Nashville Female Roundup: Make Me a Star

Nashville is to singer-songwriters what Pittsburgh used to be to steel. The first question one must ask, though, is whether the Starmaker Machinery (phrase courtesy of Joni Mitchell) is cranking out high quality products or interchangeable widgets. The second question is whether supply has outstripped demand. The marketplace will probably resolve both of these questions better than I, but what I've heard in the past year leaves me torn between optimism and pessimism. Here's my take on a crop of several female Nashville recording artists.

Sometimes the best "new" singer-songwriter is a vet who has been kicking around but hasn't yet made the big leap. Garrison Starr heads that list for me. Her slightly nasal young-sounding voice belies the fact that she just turned 40, has 10 LPs to her name, and has been shuttling between LA and Nashville since 1993. Her latest EP, The Forgotten Street is a damn good reason to discover her if you've not already. Call these five selections 'trials-of-love' songs mostly in a country/pop vein, though her "I Could Be Your Girl" is evocative of Robyn's dance hall tunes. Starr has a supple voice that can be little girl-like, guttural, tender, or heart-wrenchingly gorgeous and what she knows that a lot of youngsters don't is which voice to put with which song. You can hear this on "In the Silence," available on YouTube, though my personal favorite is "Halfway Whole," a healing-in-process exploration that's way more honest than 99% of the processed pop platitudes one hears.

All the Pretty Things, the Nashville debut release of Ashley Riley (her third overall), induced less excitement for me. Riley has a bit of Emmylou Harris husk in her voice, but not nearly her range or depth. The album title (and its second track) sum up all that's promising and still in development about Riley's music. She indeed has a pretty voice, but she needs to add colors to her vocal palette instead of relying on shiny baubles. For example, she has a song titled "Love Shark" that, like many of the selections, simply needs to be tougher. This is particularly the case if she is going to keep working with her current band, one that features heavy bass lines and electric guitar breakouts. Put directly, Riley's material is in the country/folk realm, but the instrumentation leans toward pop/rock. She began her career as an acoustic artist and perhaps that was her best destiny.

Sarah Miles might be the artist most likely to break through, simply because she's the one with the most commercial potential. You'll see some of her releases labeled "folk," but that's utter nonsense and she might want to do all she can to discourage that handle. Think Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift; that is, she's pop music as filtered through those rock-influenced big arrangements favored by the country music industry. She has released four recordings, of which I sampled One (2013). Miles certainly has her pop hooks in order: catchy melody lines, danceable tempos, and a tight backup band. On a less charitable note, One could also be seen as mostly one-note in tone.  With the exception of "Gray," every song on the album opens small and abruptly shifts to high gear. It's a classic pop diva maneuver but, for me, these songs lack to emotional impact of "Gray," where she manages to stay in the slow lane for the entire song. But then again, the pop industry loves singers like this and it won't hurt that the New Jersey-born, UVM grad, Atlanta-based, Nashville-produced Miles is fresh-faced and leggy. If she does make it, good for her. This music isn't my cup of tea, but it's very good of kind.Here's an official video.

Jessica Campbell is trying to follow the same path as Miles. She's an artist whose work I've known for several years and her latest III (2014) will either be the record that makes her, or brings her back to earth. Campbell has a terrific voice and has some fine moments with the pen as well, but she's struggled to find her niche. III is a very Nashville album in that its very slick and polished. The open question is whether its processed like American cheese. There are several nice moments, including "Brighter Days," a soulful pop song, and the chirpy, happy "Better ThanThis." To my ear, though, four of the eleven tracks feel like filler and several others imply fail to ignite. Campbell has certainly paid her dues, but in my heart of hearts I think she's in the same boat as Ashley Riley, and that Jessica Campbell Unplugged is a better musical space.

Rob Weir

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