❉ Country-folk – just for old giffers? Jon Arnold listens without prejudice.
I blame Ceefax myself.
There, on the page after the always super exciting top 40 charts, was the country music section, full of Dolly, Tammy, praise be to God and what looked very much like evil mutant crossbreeds of badly titled novelty records and the tooth rottingly saccharine love songs. Who, I wondered, was buying these records to make them worthy of their own chart? All the old giffers longing for Jim Reeves and Willie Nelson. The only way I’d listen to a country record back then was if the Pet Shop Boys turned it into a joyous synth banger. Gimme the indie, dance or rock chart excitement of The Chart Show anyday.
It’s an image problem that was country seemed to realise it had in the Nineties: looking to move beyond its Nashvillecentric appeal by morphing towards pop and AOR. The endgame were the international crossover stars: Faith Hill and Shania Twain the John the Baptist harbingers, Taylor Swift the world conquering country pop Jesus. The hard yards that paved the way for them though were done by the likes of Beth Nielsen Chapman. Chapman is perhaps one of those artists who never got their due thanks to being a year or two ahead of the game, but even a cursory glance will tell you she’s every bit as deserving as those who came after or who made it a little bigger.
Hearts of Glass is, as with much of her recent work, about fragile optimism in the face to what life can throw at you. Come To Mine opens up with a warm welcome but a wicked glint in its eye, setting a marker with the sentiment that ‘life is short, love is fine’ and the album runs through an appealing mixture of old compositions and new songs that’ll be staples of Ken Bruce and Bob Harris’s playlists for months to come. Enough for Me and All for the Love in particular hit that sweet spot of country and AOR that feel like they’ll become familiar standards for those shows.
Chapman’s strongest suit though is when the shadows of melancholy creep into the songs: the constantly tumbling guitars of Epitaph for Love and the compassionate, clear eyed portrait of the cycle of domestic abuse of Rage on Rage in particular. The latter is a fine argument for artists being allowed to revisit their old songs: the wisdom now in Chapman’s voice brings a depth that the song perhaps couldn’t have had before. The exception to this rule is You’re My Valentine, which successfully shoots for the feel of a seasonal classic addressed to February 14th rather than December 25th.
The album closes with defiant optimism: fitting from a woman who’s come through the loss of a husband and breast cancer. Life Holds On celebrates how people thrive in even the apparently darkest hour and Dancer to the Drum is an electric strum to the true immortality of humanity: we survive through the next generation even if we fall. It’s something that might be trite coming from younger artists but here it feels earned, wisdom rather than trite pop doggerel. Perhaps then it was me after all – country and folk being something you need time and space to grow into. Perhaps now I’m one of those old giffers I ridiculed then. Or perhaps, when a record’s as warm and appealing as this such prejudices shouldn’t matter.
❉ Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘Hearts Of Glass’ was released 9 February, 2018 by BNC Music distributed via Proper Records. Click here to order!
❉ Listen again to Beth Nielsen Chapman on BBC Radio 2’s The Michael Ball Show here.