The title track of Brigitte DeMeyer’s sixth album Savannah Road, enjoying success on Americana radio, was, the singer-songwriter says, inspired by meeting Greg Allman. But if I were to ground it sonically in the classic rock landscape, I’d place it with Fleetwood Mac’s eerie, tight-lipped “World Turning.”
It’s the hardest and edgiest song on this largely acoustic album, which features DeMeyer’s voice up front amid spare, tasteful and supremely musical settings that led me to look at the album credits to see where the magic was coming from, and – ah! – there’s Will Kimbrough.
One of Americana music’s leading all-around musical lights, Kimbrough co-wrote most of the songs and is credited with acoustic guitar, steel guitar, banjo, and more. ‘Nuff said. The pairing of DeMeyer with Kimbrough, who has worked as producer, songwriter and musician for everyone from Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Steve Earle to Kim Richey, Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris, proves a very fruitful one.
DeMeyer’s voice combies a hint of rasp, which she employs when she wants it with the precision (if not the bluesy depth and pop perfection) of Bonnie Raitt and a hint of the smiling sadness of a subdued Janis Joplin. The songs too display melodic and stylistic variety, gathering strains of blues, jazz, folk and rootsy country. Clarinet gives “Big Man’s Shoes” an old-timey jazz flavor. Slide guitar courtesy of Blue Mother Tupelo’s Rick Davis gives “Conjure Woman” a darkly spiritual vibe, iced with Micol Davis’s (also of Blue Mother Tupelo) cool vocal harmonies.
I was amused to find that in her gently soulful “Honey Hush” DeMeyer makes that two-word phrase signify something entirely different than what Big Joe Turner meant on his old blues hit by the same name. Her “Honey Hush” makes me think more of Carole King, actually, and overall the songs display a gratifying King-like knack for crafting lyrics that slip into the grooves and melodies with perfect comfort, even when they shade into the obscure or even not-quite-sensical.
The McCrary Sisters provide warm-bath harmony vocals, almost Motown-like, on several tracks. By contrast, “Say You Will Be Mine” has a charming nursery-rhyme simplicity, and DeMeyer sprinkles self-consciously poetic words and phrase – “Lo,” “Ere” – through the lyrics and makes them somehow entirely un-self-conscious. There’s a darker, less childlike simplicity to the subtle love call “Boy’s Got Soul” and a twist of sophisticated jazz balladry to the love-desperate “Please Believe Me,” the kind of song Otis Redding might have written.
I’m not familiar with any of DeMeyer’s previous albums so I don’t know what sounds she’s gone in for previously or how her work has evolved. But her goal and influences on this record seem aptly summed up in the first verse of “Lightnin’ Poor”:
You made of salt, you made of soul
You made of everything I want to know
You made of country, you made of coal
Where’d you go to, mister Lightnin’ Poor
Mister Lightnin’ Poor may have vanished into the past, but Brigitte DeMeyer keeps the flame. Savannah Road is one of the best Americana releases I’ve heard this year.