Country music is for those of us whose life didn’t go exactly to plan. Nobody dreams of selling the family farm to take a factory job, or to be thrice divorced at 47. But for some, if not many, that’s the way life shuffles out, and we do the best we can with the cards we’re dealt, and meet at the honky tonks at night to drown our misery and commiserate over good country music.
40 years old is probably not the ideal age for taking the big plunge into a country music career, but it was better late than never for Summer Dean from Texas who spent the last decade teaching elementary school, and being eaten up by the idea of pursuing her simple dream of playing true country music in dive bars across the country.
So unwed and childless, she quit her job, chose to use the kitty of cash her mom had put aside for her wedding to finally cut her debut album of full of full-tilt honky tonk shit kickers and tear-in-my-beer ballads, and booked a tour across the country. Then COVID hit. Again, life didn’t go exactly as planned. But at least she had a cool record to show for it.
Bad Romantic is the kind of country record you wished some of your favorite women of country would cut, but never do. It’s got that denim and bell-bottom 70’s honky tonk country vibe going on strong, unabashedly twangy and country, with a dash of funky energy and attitude to ratchet up the cool factor. Summer’s honesty and self-awareness come through in her songs, and it’s as refreshing as it is relatable.
If you want to know what peers think of Summer Dean, just look at who showed up to help, including Colter Wall who turns in his first official co-write with someone else on the devastating and spectacular sob story duet “You’re Lucky She’s Lonely.” Whitney Rose and Bonnie Montgomery offer vintage-hewn answer harmonies on “Can You Hear Me Knockin'”. Matt Hillyer of Eleven Hundred Springs (RIP) co-writes “A Thousand Miles Away,” illustrating how this was a record written for the road, and on the stage. Brennen Leigh and Simon Flory also contribute writing to the record.
Many can sing it. But with Summer Dean, you believe it. “Blue Jean Country Queen” and the title track “Bad Romantic” aren’t just artful dictations of character development, they are Summer Dean’s autobiographical depictions. And man, when she slows everything down and lets the ache and yearning come through like on “Distracted,” you feel it in your bones.
Though Summer Dean has been around for a while and released a well-regarded EP in 2016 called Unladylike (that’s how she was able to amass so much talented help on this record), she really is just getting started, so you can forgive a couple of lines on a couple of songs that feel like they could have been polished up a bit more, and might come across as cliche. But her voice has the perfect kind of character for this smoky honky tonk material.
We’re all just doing the best we can with the hard luck and bad decisions that have put us degrees of separation from where we hoped to be at this turn in life. But for Summer Dean, her “Plan B” didn’t turn out half bad.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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