It’s not hard to see country music is currently at a crossroads. The Nashville music machine is now led by a new young group of stars more famous from their American Idol and Nashville Star televison appearances than the sort of roadhouse and bar tours their predecessors had to endure. The old guard is starting to retreat and this group of young’uns are the focal point of where country music is headed. Needless to say, there are plenty of hardcore country fans who are not happy. Calling the music of the up and comers ‘too slick’ for pure country, they parrot a longstanding gripe as fans of hardcore country music have been calling popular country music ‘slick’ for the past 50 years or so. Ever since Patsy Cline and her peers became the purveyors of what many wags called “countrypolitan” in the late ’50’s, people have been sounding the death knell of pure country, fretting for their fiddles and steel guitars and wondering why the drummer was ever allowed onstage at the Opry. Never mind one of the inventors of the sound was guitarist/producer/A&R man Chet Atkins, a name synonymous with country music and one of its’ most honored and well-known instrumentalists. When Buck Owens brought his Bakersfield sound to country back in the early ’60’s, everything calmed down for awhile. At least, until Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson started the outlaw country movement. Country purists hated that. Yet, today, another complaint being leveled at country music is it’s ‘too safe’. Whatever their stance, most would agree country music is at its’ best when it encompasses different types of styles. Younger fans want elements of rock music while the older fans flock to banjos and fiddles. Luckily, along comes Leyla Fences to rally the fans with the most potent brew of past and present country sounds since LeAnn Rimes had her first hit more than a decade ago. The only difference being, where Rimes was full of talent without the life experience and knowledge of what it meant, Fences has lived a life. Maybe several of them, and knows what she wants to sing, how to sing it and why she wants to sing it the way she does. Believe that it is not just semantics – Fences songs have depth and her vocals resonate with the experiences she has gone through to get where she is today.
It should be no surprise Fences’ songs show a maturity and a certain worldliness to them. Not satisfied with her suburban Texas childhood, Fences has seemingly led several lives from an aborted culinary career to time spent overseas as a mover-and-shaker in the corporate snakepit. It is the life lessons from these experiences which informs her music and gives her songs and performances a palette of shades and nuances most of the other new artists who have stormed the charts the past few years could never acquire with their manufactured histories and cul-de-sac upbringings. Leyla Fences has not only survived everything life could throw at her, life itself now has to contend with whatever Fences manages to throw back, which, in this case, is a very good album.
The first song “Let Him Go” is an uptempo country song featuring some great vocals from Fences and some great steel guitar from Mitchell Smithey that sounds as if it came right off of the radio. In fact, using this first song as evidence, the album seems to have great production values. Fences’ voice is deeper and throatier that your usual country thrush but the difference in her sound will allow her to not get lost in the shuffle at radio as her voice is very distinctive, with a rich vibrato. The next song, “This Close”, has a bit of Bakersfield/Patsy Cline to it in that it sounds retro yet has very solid production and sounds up-to-date as far as sound quality. On this song Milo Deering weighs in with some great fiddle playing and the rest of the band is really strong as well. “Hardly Livin'” is up next and is an uptempo song just made for the dancefloor and a little bit of boot-scootin’. Lyrically the song is a little slight but the song is pure fun and ultimately great dance floor fodder with the lyrics just working to serve the punchline in the title and chorus as in a lot of country songs. “The Net” comes next and is a much slower song with an acoustic guitar opening giving it a bit of a folk song feel, with a little anthemic quality thrown in. Some organ by Brad Neher adds a little needed gravitas to the song. The following song, “Love Doesn’t Work Like That”, returns to the uptempo groove of the previous songs and is an empowering, strong female song which should be popular with the same folks who made Carrie Underwood popular. This would make a great single and, like the rest of the album, sounds ready for the radio thanks to the flawless production. “Dancing With You”, the next cut, slows the party down for a bit to the old country standby – the waltz tempo. Thanks to some mournful fiddle by Deering, the spirit of Cline is once again conjured, though with Fences’ more modern-day sound. The next song, “Getting Over Him”, has a mid-tempo beat and is interesting as it serves as something of a female drinking song, which may be a new sub-genre of country created by Fences who populates a lot of her songs with strong women who are attempting to overcome their relationship problems. The next song is called “Upside Blues” and has a decidedly retro feel to it and could serve as a modern twist on Rosanne Cash’s ’80’s hit “Seven Year Ache” but with way more attitude and a more traditional country sound than Cash’s song. “The Other Side” is up next and has a mid-tempo feel to it and a rhythym similar to Roger Williams’ “King Of The Road”. “The Fool” returns to the uptempo pulse of the earlier songs and would sound better if slowed down a tad as the song sounds rushed, with the lyrics crammed into each line. “Maybe” is another mid-tempo song and, while not bad, is not a standout song and suffers from a banal chorus. The following song “Two’s A Crowd”, fares a little better and is a cleverly written uptempo song about the joys of being single and having the freedom to play the field. “Life is Funny” closes the album on a mid-tempo note with a hopeful song about being able to roll with the punches.
For those of you who like retro sounding country but feel it should have a modern kick to it, this album is going to be right up your alley. Fences manages to find a great balance between what people consider classic country of the late ’50’s and ’60’s and what is on country radio today, as far as sound and feeling. The lyrics need to be worked on a bit, as they seemed fairly slight. Nashville has a history of using puns in the chorus and sometimes very hokey stories but with the new breed of country singers, especially the female stars, country has sort of moved forward to the next level and allowed women to show their independence and equality and to also allow the lyrics of their songs to mirror these attitudes. Fences could have pushed a few more buttons and still be considered fairly tame compareed to what’s being played nowadays. After all, Fences had no lyrics about taking baseball bats to her lover’s truck and gouging seats with car keys etc. With a little more tweaking to her songs (maybe once she gets into the Nashville system of co-writing, some of these issues will resolve themselves) Fences could find herself on the radio with the big stars in Nashville today.