MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Witch Camp (Ghana), Loretta Lynn, Nashville Ambient Ensemble, & Leandrul

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

“Hatred Drove Me From My Home” was the first track I streamed from I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used to Be (Six Degrees Records) and I was spellbound. This collection of field recordings documents the experiences of women in Ghana who have been forced to seek refuge in “witch camps” after being accused of witchcraft and driven from their homes. The music is like nothing I’ve ever heard before, a first-hand account of the lives of those who have lost everything.

The voices are powerful and resonant, the instrumentation provided by whatever’s at hand — tin cans, corn husks, a tea pot. There’s no translation beyond the song titles, but it’s not needed; the underlying emotion comes through clearly. “I Was Accused,” sung acapella, consists of a single, repeated phrase, anchoring the singer to her identity (though all the performers here are anonymous, to prevent backlash from their communities). The calm, quiet singer of “Everywhere I Turn, There Is Pain” is accompanied by the harsh clang, clang of metal striking metal, as a bird chirps in the background. There’s a sense of anger in “There Are No Promises in This World,” and the heartbreak in the subdued voice singing “Left to Live Like an Animal.” But there are also unexpected moments of joy, as in the boisterous “Love” and with its chorus of women whooping in delight. Born out of hardship and loss, this is music that is unforgettable.

On the verge of her 89th birthday in April, Loretta Lynn returns with her first new album since 2018, Still Woman Enough (Legacy Recordings). The title track is a fun, lively song of strength and resilience, that has Lynn proudly proclaiming, “I know how to love, lose, and survive” in the chorus, with a little help from her friends Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood. It sets the tone for this spirited, optimistic album, that celebrates women in country music, and sees Lynn revisiting some of her past successes.

There’s a nod to Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family in her fine take on “Keep On the Sunny Side.” Margo Price joins Lynn in the lament “One’s on the Way” (which contrasts the lifestyles of the rich and famous with the more downbeat reality of most women). Tanya Tucker playfully jousts with Lynn over who will ultimately claim the prize on “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Lynn’s resonant voice is especially suited to rousing numbers like Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” But the most poignant performance is her spoken-word recitation of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” about her hardscrabble beginnings. And speaking of her signature song, her autobiography of the same name has just been republished, in an updated and expanded edition, taking her remarkable story up to the present day.

Cerulean (Centripetal Force Records), by the Nashville Ambient Ensemble is the sound of the country music capital as might be envisioned by Angelo Badalamenti; there’s a languid dreaminess, but also a sense of mystery. The seven-piece Ensemble was organized by Michael Hix, who drew on the pool of stellar talent available in Music City. The instrumental range blends electric guitar, baritone electric guitar, and pedal steel guitar with piano, synthesizer, and guitar synth, resulting in a lush bed of sound to sink into.

The music is largely instrumental, with occasional vocal contributions from Deli Paloma-Sisk, floating in and out of the music with delicate grace. The mixing and melding also extends to the music’s creation, with the musicians often improvising (it’s why the track “Conversion” runs over ten minutes), allowing a piece to ebb and flow at its own pace. The word “cerulean” refers to the color blue, the color of serenity, something you’ll find in abundance here. This is lovely, ethereal music to chill out to.

Crosby Morgan was a folk-oriented singer-songwriter until she discovered electronic dance music. She released her first EDM work, PRIMAL, in 2018, under the name Leandrul. Now comes the enticing follow up, Psychosis of Dreams (Handsmade).

The album is based on her own experiences dealing with mental health issues, and is crafted as a journey, from the opening track “2010” through the concluding “Redemption.” The song titles are meant to be signposts, leading you on the way. “I know now what they meant when they said that life and death really aren’t so different,” Leandrul sings in “Death by Nerium,” a quiet contemplation of suicide. “You don’t know what it’s like to have your brain fried,” is the devastating observation in the pulsating “Electroconvulsive Memory,” Leandrul’s cool delivery providing a sharp contrast with the horrors she describes. A number of organic sounds work their way into this electronic realm as well; a guitar case used as a drum, the noise of a dryer or power drill sampled and reworked. This is an intensely personal album that nonetheless has a universal resonance. It’s the story of looking into the abyss and the long road back.

Denise Hylands Introduces Listeners To The Dark Side of Country on 3RRR’s Twang

Denise Hylands with musician Joshua Hedley.

Every Saturday afternoon, driving home from teaching a Pilates class, I’d hit the freeway right as the theme song for Twang introduced Denise Hylands’ regular 2-hour country music show on 3RRR. I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of country music, but there’s something contagious about Hylands’ pure passion and knowledge. I never change the dial, never even consider it. Whether it’s a rarity from the ‘50s, or a recent release by an Australian country music artist, Hylands treats every song and artist with so much respect. She’s been in the game long enough that if she didn’t love it, there’d be no point doing this.

