Album Review – Kaitlin Butts – “What Else Can She Do”

She may be dishing out hash browns at the local diner, or serving you a caffeinated beverage in a paper cup. But no matter who she is, or where she’s from, that is likely not how she had things planned out in her life. It’s not just men who lead lives of quiet desperation, as Henry David Thoreau once said. And the stagnation of dreams and the stalling of forward momentum in life that so many women face is what composes the inspiration for this cutting and deeply affecting work from Oklahoma singer and songwriter Kaitlin Butts.

Fans of Kaitlin Butts have been waiting like patience on a monument for a new album, with a full seven years since the release of her debut record Same Hell, Different Devil ticking by. That was unlikely Kaitlin’s plan either. One of the scandalously few women somewhat successfully making it in the Texas/Red Dirt scene, you’ll see her name on festival posters, and perhaps on the stage with her husband Cleto Cordero of Flatland Cavalry, or hear her voice on some recordings from others. But maybe the release of What Else Can She Do? will finally be her moment. Taking a critical assessment of the record, it’s hard to argue why it shouldn’t be.

It’s not that fans of Kaitlin Butts have been completely starved for new music from her. With just a handful of singles, Kaitlin has made a greater impact in music than some artists who are three or four records deep. 2019’s “White River” was a murder ballad for the ages. Kaitlin showed off her gentler side with her love letter to Cleto Cordero “How Lucky Am I.” And this stuff was country, without being stuffy or dated. Add another standalone single on “Marfa Lights,” and Kaitlin has done a fair bit better than just treading water over the last few years, she’s distinguished herself as one of the top women in independent country.

She could have included all of those previously-released tracks on What Else Can She Do?, and fleshed out the album beyond the seven songs that will leave some listeners wanting and whining about how short this is. But Kaitlin had a grander vision for this project, presenting women in unenviable scenarios, facing forks in the road and tests of will in these original songs, along with a rendition of the traditional folk song “In The Pines” that tops Kurt Cobain’s version, olive cardigan and all.

There’s just a confidence behind the voice of Kaitlin Butts that puts her in her own elite league, paired up with an emotional expressiveness that takes it far beyond some sort of athletic display. So many singers shy away from the sweetest, and most challenging notes of their register, worried they will falter. But Kaitlin Butts is fearless, charging forward, full volume in the mix so her words penetrate far past the rib cage and leave the internal organs and mortal soul stirred well past the expiration of the music itself.

Some of the moments can be unsettling from the harrowing stories she tells, whether it’s a bored woman pondering the value of her faithfulness, or someone who has fallen on such hard times, “she’s using” anything they can get their hands on. The waltz beat of the fiercely-personal “blood,” as well as the well-written “jackson” playing off the story of Johnny and June veritably squeeze the emotion out of moments to the point where once you get to the end of “in the pines,” you’re chilled to your core. This is not a happy record. At all. And unapologetically so. Kaitlin Butts is trying to awaken emotions in the audience to ponder big questions.

But undergirding the stories of these sometimes hapless, and sometimes hopeless women is a deep sense of promise. Humans sometimes have difficulty seeing past their own nose, or the current predicament they’re embroiled in. But the only constant is change, and we all must take some twists and turns to get where we need to be, especially during young adult life. At times, we all have to wait tables or pour lattes, or do jobs we don’t want to do to get where we want to go. It’s a rite of passage, though some, unfortunately, never make it to the next phase. Country music is supposed to be for them—the working class.

Fundamentally country, but imaginative in scope through some of the sonic landscapes brought to bear by producer Oran Thornton to bring the moodiness of the album to life, it’s fair to question if What Else Can She Do? ends too soon. But this album for isn’t an ending for Kaitlin Butts. It’s just a beginning. And hopefully, just like the characters of this album, Kaitlin Butts is commencing a period in her career where a new leaf is turned, and she finally receives the attention and recognition attentive country fans have known she’s deserved for years.


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