Country music crossovers

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday May 30, 2023
Share this Post:
Eleri Ward, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Rodney Crowell, Lael Neale
Eleri Ward, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Rodney Crowell, Lael Neale

Country music artists are regularly crossing genre boundaries, some even recording covers of Stephen Sondheim musical numbers. Here are four new outstanding audibly artistic diversions.

Performed in Americana-style arrangements that the late composer probably never imagined, the 14 Stephen Sondheim tunes on "Keep A Tender Distance" (Ghostlight Deluxe) by Eleri Ward have the potential to appeal to listeners from diverse backgrounds, not just show tune queens.

Ward's twangy trill takes songs such as "Merrily We Roll Along," "Unworthy of Your Love," "Another Hundred People," "Not While I'm Around," "Agony," and "Move On," to entirely unexpected territory. The follow-up to Ward's similarly focused 2022 album "A Perfect Little Death," this new set proves that its predecessor wasn't a fluke, and this concept has potential, not only for other Sondheim songs but also for the work of other Broadway composers.

The fascinating trend of hipster musicians (and producers) introducing their fanbase to artists with whom they may be unfamiliar continues with no sign of abating. Artists such as Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Bettye LaVette have Rick Rubin, Jack Black, and Joe Henry, respectively, to thank for their late-career resurgences. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who did something similar for Mavis Staples, has now turned his attention to Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell on "The Chicago Sessions" (New West).

The Crowell connection makes sense as he was at the forefront of the so-called new traditionalist movement (along with his ex-wife Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, and Reba McEntire) in the same way that Tweedy's bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco did the same for the alt-country/No Depression music scene. Produced by Tweedy, "The Chicago Sessions" features the marvelous song "Everything At Once," co-written by Crowell and Tweedy, which is the most Wilco-esque song on the album. Other standouts include "Lucky," "Loving You Is the Only Way to Fly," "You're Supposed to be Feeling Good," and the politically minded "Ready To Move On."

Over the course of her lengthy performing career (more than 40 years!), singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman has written (or co-written) songs covered by an impressive array of country artists including Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzy Boggus, and Crystal Gayle, among others.

Queer listeners might be interested to know that Elton John and Bette Midler have also sung Chapman's songs. More than a dozen years into her own life as a recording artist, she most recently released "CrazyTown" (Cooking Vinyl/BNC), featuring the politically-oriented female empowerment anthem "Put A Woman In Charge" (co-written with Keb Mo'). Other highlights include "4leafclove," the rocking "The Universe" (featuring trans musician Cidny Bullens on backing vocals), "Pocket of My Past," and the gorgeous "With Time."

"Star Eaters Delight" (Sub Pop), the third album by Virginia native Lael Neale, opens with the electronic beat of "I Am The River," which sounds as if the singer/songwriter had been listening to Le Tigre for inspiration. By the second song, "If I Had No Wings," Neale has shifted gears, sounding like she's singing an original hymn, paying homage to her rural roots.

Neale alternates between electronic beats ("Faster Than The Medicine") and bare-bones arrangements ("In Verona"), before settling on the latter for a brief album that delivers delight.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.