“I’m usually the one doing the interviews!” Hylands tells Audiofemme. “I always just want to make people feel comfortable – in fact I just think of it like a chat, a conversation. I love talking to people, getting their story, finding out where they come from so that listeners get the full story.”

Hylands applied to 3RRR as an administrative assistant shortly after completing high school in 1983; landing the job eventually led to doing graveyard shifts and filling in for absent presenters. She presented her first regular 3RRR show in 1984, the Selection Show on Sunday afternoons, showcasing new releases. She was also part of the Breakfasters lineup, a show which still kickstarts many Melbournian’s mornings.

“I was already at 3RRR from 1984 when I was 18, and I did shows for 12 years then approached the program manager and proposed an idea for a country show,” explains Hylands. “There was already High In The Saddle, but I wanted to show off more alternative country, less mainstream. So, I started Twang on Monday nights in 1996 from 10 to 12pm. I did it for a year and by the year end, I was given Saturday afternoons, which I’ve done for the past 24 years. I loved that first year,” says Hylands, then adds with a juicy laugh: “The amount of people who complained!”

Recent episodes of Twang have offered interviews with Calexico, Tracy McNeil, Marlon Williams, Charley Crockett, Slim Dusty’s grandson and a tribute to the late, great, troubled troubadour, Justin Townes Earle and the legendary John Prine.

Hylands raves about McNeil and Dan Parsons, both of whom are performing in Melbourne in May. “Tracy turned up nearly ten years ago from Canada,” Hylands recalls. “She was hanging out with Jordie Lane. He’d recorded an EP in his bedroom and I really liked it, then Tracy had given me a CD when I was hanging out with Jordie and I loved what she was doing. She’s a really great songwriter, and every album she gets better and better. I was lucky to have her and Dan Parsons come to my house and do a concert there. I have an old church in the country and it was just like, wow.”

Hylands prides herself on introducing people to “the dark side” of country music. “That whole alternative country scene, that whole Americana thing which started around 1995/1996 in terms of music charts, has gone a bit crazy, and I’d like to think I’ve had a hand in this,” she says. “With country music, so many people like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but they say they don’t love country music.” Hylands has nailed me as a listener; maybe it’s time I re-evaluate my stance.

When she’s not interviewing on air, Hylands writes reviews and stories for both Rhythms and Stack magazines. It turns out we’ve both reviewed Loretta Lynn’s 50th album.

“When she hooked up with Jack White, I love that she found new people to work with. Even hooking up with Margo Price – I love seeing her with these younger, strong female artists,” Hylands raves. “The last few albums, she brings up different versions of songs she released so many years ago. These are songs that have to be heard. She was a forerunner who spoke up on women’s rights and women’s issues, I mean she spoke about the pill and got banned on the radio. She’s an incredible woman. Her and Wanda Jackson.”

In fact, Jackson is one of Hylands’ favourite international interviews. “Wanda Jackson is in the league of Loretta Lynn, right? She was the queen of rockabilly. She dated Elvis Presley who convinced her to move from country toward rock ‘n’ roll,” says Hylands. “I’ve done two really long interviews with her. I love Wanda Jackson! She’s in her eighties now, and she calls out to her husband during the interviews, Wendell, sitting in the background.”

Jackson also interviewed another royal in the country world, Dolly Parton. “I spoke to her about her biography, and originally wanting to be a bluegrass singer,” she remembers. “I only had ten minutes, so I had to get her engaged. I talked to her about her music and her charity work, and she was just so gorgeous, so appreciative. I also spoke to Porter Wagoner once, and she wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’ about him. Talking to someone so legendary, those kind of interviews are so fantastic.”

Legends are one thing, but Hylands also has a knack for recognizing the legends of the future, like the “extremely good looking” Charley Crockett. He started out as a busker in New Orleans; now he’s released at least half a dozen albums. Plus, “he can wear a cardigan like nobody’s business,” says Hylands. “I was meant to be his tour manager but he had open heart surgery months before the tour was meant to start.”

Hylands has over 25 years of brilliant stories and has made lifelong friends with many artists, including Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. “They open their mouths and play guitar, and you just go, ‘oh my god’.” She also goes way back with previous Audiofemme subject and fellow 3RRR alumni, Mary Mihelakos; they’ve known each other since they were teens. “She was hanging around, this incredibly enthusiastic young girl obsessed with music,” Hylands says, whole-heartedly agreeing with Mihelakos’ recent induction into the Melbourne Hall of Fame. “If you’re gonna give an award to someone, give that girl some acknowledgement.”

Hylands can’t have guests for the time being due to COVID-19. But on the horizon, Hylands is very excited about the new album from Southern Culture on the Skids, who are responsible for the Twang theme, and loves being introduced to new albums by the up-and-coming indie artists managed by her friends in the States. She says, “My excitement is discovering new music every week.”

We know how she feels – perhaps that’s what keeps us coming back to Twang.

International listeners can tune in to Twang live or listen back via the 3RRR website.

ONLY NOISE: The Women of Country Music Offer Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Loretta Lynn’s alcohol-soaked pity party for herself in “Somebody, Somewhere” echoes quite a lot of our newly solo Saturday nights. Dolly Parton reminds us all that wealth is a state of being, rather than the (declining) value of our bank accounts. Lucinda Williams asks the simple, but potentially life-saving question, “Are You Alright?“; Ashley Monroe comforts us, singing “someday you’ll be fine, sweet as wine” on “From Time To Time“; and Kasey Chambers gets to the core of being “Happy” regardless of the circumstances. Really, if any musical genre was perfectly suited to get us through heartbreak, loneliness, and financial hardship, it’s country. And the women of country, in particular, have plenty of lessons to impart on coping with life in chaotic times – particularly those we’re collectively facing as COVID-19 rages on.

Loretta Lynn was a ground-breaker. In her 60-year career, she was brave enough to defy strictly conservative commercial radio stations to sing about abortion, rejecting drunken advances, getting on birth control, and older women desiring younger men (and pursuing them for sexual gratification). In short, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind – even when it came to doing housework. “Well goodbye tubs and clothes lines, goodbye pots and pans/I’m a gonna take a Greyhound bus as further as I can/I ain’t a gonna wash no windows and I ain’t a gonna scrub no floors/And when you realize I’m gone, I’m a gonna hear you roar,” she sang on “Hey Loretta,” from 1973 LP Love Is The Foundation. While I don’t recommend taking public transportation, her words may help you find your voice if you feel like you’ve been stuck at home with a mop and a stack of dishes thanks to housemates who have no inclination to help with domestic necessities.

I live by Dolly Parton’s saying, “The higher the hair, the closer to God,” which is only one of the many examples of her deep wisdom. Right now, many families in America and around the world are struggling to survive on their savings, government rations (if we’re fortunate enough to qualify) and the generosity of community organizations. It’s a good time to recall Dolly’s ode to her resourceful mother, “Coat of Many Colors.” The story behind the song is true – as a child, Dolly was taunted by her schoolmates for wearing a coat made from scraps of fabric that clearly indicated a lack of wealth in her family, but illustrated the richness of their bond: “I told ’em of the love/My momma sewed in every stitch/And I told ’em all the story/Momma told me while she sewed/And how my coat of many colors/Was worth more than all their clothes.” With many dusting off their old sewing machines to make masks for healthcare workers and neighbors alike, love becomes the thread that holds everything together.

Granted, Shania Twain was singing a love song to her man with 1999 single “You’ve Got A Way,” but some of the lyrics could equally apply to your best friendships. “You got a way with words/You get me smiling even when it hurts,” she sings. “There’s no way to measure what your love is worth/I can’t believe the way you get through to me.” When it feels like the world is in chaos, sometimes you just need understanding, and it goes both ways. We all need to be there for each other.

No one knows that better than Lucinda Williams, who just released her 14th studio album, Good Souls Better Angels. Williams knows all about hard living, sacrifice, and scraping for silver linings, and on her 2009 LP West, she opens with a simple check in: “Are you alright?/I looked around me and you were gone/Are you alright?/I feel like there must be something wrong/Are you alright?/Cos it seems like you disappeared/Are you alright?/Cos I been feeling a little scared.” If you’re like me, maybe you’ve found that the simple act of asking, as Williams did, “Are You Alright?” has even more importance now than it ever has. Every phone call to a friend, Zoom meeting with coworkers, and interaction with those on the frontline begins with this simple act of kindness.

Though “having someone to hug and kiss you” may not be an ideal way to observe social distancing, admitting that you’re not alright might enable people around you to offer you resources and advice, even if it’s just on social media. Though we must remain physically distant, we can still be socially connected.

