Melissa Carper is indeed a ramblin’ soul, as the title of her new record would have it. Just in the short time I’ve been aware of her and her music, she’s moved around quite a bit. She was living in Arkansas when she released Daddy’s Country Soul, I believe had moved to Nashville by the time her band Sad Daddy’s album Way Up in the Hills came out, and now with Ramblin’ Soul she and her musical and live partner Rebecca Patek are ensconced on some ranchland outside of Austin, Texas (although the album was tracked mostly in Nashville).
As is apparent from my reviews of those earlier albums, I like Melissa Carper’s music a lot. She brings a lot to the table – or to the stage or studio, as it were – including her deft rhythmic sense on the upright bass, a unique vocal style and sound, a great way with lyrics that encompasses a whole range of emotions from joyful to utterly depressed, sometimes within the same song, and a deep familiarity with classic country music that enables her to present those lyrics in an appropriate setting. No surprise, because she’s been singing and playing country music nearly all her life, starting on bass in her family’s band in Nebraska at the age of 9. (I’m indebted here to her recent appearance on the superb Basic Folk podcast, which I encourage you to check out.)
Her familiarity with a life on the road making music began in that family band, and has continued ever since. After a couple of years studying music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she hit the road in the family’s 1980 Dodge Maxi Van, and landed in historic Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Busking there and using the town as a base, she put a few hundred thousand miles on a series of vans and pick-up trucks, playing everywhere from New Orleans to Austin to New York as a founding member of The Maybelles. Along the way she founded award-winning bands The Carper Family, which combined country, bluegrass, western swing, and old- style jazz, playing festivals and shows across the globe. In addition, of course, to Sad Daddy and her roots duo Buffalo Gals with fiddler Rebecca Patek. During the pandemic, Carper and Patek moved to a friend’s farm near Austin.
A lot of those wanderings and experiences show up on this album. Of course there’s the title track which is also the first, a western swing shuffle about life as an itinerant musician – sort of her own personal “I’ve been everywhere.” That old Dodge van shows up in the rockabilly raver “1980 Dodge Van,” with a tack bass and tons of reverb, and ” Texas, Texas, Texas,” a western swing ode to the her new home state, with some hot fiddling and pedal steel.
Recorded in Nashville, her band is made up largely of Nashville regulars including fellow bassist Dennis Crouch, Billy Contreras on fiddle, Chris Scruggs on guitar and steel guitar, Jeff Taylor on keyboards, and Matty Meyer on drums and percussion. And her love of classic country music is easy to spot for anyone familiar with the greats. There’s the honky-tonk two step “That’s My Only Regret” that could’ve been a hit for Kitty Wells, say; or the Dolly Parton-style soulful country folk of “Hit Or Miss.” I can just imagine Melba Montgomery singing “I Don’t Need To Cry,” a sad Nashville sound ballad with a bit of Spanish style guitar and Floyd Cramer inspired piano. The peppy “Zen Buddha” takes a page right out of Commander Cody’s songbook, and the ’70s country soul of Bobbie Gentry shines through on the sly “I Do What I Wanna.” My favorite may be the lush countrypolitan ballad “From What I Recall,” which has some obvious jazz and western swing leanings.
Carper swing for the fences with her songwriting, too. “Ain’t A Day Goes By” is a real tear-jerker of a love song set in county gospel mode, which she wrote in memory of a beloved canine family member. At the other end of the emotional spectrum is “Boxers On Backwards,” a boot-scootin’ country novelty song that she also performs with Buffalo Gals. Her New Orleans club experiences and love of jazz come through on “Holding All The Cards,” which has some lovely clarinet fills and a solo, and lots of swing. One of the best arrangements is on the final track “Hanging On To You,” yet another lovely slice of classic country soul with cooing background singers, burbling organ and jangly rhythm guitar.
Don’t lump Melissa Carper in with generic “Americana.” This is top notch acoustic country music with a real sense of tradition behind songs that are as fresh as a rosebud in early May. Highly recommended.
(Thirty Tigers, 2022)