Middle America is the bedrock of booze-basted heartache, murky-eyed lonesomeness and crushing demands of the 9-to-5. From untangling the intricate hardships of everyday’s mundane trials to the anguished smorgasbord of characters trapped between living and dying, working class surveyors like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn have splendidly and tragically painted those ghosts with weathered honesty. The task of nailing down fresh portrayals of troubled souls roaming aimlessly, fated in seeking redemption, is an arduous task ⎯⎯ seemingly discarded in much of mainstream music, make-shift exhibitions fraught with misery and disjointed desires ⎯⎯ but Erin Enderlin conceives a majestic and heartsick cobblestone, unearthing catastrophic and ashy tales, on her second album, Whiskeytown Crier.
Lugging out forgotten memoirs of a fictional town’s most tormented, the singer, who has notched an impressive string of cuts for Luke Bryan (“You Don’t Know Jack”), Lee Ann Womack (“Last Call”) and Alan Jackson (“Monday Morning Church”), sketches a charcoal drawing of any town U.S.A. “Whiskey town, a town just like any other, I suppose,” songwriter John Scott Sherrill (Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Patty Loveless) recites on “Intro,” grounding the framework of the sweeping, 14-track concept album,” full of people with dreams and heartache. Whether it’s a baby being born or somebody dying, there’s one thing we all have in common: sooner or later, we end up as a headline.”
Through reeking murderous havoc ⎯⎯ a vengeful father slaughters the boyfriend for getting his daughter pregnant on “Caroline,” while the narrator’s “Baby Sister” guns down a cheating lover ⎯⎯ and heartrending prayers (“Ain’t It Just Like a Cowboy,””Till It’s Gone”), Crier flashes with sorrowful, downcast eyes but also ones full of vulnerability and strength. Randy Houser’s showing on “The Coldest in Town” deceives his usual milquetoast material, and his braying baritone waltzes tenderly with Enderlin’s more wispy vocal. Among other collaborators, in background vocal roles, are Chris Stapleton (on “Caroline” and the fatal story-song “His Memory Walks on Water”), Jon Randall and Ricky Skaggs (on an inspired cover of Gram Parson’s 1968 “Hickory Wind”) and Jessi Alexander (on a sterling remake of Tammy Wynette’s “Til I Can Make It on My Own,” a searing ballad which closes the set).
Thanks to production work by Jamey Johnson and Jim Brown, the record remains anchored in women’s experiences and vantage points, recounting every fateful detail, often delivered with a wry smile. From the haunting steel, guitar and fiddle work, the music floats potently behind Enderlin. “One of my favorite things about songwriting is that I can hide my real life in the songs that I write. I don’t have to paint a picture of exactly what happened so the guilty and the innocent are protected,” she explained. “But there’s definitely real emotions and real connection in each of these songs for me. Definitely a couple of stories were inspired by real people I know because their story really touched me.”
“He was a bastard / Even though he knew his daddy, even had his daddy’s angry eyes,” Enderlin weeps on “Broken,” a devilish depiction of the cyclical nature of abuse. It is the lone solo write, illustrating her adept songwriting. Later, she recounts being “a young girl, raised on being lonely” and finding love in the troubled man’s stare. “My ticket out might have took me straight to hell,” she records. “But I take some of that blame, and I shoulder it myself.” A polluted family tree is destined to beget cursed roots, and when the two have a child, she gives her baby boy up for adoption to save him from the same misfortune. “I saw clearly the choice that must be made,” she resolves. “I hope that family holds like I couldn’t…it was the only way I knew to get him raised.”
Enderlen also accentuates many stories with rustling of papers, heartwarming church bells, bird chirps and rumbling organ, as she does appropriately on “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes,” an uptempo number detailing how heartbreak can knock you off orbit. Elsewhere, “Whole Nother Bottle of Wine” curls softly from the lips in an attempt to wash away a lover’s memory, and “The Blues Are Alive and Well” soaks in the misery, unapologetically and woefully ⎯⎯ “As long as there’s whiskey and a song by Keith Whitely, and my baby loves somebody else, the blues are alive and well,” she ruminates.
“I love story songs and I love characters — not just in music, but in life,” Enderlin described. “I’m intrigued by a life that’s not perfect, and emotions that aren’t perfect — just the real, raw story. To me, that’s more interesting.”
Whiskeytown Crier cuts to the bone of small-town living, heartache, pain and loss. Enderlin rarely shows mercy, often burning you up with raw emotion and truth. There’s virtually no filler, save for the shimmering pluck of “Home Sweet Home to Me,” and you never really get a moment to come up for air. And that’s the making of one of the best albums of the year.
Grade: 4.5 out of 5
Whiskeytown Crier is out now on iTunes, and you can spin it below, via Spotify: