Review Summary: Country music's saving grace
Country music is in trouble. Sure, in terms of sheer popularity, it’ll be a long time before it’s dead thanks to a built-in demographic that’s tied to the genre by geography and heritage more than any other music in modern times. The kind of trouble I speak of is a sort of cultural inbreeding. I’m reminded of a video my brother showed me of 20 different country songs stitched together through editing software, creating a prolonged Frankenstein of a chorus that climaxed in 10 songs overdubbed simultaneously—and without a hiccup, it sounded like just one song. While the recent creative vacuum is hardly unique to the genre, its sheer lack of self-awareness and identity politics has led country-pop to largely look inward for inspiration—even more so given our current political climate—leading to the musical ouroboros that we’re left with today. Many newcomers to the genre are immediately put off by this echo-chamber of negative opinions. Even people who grew up in the genre, such as myself, have been eventually worn-out by this blitzkrieg of negativity and redundancy. The fact is, it doesn't take much to stand out as a unique voice when everyone’s yelling the same thing over each other. Enter Katie Pruitt.
While she may not be “country” in the strictest sense of the word, it’s clear that Pruitt’s influences reach deep into the history of the genre. Many of her songs lean into rock and folk territory (more than enough to earn her “alternative country” Wikipedia tag), but each contains the baked-in warmth of the country music. Even on songs that go further off the deep-end, such as the gospel backing on the bridge of album-highlight “Expectations,” the bass still hums, the guitars still shine, and there’s no doubt that the heart of the song stands on a sun-bleached porch somewhere down South. Even when a glorious climax sets off like in the opener “Wishful Thinking,” it’s a brilliant firework—not a grenade. Everything on the record is happy to invite you into its world.
This inclusive soundscape is at the core of Pruitt’s goals with this release, which is to rewire a deeper sense of understanding into the music that she and I grew up listening to. Pruitt’s sexuality is plainly discussed on songs like “Normal” and “Loving Her,” which exist solely because these songs weren’t around for her as she grew up in a conservative society with no guide for the feelings she grappled with. This open-book approach to songwriting brings out the best in Pruitt, her soaring vocals reaching levels of intensity they likely couldn’t if they were singing about anything else. Her lyricism is simple but commanding—the stuff you hear the truth in on first listen.
Pruitt struggles somewhat on the larger scale, however. While each song works wonderfully on its own, a strong structure is missing from the album as a whole. The clearest example is the closer “It’s Always Been You,” which remains an engrossing declaration of love on its own, with a gorgeous vocal performance and a captivating orchestral backing. Unfortunately, it follows “Loving Her,” which is also an engrossing declaration of love. The latter is a prime example of what country music can be, wrapping a convincing love song in a powerful statement of inclusion and traditional instrumentation. If the actual closer was lopped off, a far stronger closing statement could have been made here. Regardless, the record is not much worse off for it.
The largest possible turn-off on the album comes from more cynical listeners who’ll find certain tunes mawkish, Disney-fied versions of a truth that many others struggle with. It’s hard to argue with these accusations outside of the context. Separated from the lyrics, some songs slide too easily into their enveloping strings and sunny guitars, but after even a cursory listen, it’s clear that the sense of hope that these instruments instill is inescapable for the goal Pruitt has—to let others like her growing up in these environments know that it’s going to be okay and that as long as she’s in this world, we’re not alone.