Country music works best at its most inclusive. Bro-country, which exploded in 2012 and finally tapered off in late 2015, brought radio’s most narrow lens and cast aside meaty songwriting for milquetoast pop hooks and an abundance of copy cats. The raw nerve of a format whose roots pre-date recorded history weakened to tenuous threads. When Chris Stapleton crashed the party at the 2015 CMA Awards ⎯⎯ a nimble tight-rope act blending blues, soul, country and pop, alongside polished magnate Justin Timberlake ⎯⎯ many prognosticators implicated that moment was a decisive turning point. The ripples quickly scattered outward. Artists anchored in neo-traditionalism began to gain massive exposure, with several snagging hit records, opening gigs on major tours and blockbuster sales feats. Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan, Midland. The disconnect between pre-Stapleton and post-Stapleton is categorically widening by the day.
Such acts as Margo Price, Runaway June, Alex Williams, Lillie Mae and Ashley McBryde (who recently inked a deal with Atlantic Records) are stirring up trouble on the outskirts. A-lister Miranda Lambert continues to buck trends and redefine the landscape; her double-decker The Weight of These Wings has gone platinum with only one sizable radio hit. Around her, the mainstream appears to be in a state of deepening uncertainty. For every Sam Hunt, whose “Body Like a Back Road” mingles hip-hop with pop-country inflections and has become the biggest radio staple of 2017, there are defiers like Pardi, Morgan and Big Machine-branded trio Midland dismantling the status quo. Plopped down in the middle is Stephanie Quayle, who seemingly “came into the world in the wrong decade,” as she bursts on “Drinking with Dolly,” the lead-in to her long-awaited new album, Love the Way You See Me.
She is a tenacious throwback, “an Annie Oakley with a silver pistol,” who has nothing to prove and everything to gain. Her voice is as razor sharp as her predecessor Lee Ann Womack’s and with just as much cutting wit and creamy timbre bathing her stories. When she breezes into the chorus of “Days Like These,” curling the images with a smokey “A Little Past Little Rock” whip, Quayle rips through heart-torn vulnerability and rosy optimism at the drop of a hat. “Some days are harder, harder than others / But you keep on / Some are just grey sky,” she counsels, illustrating life’s tightly-bound circus act. “Some are like midnight all day long / Some go by, you never notice, can’t remember if you tried / But every now and then, if you’re lucky, you get a day like…”
Quayle’s entrancing aura stems from her otherworldly, almost holy, spirit. Possessing a rich, discerning eye of country’s past, she then plots a rooted, well-tended future. “I’d go drinking with Dolly after the Opry / Pour one for Tammy, too / Put on my rhinestones / Paint up my nails / Kick up my dancing shoes,” she stages on opener “Drinking with Dolly,” a swinging “American Honey”-eyed number remembering the many matriarchs whose efforts paved the way for everyone who came later. The upstart often dances with willowy pop grooves ⎯⎯ “hop on in to my Winnebago,” she slings on the second number ⎯⎯ but never compromises skilled, adept songwriting (and compelling vocal punches) for drum machines or backing tracks. Thanks to producer Matt McClure (Lee Brice, Kellie Pickler, Lindsay Ell), Quayle never struggles against mired production choices, often leading the arrangements and driving the stories forward herself.
The titular cut, dropping in the backend of the record, beckons to Reba McEntire, circa 2010’s All the Women I Am. Quayle is polished, self-possessed, ruthless. “Sometimes, I look in the mirror, and all I see are all the things I wish I could change about me,” she concedes, recognizing the undue pressure she puts on herself to be the perfect woman. She yearns to be “some kind of hero,” to live up to the portrayal of women in film and to be able to see herself as her other half does. “You make me feel like I’m beautiful,” she cries out.
When you’ve got a voice as velvety and as vigorous as Quayle’s, you never squander it ⎯⎯ and she unleashes one of the best vocal performances this decade. On “Ugly,” she lets her heart run rampant over striking piano, elegant strings and fluttering percussion. The story of a young woman, who feels ugly for most of her life, finding true love, that one person to keep her going, is breathtaking. “So, give me your rusty old grain silo / Give me good food that sticks to my bones / Thank you for that good, good man that loves me,” she maintains. “With dirt on my hands and scrapes on my knees, that feeling at night when I wash it all clean / I’m telling you girls, it’s a beautiful thing / Trust me, it’s so far from ugly…”
Love the Way You See Me is a mosaic of womanhood, tinted with defiance (“Selfish”), devotion (“Post It”) and heartbreak (“Shoebox”). When left to her own devices, Quayle is outstanding. She’s rarely contrived (“I’ve Got Your Six” is a throwaway track) and always grounded in simple truths told through threadbare experiences. On paper, Lucas Hoge is an incapable collaborator, a caricature of stereotypically well-worn troubadours who have truly lived the rugged, country ‘n western lifestyle. But the execution is miraculous. His thick baritone weaves in and out of the sheer vitality of Quayle, whose voice is ripening like fine wine, and the pair could not be more suited for the lonesome, bluesy and orchestral closer, “Second Thoughts.”
With this album now in her back pocket, Quayle is here to stay. And boy, we better be ready.
Grade: 4 out of 5
Photo Credit: Amaryllis Lockhart