Wonder Women of Country’s Wonder Women of Country: Willis, Carper, Leigh

cover, Wonder Women of CountryThe other morning someone in one of my social media feeds posted the question “What are your ‘comfort’ albums?’ with four album cover photos in a simple grid that showed theirs. My reply turned out to have two of what I consider classic albums by women country singers: Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) and Emmylou Harris’s Elite Hotel. That was just before I sat down to write up my thoughts on this wonderful new album from three contemporary women “Americana” singers who obviously feel the same way I do.

“Those old country songs still ring true
They pick me up every time I’m feelin’ blue.”

That couplet is from Melissa Carper’s song “Won’t Be Worried Long,” which truly does state the underlying theme of the spiffy six-song EP from this trio, which also includes Kelly Willis and Brennen Leigh. Carper co-wrote the song with Leigh a bit at a time since 2019, Carper says, “when Brennen and I got together to write a song about how country music nowadays doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to. We wanted to reference Carter Family and Loretta Lynn and some of the early country artists …” That it does, and with its title and chorus it also nods to other greats who sang the old folk chestnut “Worried Man Blues” including Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Pete Seeger. Also Loretta Lynn and others.

Such references to classic country run throughout Wonder Women of Country, starting with the first line of the first track “Fly Ya To Hawaii,” another Carper-Leigh co-write, with Leigh singing lead. What first caught my ear was the way she rhymes “Ha-why-ya” with “Fly Ya” which I take to be a nod to the granddaddy of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. His “Everybody Does It In Hawaii” — he pronounces the Island State’s name the same way, which was also the way my dad pronounced it — was among the first Jimmie Rodgers songs I heard and my immediate favorite at the time. The arrangement here features shining Hawaiian style steel guitar from Carper’s friend and bandmate Chris Scruggs (yes, he’s from that Scruggs family — Earl was his granddaddy). But otherwise the track, and all the others, has a clean and airy arrangement of just a few instruments: Leigh and Willis on strummed acoustic guitars and Carper’s upright bass.

It’s an approach that prevails through all six songs, with just one or at most two lead instruments. There’s Goeff Queen’s more Nashville style steel on Willis’s “Another Broken Heart” and Dobro on “Won’t Be Worried Long,” Ginny Mac’s accordion on Willis’s jaunty shuffle “A Thousand Ways,” Leigh’s lead flatpicking on her “Hanging On To You,” and Carper’s bass and Timmy Campbell’s bongos on the closer, John Prine’s “I Have Met My Love Today.” Okay, that last one also has Ginny’s accordion, and a lovely acoustic solo on Leigh’s guitar, but those four are the only instruments on the whole track, so it still qualifies as stripped down, and it’s an amazing arrangement, again credited mostly to Carper.

What those sparse arrangements do, of course, is make room for the vocals, particularly the three-part harmonies, which is what this power trio is all about. (The mixes on all of the tracks by Steve Mazur subtly push each of the lead singers’ vocals to the front but also leaves a lot of room for the backing of the other two.) I can’t decide which song provides my favorite moments of delicious harmony. They all sing together on part of the verses as well as the choruses on “Fly Ya To Hawaii” behind Leigh’s soprano lead. Carper and Leigh mostly provide backing vocals behind Willis’s signature smoke and honey alto on her two leads, “Another Broken Heart” and “A Thousand Ways.” Ditto “Won’t Be Worried Long,” with Willis and Leigh’s backing harmony sweetening Carper’s craggy alto. Then they all sing together on Prine’s song, a great way to close this brief offering and leave you wanting more.

If you do want more (and I sure do) they’re singing a bunch of dates this spring, which you’ll find on their website.

(Bismeaux, 2024)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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