Hope Dunbar: June 2021 Artist of the Month


Hope Dunbar



Hope Dunbar made an earlier appearance in this column for her Three Black Crows project. I liked it a lot. I love her latest, Sweetheartland. I love it so much that I’ll just come out and say if Hope Dunbar isn’t the next big thing in country music, every record producer in America should undergo a brain transplant!


The title track is both memorable and deceptive. It’s a paean to the American midlands, the people who work it, and—as the title implies–her sweetheart. Ahh, let’s talk about that. She’s the wife of a small-town Nebraska minister, but she’s not cut from the robes you might imagine. Once we get our catchy opening appetizer, Dunbar mixes affability and nostalgia with attitude, defiance, and the occasional boot in the butt. She’s a bit what you’d get if you blended Lori McKenna, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton.


You want attitude? Try “What Were You Thinking?” It’s about a jilted woman, but not one who’s about to lick her wounds: I was up making a list of all the things I had lost and it turns out that losing you only slightly decreases what I’ve got. Not angry enough for you? There’s this: … all I need is a lighter, your clothes and a gasoline can. Dunbar enhances the pugnacious mood by soaring with and above her fine backing band. “Dog Like You” gives a swampy blues treatment to another better-off-without-him song. One can easily imagine Dolly singing this one, an impish smile upon her face.


Sometimes it pays to have a little mileage behind you. Her song “More” is one example of that, with its mix of dreams and being grateful for what she has: And what more could I possibly want? I’ve got blessings in spades/I’ve got full sun in winter and in the summer I got shade/But I look out the window and I envy the bird/And’s I’m thinking more, more more/Ain’t a four-letter word. When we hear Dunbar sing “Woman Like Me,” it’s simply impossible to imagine an innocent young Nashville newbie credibly covering it. McKenna comparisons spring immediately to mind, especially with its edgy ambiguity. Is Dunbar accepting her lot, lamenting it, or just telling it like it is. One thing is clear: It might be a good idea for Dunbar to be on the road more, as I can’t imagine the roof of her husband’s church could sustain the force of her voice. Speaking of force, Dunbar lives in tornado alley. “Evacuate” is a clarion call not to mess with warnings, and she doesn’t. She sings it with dead earnest, as she should.


It’s hard not to love “John Prine,” Dunbar’s tribute to the late, great Illinois-bred troubadour who perished from Covid. She absolutely nails Prine’s sensibilities, especially his uncanny ability to pick up mundane things and hurl them back at us wrapped in meaning and tied up with a silly ribbon. Plus, if you’ve ever wielded a pen and tried to write a tune of your own, you can surely appreciate Dunbar’s line: John Prine, John Prine, I wish your songs were mine/Wish I could steal one of your lines and no one would know.

With that thought, I’ll end this review by saying that it’s time for the music industry to pay attention to a Nebraska preacher’s wife who writes and sings like few can. Can country music handle a mature woman who gives us both roses and thorns?


Rob Weir


Beach Read: Reading Material or Litter?



By Emily Henry

Penguin Publishing Group, 374 pages.



You’d think I would know better by now. Back in the late 1980s, the academic world went gaga over Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance. Radway insisted there is a complex relationship between romance novel readers, content, and publishers. She’s probably right, but the suggestion that such works are serious literature felt implausible. But what did I know? I’m male and didn’t read that stuff. In an effort to stretch myself, every few years or so I’d plough through a buzzy work from the best-seller list. The lessons didn’t take, but I nonetheless decided to give the genre one last old college try. Emily Henry is the latest to vie for the queen of romance novels crown and has a new best-seller, so I picked up her last book, which sold roughly 3.5 trillion copies from what I infer from the hype.


I owe Henry a debt. After reading the waste of perfectly good trees titled Beach Read, I will never again have to pretend that romance novels are literature. Here’s the skinny. January Andrews is a Brooklyn-based romance writer. (How original!) After her father dies, she finds that he had a lover when January’s mother was battling cancer. He kept her at a beach house at North Bear Shores on Lake Michigan, which January has inherited, though she plans to offload it ASAP. She nonetheless goes there to pound out her new book, Pride and Prejudice–sorry, I made up that title–and sells stuff from the house to raise needed cash; her French boyfriend has recently dumped her and she’s in-between residences. We never meet Jacques, but he’s easily the most intelligent character in the book for having the sense to float away on the airstream released from January’s vacuous head.


Poor January. Though her mom survived, she’s mad at her late father, her annoying cheerleader agent, her best friend’s decision to move to Chicago, and her next-door neighbor Gus Everett, a guy she sort of knew when they were both at the University of Michigan. He was arrogant then, is now a celebrated non-fiction writer, and has added cynicism to his repertoire. Whew. Got it? Oh, did I forget to mention that her lesbian aunt “Pete” is her only real contact in North Bear Shores and that her father’s mistress lives in the area? Or that she gets roped into a book discussion at a local bookstore? (Would such a tiny place even have a bookstore?)  Guess who else is also drafted to show up for what turns out to be the discussion group from Dante’s 8th layer of blue-haired hell?


