Album Review – Hope Dunbar’s “Sweetheartland”

Leave behind all of that defanged country, moldy folk, reconstituted indie rock, derivative roots pop, and pallid white boy soul they try to peddle these days as “Americana,” and pin your ears to what this virtually unknown mother from middle America is doing, because it’s leagues better than most, and the ideal of what post alt-country roots music should sound like. You’ve probably never heard of Hope Dunbar before. But my goodness, pipe up a few of her songs, and you’ll be made plenty aware.

How much does a preacher’s wife with teenage boys from nowhere Nebraska have to lend to the Americana conversation? Apparently, quite a bit. Sometimes the emptiness of landscape is more inspiring than the mountains and the oceans by offering a clean palette for the imagination, and the isolation from the creative epicenters insulates you from the adverse influence of trends and the the disruptions of inner conversations that the greatest artists have within themselves.

Bold and unafraid, Hope Dunbar takes direction from premier songwriters like Patty Griffin and John Prine, and weaves these lessons into stories that sometimes are distinctly apart from her own, but still feel extremely real when rendered in song. Listening to this record, you would think Hope just went through a harrowing breakup. That nervous, unhinged energy and tension that accompanies an emotional malfunction is captured exquisitely in the song “What Were You Thinking?” Dunbar even exhibits that sloppy timing thing down, delivering certain lines either way early or late in a way that breathes soul into the performances, and has you hanging on every word.

photo: Karyn Rae

Sweetheartland finds the sweet spot of songwriting, as well as music and arrangement. The songs may have been written and inspired in the American breadbox, but she splurged and took her songs down to Nashville to get some of the best pickers and players to breathe life into them. Zack Smith of Smooth Hound Smith and Jesse Thompson were brought on as producers, and deserve kudos for understanding Hope’s vision.

Even though you’re initially reeled in by the songwriting, what’s soon revealed as one of Hope Dunbar’s most remarkable assets is her singing voice. At the start, you may get a sense that she’s trying a little too hard to be expressive and perhaps overextending. Yet by the end, Hope certifies in your mind that she’s an excellent singer on top of everything else, not just from the command and fearlessness she brings, but the emotions she’s able to infuse in the performances.

Still, when she writes about one of her heroes in “John Prine,” or talks shop about trying to balance her home life with her musical aspirations in “More,” the songwriting is what leaves you most entranced. She gives voice to quiet desperation in “Dust,” pays tribute to the cathartic and hopeful nature of travel in “The Road Is,” and inspires you on a very personal level by stretching to achieve perhaps improbable dreams, with Hope’s ambition and pluck making you want to root for her and push your own dreams forward that much more.

Hope Dunbar many not come with the buzz of the young hipsters in East Nashville, and probably won’t light the Twitterverse on fire. But those that give her an opportunity and forgo the fake hype and name recognition that drives much of music will find an everyday hero writing and singing for her sanity, as it should be. It’s the slice-of-life charm brought forward with spectacular songwriting that makes Sweetheartland something so much beyond average Americana.

9/10

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Purchase Sweetheartland from Hope Dunbar

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