It usually takes a lot of grief, wailing, and wondering if you can handle it before you see signs of your own granite-hard resolve to live, breathe, and become who you’re capable of being. That suffering and strengthening is illustrated beautifully in Australian country singer Kasey Chambers’ “Stronger,” from 2004 LP Wayward Angel. “I thought it was good, I thought it was fine/I thought it was just a matter of time/The sun would shine/I held my breath, I covered my eyes/Thought I was just clearing the skies,” she sings, capturing that period of waiting and watching we’re all feeling right now. Though nothing makes sense to her, she finds power within (“I’m a little bit braver/I’m a little bit wilder/I can stand a bit closer to the light”), proving that the old cliche is true – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Ashley Monroe’s bittersweet tune “From Time to Time” is another reminder that everything that threatens to break us open and bleed us of all the sweetness of who we are passes. We are loved, even when we feel horribly alone. I think of the lines “Someday you’ll be fine/Sweet as wine/It’s alright to remember” when reminiscing about going out for a meal, or visiting a record store. Those little things that nourish our soul that we miss so much? Let’s remember them and know this current level of restriction isn’t forever.

These resilient women can all attest to the power of music and creativity to make sense of pain, injustice and grief. Music is redemptive, it connects us like an invisible web that reflects the light after rainfall. Even if your singing voice isn’t going to win over record executives any time soon, you’re still capable of singing along.

5 Christmas Songs by the Women of Country Music You Need to Hear

Katie Pruitt, YouTube

Year after year, the same holiday standards come pouring through our speakers when the calendar flips to December (or before Halloween in recent years). While these often become ubiquitous, there are several artists who deliver original renditions of these holiday standards, in addition to offering new classics of their own.

The women featured below deliver a mix of original songs and covers that uniquely shine, whether it’s three superstars uniting for an iconic holiday number or a burgeoning superstar penning one of the saddest Christmas songs you’ve ever heard. Check out Audiofemme’s pick of five Christmas songs by the women of country music.

Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire – “Silent Night”

When Clarkson, Yearwood and McEntire took the stage during Clarkson’s 2013 special, Kelly Clarkson’s Cautionary Christmas Music Tale, they delivered one of the most beautiful renditions of the holiday standard regarded as “the most beautiful song ever written.” The trio defines the word “perfection” with their performance, as Yearwood’s powerful voice reaches new heights, while Clarkson provides enchanting harmonies. And when McEntire joins in, her voice adds even more magical layers. When they end the performance a capella, their harmonies knock the wind right out of you.

Kacey Musgraves – “Christmas Makes Me Cry”

Challenge: Try not to tear up when listening to “Christmas Makes Me Cry.” Between singing about broken hearts and those who couldn’t make it home for the holidays, Musgraves doesn’t try to disguise the fact that there’s a somber side to Christmas that’s often forgotten. “I wonder if I’m the only one/Whose broken heart still has broken parts/Just wrapped in pretty paper/And it’s always sad/Seeing mom and dad getting a little grayer,” she sings. What I appreciate most about the track is how Musgraves extends a hand to those experiencing grief during the Christmas season, and this compelling country queen recognizes them with this gem. “Christmas Makes Me Cry” is poignant, emotional and beautiful, reflecting the intense emotions of the Christmas season and the foundation that Musgraves builds her artistry on.

Loretta Lynn – “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas”

Before Musgraves, Loretta Lynn set the precedent for melancholy Christmas tunes, and “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” has all the makings of a Christmas classic. Penned solely by the country icon, Lynn turns tear-in-my-beer mainstay country lyrics into her own Christmas original. Between the twinkling of the piano keys and her timeless voice, she paints a peaceful scene of decorative Christmas trees and flying snowflakes. But the pain inside her is anything but peaceful as she sings of missing the person she loves. “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” is a highlight on her 1966 Country Christmas album that features six original numbers, including heartbreaker “Gift of the Blues” and sassy “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus.”

Cam – “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

Get ready to be stunned when you press “play” on Cam’s cover of this holiday classic. With a voice that’s timeless and modern at the same time, Cam truly captures the sadness and longing expressed in the song in a way that resonates. While I’ve heard the track countless times during the holiday season, Cam’s version made me realize how heartbreaking this standard is, written from the perspective of a solider who hopes, but ultimately doesn’t make it home for the holiday, making for one of the most powerful renditions of the popular hit I’ve heard.

Katie Pruitt – “Merry Christmas, Mary Jane”

If you want a Christmas song that’s original and modern with a dash of humor, then look no further than Katie Pruitt’s “Merry Christtmas, Mary Jane.” With a soulful voice that cuts like a knife, Pruitt tips a cheetah-print Santa hat to the one thing that’ll take her spirits high: marijuana. Her voice is so striking you almost miss the humorous little gems she sprinkles in (“All these Christmas lights would look twice as good/As we hotbox around your neighborhood”), all of which she expresses in the midst of bluesy guitar riffs. This unique holiday tribute demands a spot on your playlist.