Beware of the women who write songs for the mainstream of country. To make it in that evil world often dominated by men, you’ve got to be a real tough mother cut from a different cloth, capable of being told “no” over and over again and still continue on, and agile enough to deliver songs that can succeed despite the virtually impenetrable bulwarks in place beating back songs of substance.
This is the world that Lori McKenna comes from, that Natalie Hemby, Brandy Clark, and Caitlyn Smith come from. And it’s also the world that Jessi Alexander has survived in for some 15 years now to pen some pretty memorable songs during an otherwise forgettable era.
Columbia Records tried to make a star out of Jessi Alexander back in 2005, releasing a couple of singles that couldn’t make it into the Top 50. But that’s okay. Some artists are just too good for the radio. So screw it. There’s more dignity in keeping it low key, writing songs for others, playing bar rooms and clubs when you can, and doing it your way instead of compromising to commercial playlists.
A long line of country superstars have Jessi Alexander’s name in their liner notes, but it’s more the songs than the names that’s impressive. We’re talking about Lee Brice’s CMA Song of the Year-winning “I Drive Your Truck,” Trisha Yearwood’s “Prizefighter,” and the title track from Tim McGraw’s 2015 album, “Damn Country Music.” Maybe these impress you, and maybe they don’t if you’re a hardcore independent fan. But they happen to make up some of the better songs released in the mainstream in recent memory.
What’s great about albums from mainstream women songwriters is with the jingle jangle in their pockets from song royalties, when they hit the studio, they can do whatever the hell they want, and that tends to be treading out their best material regardless of commercial applicability, and cutting songs to their own specifications as opposed to some label’s expectations. And in the case of Jessi Alexander and Decatur County Red, that also means the songs are unabashedly country with the crust still on and the grit of the real world caked in the treads.
Great writing highlights Decatur County Red of course, and across all the tracks, from the account of a redneck upbringing with Rebel flags as curtains found in the title track, to the harrowing heartbreak found in “The Problem Is You.” “Mama Drank” makes great use of setting and character, and the record also isn’t afraid to have a little fun, especially when Jessi teams with Randy Houser on the loose and sweaty “Country Music Made Me Do It.” This is the kind of record you wish Miranda Lambert would make.
What leaves you a little wanting is this album comes in with only eight songs. Sometimes that’s ample, but in this case, it feels like Jessi Alexander didn’t finish the thought. And with a couple of the final songs featuring stripped-down production, you just feel like a little bit more effort could have been expended here to get this record to the next level. It’s not like Jessi doesn’t have enough material to pull from.
But everything you do get on Decatur County Red is pretty damn great. Tim McGraw continues to be one of the most confounding of the mainstream country stars, because he’ll cut a song like the terrible “Truck Yeah,” and then turn around and record Lori McKenna’s “Humble and Kind,” or the Jessi Alexander co-penned “Damn Country Music.” Similar to “Humble and Kind,” the McGraw version was fine, and you were happy he even had the fortitude to cut it. But McKenna’s was much better. Hearing “Damn Country Music” from Jessi Alexander, it sends you straight to country music heaven.
In a just world, it would be Jessi Alexander standing there in the spotlight at center stage in an arena singing the songs she helped pen as opposed to someone else. She proves she has the talent and appeal for such a fate in Decatur County Red.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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