There’s a smile that kicks off Eilen Jewell’s new album “Butcher Holler”. It’s not a wholly sweet one, though it sounds nice enough until you see the clinch of her teeth and the flint in her eye. She needs that hard look to do these songs. These are big songs, from one of the first women in country music, and you simply don’t decide to sing them, not if they’re to be properly respected. It’s not that they’re museum pieces that should sit behind glass and be looked at reverentially, but they are the cheap rings and cheaper booze, and chipped teeth, and cast iron stoves, and hardened, bruised knuckles of music. These are, in Harlan Howard’s overused phrase (at least by me), three chords and the truth, and a singer has a responsibility to the truth if nothing else.
In a testament to how big these songs are in our imaginations, on the first listen I felt that Eilen undersold some of the signature rabble rousing tunes like “Fist City”, “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man).” Upon listening to the originals though I was surprised by the tempered quality Loretta also sings them in. Now, these are songs I’ve heard all my life and hundreds of times, from a woman I’ve claimed, at times, to be my favorite singer and I would have thought I was passed any mishearing of style or tempo. Yet, there I was, surprised at the rhythms and pondering how things change in memory and thought. One thing that strikes me is that these aren’t angry songs. They’re fierce songs, and yes, the warnings are real, I believe her claims, but they are more matter-of-fact than angry.
Both women sing these songs with a touch of weariness, maybe even some resignation of what a man will do, what relationships will be like. The difference I think comes in perspective. A young Loretta sings with innocence not long lost, where Eilen’s voice has a more worldly quality to it; a road worn husk of expectation already there.
Eilen’s version of “Whispering Sea” is sublime. She’s replaced the kick-off fiddle, steel guitar and echoing bass with a quietly picked guitar that builds into a gentle rhythmic waltz. Jerry Miller’s guitar softly vibrates behind her like a flickering neon sign pointing to heartbreak.
She brings an intimacy to songs like “Another Man Loved Me Last Night”, that sometimes can be missing in Loretta’s versions. Almost as if she’s willing to linger a moment longer in the feeling of the pleasure and shame. The pathos is incredible as it conjures up the image of a woman crying next to a elicit and sleeping lover and Eilen doesn’t let you go so easy as it clocks in about 25 seconds longer than the original. This too is a warning, so take heed gentlemen, at least going into fist city is a quick and straight forward proposition, this is more like being lost in the dark alleyways of a woman’s heart.
Butcher Holler will play well to the folks that don’t love the background chorus singers and occasional orchestral strings of 1960’s country music. Stripping all that away gives the record a sparseness that the original barrel house recordings don’t have. It modernizes the songs where best foot is not always forward. I suppose there is some luxury in that, but there’s also new found truth for these modern times. While everything changes around us at a seemingly and endlessly faster pace, our loves remain as filled with regret, and sorrow, and strife. Not much different from our boomer shack relative’s. This record is born out of a time when mp3 players were called Mama singing in the kitchen, but the lessons are completely 21st century.
Post Script: See my earlier blog on Loretta singing the Shel Silverstein classic “Ones On The Way”.