Queen of the country
At a time when Nashville country music is plagued by a goose-stepping line dance for which country radio calls the tune, the women in the post-Garth hat-act-dominated Music City are making most of the music of substance. Rosanne Cash may have packed her bags and moved to New York City, but stepsister Carlene Carter remains something of a spitfire, and even more mainstream artists like Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and newcomer Mandy Barnett all go beyond the pretty-gal syndrome. Yet one of the surest bets for bringing some sorely needed credibility to the country charts is singer-songwriter Kim Richey.

A protege of Bill Lloyd and an acolyte of Steve Earle, the lanky, striking blonde has already scored a chart hit with Texpatriate Radney Foster's "Nobody Wins" (which she co-wrote with Foster), as well as with covers of her songs by Yearwood and George Ducas. On her eponymous debut album, released last year on Mercury Records, Richey's own voice offers the greatest revelation. Clear, muscular, and unaffected, it's an instrument of gutsy authority that walks tall through a collection that's something of a song cycle exploring that ol' country cliche--heartbreak. Produced by Richard Bennett, who helmed Earle's groundbreaking Guitar Town, the disc finds Richey--who wrote or co-wrote all of its songs--expressing the inner ruminations of a woman left lonely but who nonetheless never loses her spirit and pride.

"I bought a new red dress to lift my spirits up," she sings on "You'll Never Know" (as in, you'll never know how much she misses you and loves you), then she adds with a spiteful touch, "just like you, honey, it cost me way too much." When she runs into her ex and the woman for whom he left her on "From Where I Stand," empathy rather than jealousy fills Richey's soul: "I was just like you/For me he left somebody, too/And I didn't care if that was wrong/Oh but now I've found/The tears you've found come back around/And they're coming your way before far too long."

By the closer, "Good," she's ready to love again--"Even ol' what's-his-name could never get to me like this"--after proving through the album's 13 songs that any man who would spurn a woman this smart and strong has gotta be some kind of major-league fool. Along the way, Kim Richey offers up some Beatle-esque touches like the "I Am The Walrus" strings on "Can't Find the Words" and the George Harrisonish slide-guitar licks on "Just My Luck," as well as a Guitar Town-styled instrumental rave-up on "That's Exactly What I Mean." Still, the oaken solidity of her songs and her spunky soprano takes center-stage.

For all the record's appeal, in spots it feels a bit constrained by Nashville's commercial strictures, and in typical Music City fashion, it has yet to even dent the charts despite (or, more likely, because of) critical acclaim. This is her first tour, one for which she's backed by a band that includes former members of the Boston post-new wave rock band Face to Face. In time she could well prove herself the queen of new country her debut hints she could become--even if she someday has to leave Nashville to find her proper throne.

Kim Richey performs February 14 at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.
--Rob Patterson

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Rob Patterson

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