Album Review – Laura Benitez – “California Centuries”

If you’re not rooting around for good country music west of the Rockies, then you’re missing out on half a continent of quality country. Yeah I know, you mention “California” and some only think of swimming pools and movie stars. Well get your head out of the clouds Jed Clampett. Where do you think Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were from? Well, Buck Owens was born in Texas, but he got to Bakersfield as fast as he could because that’s where a fella could make country music his way—2000 miles away from the taskmasters on Music Row.

The point is, don’t overlook the West Coast and California when you go looking for good country music. Case in point is Laura Benitez and the Heartache, who’ve been playing kick ass traditional country for years outside of the purview of country’s mother brain back in Nashville, and may have just released their career effort in California Centuries.

Completely written and produced by Laura Benitez, California Centuries features some classic country Golden Era selections indicative of Patsy Cline, some vintage folk and rockabilly textures for variety, quality songwriting that gets feisty in spurts, and excellent lead and steel guitar trade-offs throughout, courtesy of Bob Spector on electric guitar, and Ian Sutton and Dave Zirbel on steel guitar.

All you country fans out there, pay special attention to the songs “Are You Using Your Heart” and “Plaid Shirt.” It’s amazing how this 60s era country stuff never goes out of style, and how exquisite Laura’s voice is for rejuvenating this era in new compositions. And she isn’t just the singer and songwriter of this operation. Benitez is also the band leader, even if as a woman with a Latin last name that throws some bouncers and promoters off like she punctuates in the sweet little honky tonk number “I’m With the Band.”

Quality songwriting usually reserved for the top names in folk also finds its way onto this record, like in the allegorical “All Songs.” Along with being reminiscent of Patsy Cline, Laura Benitez also has a Joan Baez quality to both her songwriting and her vocal approach, as well as her penchant to broach politically-charged subjects through her music with sometimes potentially polarizing results.

Her song “Gaslight (We Shouldn’t Talk About It)” tackles the subjects of mass shootings, George Floyd and other killings, and the scoundrel men who use their positions of power to exploit women, bookended by the stark and timely situation in Uvalde, Texas. How Benitez squeezed a reference to a mass shooting in late May into an album released in early September is a feat in itself.

But as timely as “Gaslight” might be, the other politically-charged song “The Shot” comes across as a little dated. Sure, at the start of the pandemic, many hoped vaccines would be the panacea to our woes. But as we later found out with the amount of breakthrough infections, its efficacy was not what we hoped, same with the tenor of such songs at effectively convincing someone of a different perspective. A dose of subtlety might work better for Benitez, while she runs the risk of running off the wider audience her music deserves.

Nonetheless, you have to admire the attitude and approach of Laura Benitez, fearlessly making music on her terms. Unapologetically traditional, and at times, boldly outspoken, Laura Benitez proudly represents country music from California, with songs and sounds that the whole world deserves to hear.


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