most effective bridges over troubled waters, if you will. In a big production featuring the Nashville String Machine aloft, full-bodied background voices, soaring choruses and crashing percussion, Wy lets her indomitable voice say it all, completely and at once open and vulnerable, but also strong, defiant, determined and even tender in the hushed denouement. Crowell, whose latest album was inspired by women, could not have found a better woman to deliver his message here, and Wy makes of it a bold personal statement, taking ownership of the song as surely as she's put her indelible stamp on the album's other chestnuts. Wy being Wy is an unbeatable proposition.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024