Album Review – Jaime Wyatt’s “Neon Cross”

photo: Brad Coolidge

Country music isn’t just a form of entertainment. For performers and fans alike, it can be a reformatory institution, and has been since its inception, offering a way up from poor means, or a second chance for past transgressions. When the polish has worn off, country music will still accept you, take your scars and priors as proof of authenticity, and be attentive and sympathetic to your story. Country music can be a path forward towards redemption and forgiveness, and a portal to a simpler time. A rebirth.

California native Jaime Wyatt signed her first recording contract when she was 17, but not as a country music artist. Country is where she came when life caught up with her, beset her with dilemmas and addiction, and eventually, threw her behind bars for robbing her heroin dealer. Yes, that’s how far things had gone. She then took her experiences as a now ex-con (similar to her hero Merle Haggard), and wrote about them in her debut album Felony Blues. She told all in an excellent but brief six songs, and finished by covering Merle’s “Misery and Gin.”

It took a while for Felony Blues and Jaime to catch on, partly because after its release, her father and a close friend died, and next thing she knew she was back to wrestling with demons as praise rained down for her effort. But catch on she did after getting right and receiving some big opportunities to open for names like the Turnpike Troubadours and Shooter Jennings. Now, many regard Wyatt as one of the candidates who could step into in the headliner realm where so few females reside.

How to follow up such a boss effort as Felony Blues was a challenge. Wyatt had already taken her most harrowing tales and set them to music in a cohesive narrative that absorbed her audience. But she had to try, signing with New West Records, employing her touring buddy Shooter Jennings in the capacity of producer, and setting her vision on a new record.

Maybe not as impactful pound for pound as Felony Blues, but much more thorough and developed and purposeful, Neon Cross once again captures Jaime Wyatt leaning on honesty, and exhibiting a fearlessness of expression despite her shy disposition to reveal her most bruised emotions and recollections in song as an enraptured audience soaks it all in. Searing your heart is Wyatt’s voice that is perfectly imperfect like Emmyou’s, cracking and failing at all the right times, yet underpinned with a strength and beauty imbuing each note with shiver-inducing ions.

Wyatt may have tapped out her stories of incarceration, but she finds ample inspiration for the eleven songs of Neon Cross, including her frustrations at being considered “Just A Woman” where she’s joined by Jessi Colter, to feelings of heartbreak, abandonment, frustrations for when her ship will come in, and shattered dreams. You know, country music that you can commiserate and identify with. Identifying her faults, willing to blame herself, but also wondering when all the lessons and redemption will kick in is what allows Neon Cross to glow bright.

Jaime Wyatt is country, and qualifies this only with her California influences. Shooter Jennings dutifully respects the sound Wyatt forged on her first record, but enhances it with smart arrangements and unique guitar riffs—some interpreted by the late Neal Casal—giving Neon Cross some excellent spice and diversity. Some warming up may be needed by the more straight-laced country listeners. Shooter likes to veer things a bit more in the rock direction if he can, like he’s done with recent Tanya Tucker and American Aquarium projects. But Neon Cross is still solidly country, just with more imagination and vision brought to the mix, like the aching notes of “By Your Side,” the unsettled mood of “Demon Tied To A Chair In My Brain,” and the echo action on Jaime’s vocals on “Neon Cross” and “Rattlesnake Girl.”

Neon Cross does test the listener in a few instances though. Starting the record off with a nearly 6-minute piano ballad is bold. It’s also effective, aside from the fact that Wyatt’s voice sure comes in super hot in the mix, which kind of jars you right at the start. Not to be prudish, but even this non-denominational listener can sense the wincing of some with a big exclamated “God damn” in the title track. And questionable Dave Cobb-inspired Mellotron leads into the most awful keyboard tone toward the end of “Just A Woman” that reminds one of a one-man cover band playing to a mall food court in 1996.

Neon Cross chooses to be daring in its message, in its music, and in the foot Wyatt has put out in front of it, coming out of the closet during the announcement of the record, though not wanting to make it the focal point of her music or persona. And for the most part, her approach is very effective, resulting in a record that feels very alive and visionary, and if not redemptive, at least on the path to towards that goal.

Whether it’s country music or a Lord and Savior, taking a bending knee in front of something bigger than yourself and offering up your sins for atonement can be soul cleansing. You still have to put in the work, and there will be detours along the way. But Jaime Wyatt charts a path toward redemption through country music on Neon Cross.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)

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