Gus seems to think romance novels are garbage, so we initially like him, and he is outwardly disdainful of January, another potential point in his favor. The only thing they have in common is that both are suffering from writer’s block. They hit upon what might be charitably called a unique way to get unblocked. Gus agrees that he will try to write a romance novel and January will try her hand at non-fiction. This plan entails January taking Gus to places the exude romantic ambience, while he takes her to the remains of a commune-turned-death cult. And, of course, they will fall in love, because there’s nothing like a horrible tragedy to get the old love juices flowing. As it transpires, Gus isn’t cynical; he’s damaged from his failing marriage and just never had it in him to tell January that he’s always been intimidated by her talent. (Now we hate Gus.) What other schmaltz can we dump into this soup? How about a stash of letters from January’s father, revelations from the mistress, a boat, a visit from January’s best friend, and an offer from Gus’s soon-to-be ex-wife to try to resurrect their relationship? If that’s not enough for you, how about references to the Bing Crosby song “It’s June in January/Because I'm in love?" Will there be a happy ending? Well, duh!


Beach Read invites adjectival outbursts. Here are several that occurred to me: insipid, trashy, overwrought, obvious. Is Emily Henry playing with the romance genre? Hmmm… a romance involving a romance writer. Meta or schlock? Smart money is on the later. I’m cured. While I’m at it, Radway’s book is postmodernist gobbledygook. I think I’ll break that habit as well.


Rob Weir




Ashley Riley, Dana Sipos, Gessami Boada, Steven Keene, Sierra Hull: June 2021 Music




Name that Category


Ashley Riley
is one of those Venn diagram performers who gets labeled “Americana” because she’s not quite country, folk, or pop. Listen to a few tracks from Set You Free and you’ll know what I mean. “Close to Me,” an earnest pleading for a restoration of intimacy, finds Riley on acoustic guitar, but is sung country chanteuse style and is backed by some indie rock atmospheric electric instrumentation and studio backing vocals. Although Riley doesn’t have a big voice, she’s not afraid to air it. The title track finds her drifting up to an approximation of a pop diva performance, though the fact that she builds to instead of going full leather lung from the start it is an indication that’s not cut from that cloth. “Cut My Losses” also has pop chops, though the song–about a woman about to set herself free–could easily be taken from the studio and performed as unplugged folk or country. A YouTube clip of Riley performing “Make Me” demonstrates the ease with which Riley can simplify and go full acoustic. As faithful readers know, I am a fan of keeping things real.


Canadian singer/songwriter Dana Sipos is another artist who is hard to peg. Her new project The Astral Plane might conjure expectations of swirling Grateful Dead-like sonics, but hers is a different sort of experimentation. Sipos lives her explorations; she dwells amidst old-growth forests on Vancouver Island. Her songs often depart from surface implications. One might, for instance, assume that “Skinny Legs ” is self-referential for the willowy Sipos, but the song is actually about her grandmother. The sentiments echo bluegrass themes, but she performs it as you see in the video–as if it’s part performance art. “Breathing Barrel” is a moody, enigmatic piano- and hand drums-shaped offering that’s where cool jazz meets mysticism: Be the Breathing barrel with its pomegranate throat/And your mouth wide open the shape of the ocean. Barrel breathing is a yoga term, but this song seems to be more about discovering the divine within nature than anything one could do on a mat. “Daniel” is a reflection on the tale of its Old Testament namesake, and “Hoodoo” an amalgam of Badlands landscape and the Kaddish. It’s that kind of album, whatever that might be. I simply surrendered to its stark beauty.      


Gessami Boada
is a Spanish artist who often gets slapped with a jazz label. On començo jo fits, yet it doesn’t. “Com is no fossis ningĂșcould be considered jazz, but it also has big vocal rises more in keeping with commercial pop. “Oh What a Night” is a fragile little song that, once one subtracts the vibes, sounds as if it’s a poignant moment from a musical. “Los Dos” opens with jazzy guitar runs, but eventually sashays and sways–another mashup. Much of the categorical ambiguity is due to Boada’s voice, which is supple enough to cross genres but sounds as if it’s best fitted for hook-laden songs. “In the Shadows of Your Mind” is instrumentally sparse, but Boada’s vocals are playful and take us to places that are definitely better suited for the age of YouTube.


Steven Keene
is an artist with a social conscience whose music toggles between protest and acoustic blues. An album titled Them & Us pretty much tells you which side he’s on. He’s topped by a black chapeau on the album cover, but a listen to the title cut suggests he ought to be wearing a white one. If you are wondering where protest music has gone, you’ve not been hanging out in Keene’s neighborhood. It opens with a line that’s obviously cribbed from Dylan and uses it to questions about all manner of social injustices, beginning with the inanity of border walls broadly defined. You’ll also hear echoes of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” weaves several other protest songs into the mix, updates them musically, and leaves us shattered by how relevant they remain. “On “Save Yourself,” Keene turns to electric blues to explore other current issues and deliver the message: Before you save the word/Save yourself. Like all great troubadours, Keene has his requisite love song, though his “I Can’t Have You” has a twisty core of regret. Mostly, though, Keene is both a righteous and upbeat guy. “We’ll Find a Way” defines his outlook–name the obstacles and figure out how to overcome them. Kudos to Keene for an album that’s simultaneously retro and as relevant as the morning news.


If you need a refuge break from heaviness, Sierra Hull will do the trick. Check out “Beautifully Out of Place” to see why she’s one of the meteors streaking across the bluegrass skies. Think that’s a fluke? Listen to her give old Johann a workout on Bach’s “Sonata No. 3 in C Major.” And she was just goofing off! She serves up a meaty mando-based cover of “People Get Ready,” and, yeah, she can kick butt on guitar too. She does Bill Monroe proud on “Old Ebenezer Scrooge.” Check out her other videos to see how far she’s come in just a few short years. I swear there can’t be any bones in her hands. Hull’s just 25, so I have a feeling this meteor will get brighter still.   


Rob Weir