Once you get on the sauce of roots and authenticity and in country music, there’s no kicking it. It starts with artists like Tyler Childers and Sierra Ferrell, and next thing you know, you’re rummaging around for anything even remotely similar to fill your Jones. Such a fate will lead you to the Calgary, Alberta-born Bella White, who despite her origination point from north of the border, embodies the elemental Appalachian sound currently fueling the new roots revolution as good as any, and just may be the fix many are seeking.
Bella might be from Canada, but her father is originally from Virginia and played in bluegrass bands as she was growing up, imbuing her musical universe with that Appalachia bluegrass influence that came out in her debut album Just Like Leaving recorded when she was still a teen. Now signed to Rounder Records with a little more life, wisdom, and purpose behind her, Bella White offers Among Other Things to the world, which takes those bluegrass and Appalachian roots from her ancestry, and expands the palette a bit without breaking the ties to those elemental influences.
Every discussion about the music of Bella White invariably begins and ends with her highly affected, and highly affecting voice. All great music finds that balance between the familiar and the unexpected, and Bella’s unique phrasing brought to a yodel-like projection makes for a novel listening experience laden with emotion, even if it might be a little too robust for everyone’s appetite. It’s where her Appalachia roots are expressed in their most pronounced form, while also being her most original contribution to the art form.
Geography bookends this album that finds Bella White navigating through young adulthood and its inherent dilemmas. “The Way I Oughta Go” is a rumination on indecision, capturing Bella confiding in the audience her confusion on whether she should chase her familial roots in Virginia or North Carolina, or point her nose to Nashville, where she eventually lands. The final song “Among Other Things” closes the travelogue with Bella back in Canada after finding Tennessee a bit suffocating, and deciding to settle in British Columbia as opposed to Alberta, at least for the time being.
In between, Bella struggles with relationships, and deftly uses story and illustrations like dried flowers beside the bed, or a rhododendron bush outside a window to weave her narratives around, and allow her voice to blossom through the word choices. Bits of concern about being an artist for a living also creep into the songs “Numbers” and “Best Of Me.” And Bella perhaps reaches her songwriting peak on the album with “Marilyn” about a woman diminished by an ungrateful man, inspiring Bella to launch into a character study of a perfect stranger she only knows about via second-hand conversation.
Dynamic changes between tracks benefit the listening experience. Bella goes from the brooding and quiet “Dishes,” to the upbeat California country rock of “Break My Heart,” and pulls it off again between the honky tonkin’ “Numbers” and the hushed “Rhododendron.” Unlike her first album that sought to make bluegrass for a cool and younger audience, Just Like Leaving ultimately sits down in that nebulous amalgam of the “Americana” realm overall by touching on bluegrass, country, and folk. But the music works for Bella’s compositions overall.
You do wonder in certain moments if Bella White isn’t a little too expressive and artistic with her vocal delivery, leaving the beauty of the melody or the groove of the rhythm behind for the sake of creating an unconventional experience. Willie Nelson made a career by singing slightly off the beat as well. But he also knew when to sing it straight and mind the melody when it was essential to understanding the lyric, or allowing the song to find its greatest appeal.
What Bella White and Just Like Leaving do perfectly is immerse you into her little world, and get you to care. Her coos and the breaks in her voice swell empathy and commiseration in the audience, and whether you’re a young adult going through the same struggles of finding where you should to be and with whom, or an older person reminiscing on that era in your own life, the music of Bella White finds deep appeal.
Even better, at 22-years-old, you know you’ll be following Bella White not just for the present enjoyment, but what she has in store for the future. She’s the roots music fix you’re looking for.
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