june 2008

Kimmie Rhodes
Sunbird Records

Of all her many artistic gifts—playwright, actress, author, singer, songwriter—the latter has brought her the most acclaim and is the heart of Kimmie Rhodes’s legacy. She’s one of Emmylou Harris’s favorite songwriters, and one of Willie Nelson’s favorite duet partners, and that’s pretty good for starters. That her decade-plus of solo recordings haven’t brought her near to being a star in the country/Americana firmament isn’t for lack of compelling music, which keeps on coming on Walls Falls Down, yet another deeply haunting example of her singular musical vision. If there’s a problem commercially, maybe it’s because her voice is too subtle an instrument for mainstream tastes. It’s powerful in a subdued way in its wispy, whispering, breathy, fragile qualities, but it’s also largely filigree- and melisma-free, tuneful but conversational, never overwrought or melodramatic. At times there’s a hint of Rufus Wainwright in the crying, swooping phrasing she employs in the enigmatic title song, which may be about lovers trapped in a relationship they want to re-energize or about a literal storm that’s washed away something dear they need to rebuild. Frequently she’s so openly vulnerable, wistful and genuine as to stagger an unsuspecting soul—over a delicately fingerpicked gut-string acoustic guitar that provides the sonic framework for the solemn observations of “Beautiful,” she breathlessly but deliberately catalogues the wonders of the natural world and luxuriates with a lover in the splendors around them and in their hearts all at once—when she breathlessly sings, “You’re so beautiful,” her words are loaded with subtext. In one of three strong cover songs here, Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ve Been Loved By You,” she finds common ground with the narrator’s Zen acceptance of the twists of fate in life—in an arrangement defined by measured rhythms and a guitar’s low-key twang, she celebrates the inner strength she developed in the wake of an ill-fated union, from regaining her faith, to learning to speak “straight from the heart,” to rolling with the emotional punches ensuing from daring to love (“old heartaches can’t hurt me now/’cause baby, I’ve been loved by you”). An old flame should take pride in being regarded so highly. But it’s not all about her. In the deceptively sweet “Your Majesty,” sweet-voiced Rhodes bores in with a plainspoken, “You say God and freedom and democracy/But you can’t say you practice what you preach/that’s not the fruit that’s hanging from your tree”; then, as the music surges every so slightly, and the guitar chimes behind her, Rhodes, her voice as soft as a child’s, puzzles aloud, “How did anyone like you/Get to where you’ve gotten to?” And that’s before the reference to “the cowboy putting notches on your gun/only trouble is, you never seem to be the one to face the fire, pull the trigger,” as the guitar sputters angrily in affirmation. We know who we’re talking about. Elsewhere she offers an edgy, stomping take on Rodney Crowell’s “Sex and Gasoline,” an indictment of a disposable culture that champions youth at any expense and disdains experience; rolls out a lush, hushed rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s “Fool On the Hill,” featuring ethereal, layered harmonies in the choruses and soft acoustic guitar lines over a quietly humming organ; and crafts a suitably pointed depiction, aided by an ominous string section coloring the pulsating, driving rock-based arrangement, of the frantic preparations on the ground ahead of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught. Kimmie Rhodes would hardly make anyone’s list of the great singers of our time, but there’s a lot to be said for a voice you can’t forget, serving exceptionally well-crafted, meaningful songs.—David McGee


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
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