december 2011

Sandy Carroll: Proffering an intimate account of a most personal journey of discovery

Salvation Is At Hand

By David McGee

carrollJUST AS I AM
Sandy Carroll
Catfood Records (released: October 2011)

Check out the song titles on Sandy Carroll’s new album and you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled onto a spiritual or gospel outing: the album takes its title from an original song that nonetheless invokes the powerful hymn of invitation millions have heard choirs sing at Billy Graham Crusades; the first song is titled “Blessed Be,” others—“Waiting for the Storm,” “Runnin’ Out of Grace”—appear to have spiritual overtones, whereas “Help Mother Nature” surely evinces a heightened environmental consciousness.

Well, yes and no. Salvation, however, is a persistent theme throughout.

Produced by her husband, the stalwart Jim Gaines, and backed by some top-drawer Memphis musicians, Ms. Carroll, a West Tennessee native who considers Memphis her musical home, sings in a sturdy, emotive contralto, doesn’t shy away from swagger and has a good thing going with the women providing a soulful, swinging southern chorus behind her (Reba Russell, Kimberlie Helton, Vicki Atkins and Daunielle “Pie” Hill). With all participants clearly well versed in blues, gospel, R&B and soul, the music and Ms. Carroll’s leads have the feel of confession, of deep secrets revealed, so much so that even though “Waiting For the Storm,” to cite an example, is a grinding, wrenching revelation of a woman’s fearful anticipation of another looming battle with her man (a foreboding augmented by Evan Leake’s wailing guitar, Rick Steff’s moody organ rumbling underneath and the chorus’s urgent responses to Carroll’s anxiety-riddled vocal), there’s a certain cleansing quality emanating from the dread, as if simply stating the fact of the matter unburdens the soul of a great weight. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat (and not the victory of the grave, mind you) is standard operating procedure for Ms. Carroll on Just As I Am. In doing so, she achieves her own state of grace, which in and of itself provides an uplift many would deem spiritual.

carrollSo be ye not dismayed when the album opening “Blessed Be” turns out to be a funky southern rock ‘n’ soul grinder that would make Delaney & Bonnie proud, because it’s right in the pocket with the way D&B expressed a certain spiritual stance in suggesting their gratitude for everyone out there fighting the good fight, for the beneficence of the man upstairs and his son incarnate, for the trials and tribulations that test our mettle, all while getting a solid groove going. With some righteously funky Rick Steff piano work aiding her on “Help Mother Nature,” Ms. Carroll pulls no punches in her composed vocal as she comes down on the side of botox and “nip, tuck, fill it in” as viable options in battling the march of time—but also acknowledging a higher authority in a wry way (“I believe in your power, I believe in the truth…I am willing to face it, Lord, I am wiling to try…if botox is the answer, God I’ll stand in line…”). Given that she wrote or co-wrote all of her album’s 10 tracks, Ms. Carroll presumably is speaking from the heart here. “Runnin’ Out of Grace,” a co-write with William Lee Ellis, features a thick, gloomy ambiance but a certain sizzle too in Leake’s sputtering guitar and the background chorus’s intense gospel retorts to Ms. Carroll’s subdued soliloquy warning herself to “keep on walkin’ down the narrow road” because the Devil lurking on the alternate route points the way to self-destruction. “Listen to your mama/listen to the lord,” she warns at the outset over a surging groove, “take it slow and easy/when you’re takin’ on the world/you know when you’re runnin’/Devil gonna win the race.”  A real ambiguous beauty, soft, earnest and cabaret-like in its spare piano-accordion-acoustic guitar-vocal arrangement, the title track closes the album on a reflective, even hopeful note. As much hymn as it is lover’s plea, the song’s reverent backdrop is perfectly suited to the prayer-like vocal in which Ms. Carroll seeks only to be accepted into someone’s grace—God above or a man below—no matter her flaws and scars.

Yes, there’s a gently rocking take on the “Romeo and Juliet” story from the vantagepoint of one schooled in young love’s mercurial ways; a cool, breathy, and slightly lascivious piano-driven blues stomp of the sort Maria Muldaur has trademarked, concerning the advantages of a man with a slow hand; and a delicious, sprightly, Cajun-flavored workout, “Baby Comin’ Home,” about a prodigal gal who has learned the grass isn’t greener on the other side, complete with a duly chagrined lead vocal and wry “told-you-so” responses from the backing chorus. In the context of this album, even these songs carry messages about a soul’s nourishment, reclamation and rejuvenation and are of a piece with what turns out to be an intimate account of a most personal journey of discovery on Sandy Carroll’s part. That it happens to be so invigorating and musical is our gain as much as it is hers.

Sandy Carroll’s Just As I Am is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024