LAST SOUTHERN BELLE
A personal take on the Southern experience that produces universal truths, veteran singer-songwriter Sandy Carroll’s new Last Southern Belle album is an invigorating journey through a vanishing (or, in some cases, vanished) world as recalled and rendered poetic by a woman who describes her younger self as “a ‘Southern Belle’ in training” who “never graduated to full Southern Belle-hood.” Produced by her multi-Grammy winning husband Jim Gaines. Ms. Carroll’s new long player kills you softly with its well-crafted songs.
Beginning with a brooding, simmering account of trying to emerge from heartbreak (the Dire Straits-like “Driving Toward the Sun”), Last Southern Belle then dives deeper into the pain of the botched affair on “Headin’ Out on Empty.” The narrator is again driving, but her pain and bitterness spill out all over the mordant track and out of the singer’s dark, husky voice as she declares, “I’m damaged and drained/you took all I had in me/gotta make my getaway.” Gaines provides his spouse with a thick, foreboding soundscape, out of which emerges an electric shock of a guitar solo (Will McFarlane and Trey Hardin are the credited guitarists on the track) that suggests the singer will emerge whole, as she vows in the bridge when she observes, “The gas hand’s on red but I’m leavin’ these blues ‘cause I’m leavin’ you.”
‘Driving Toward the Sun,’ Sandy Carroll, from Last Southern Belle
‘Headin’ Out on Empty,’ Sandy Carroll, from Last Southern Belle
Ms. Carroll’s is not the voice that will launch a thousand ships but she’s learned how to let the game come to her, to use a sports metaphor. She has an interesting way of singing from the heart even as she gives the impression of being a disinterested observer of her own despair. This ability to be both inside and outside of her own songs suits not only the cool of her vocal style but the content of her songs as well. She returns to the album’s opening theme later in the journey but in a funkier, self-deprecating mode via the humorous “Tattoo That I Can’t Undo” (a modern variation, you might say, on the “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” sentiment), with Will McFarlane adding some tasty slide work, the legendary David Hood sitting in on bass, and background singers chanting “shoulda known better” as the singer comes around to their point of view. But of this clutch of songs centered on romantic disconnect the finest and most moving is “The Nothin’ In Your Eyes,” a country-tinged torch ballad comprised of excruciating details describing the telltale signs of love dying (“from the outside lookin’ in/you seem the same ol’ guy you’ve always been/except for the nothin’ in your eyes…”). The bereft whispered vocal and the tear-stained piano work by the song’s co-writer, Alabama Hall of Fame member Mark Narmore, render it all the more poignant, and searing.
‘Last Southern Belle,’ Sandy Carroll, from Last Southern Belle
The vanishing world of romance is but one of this novelistic album’s themes. The South’s geographical and emotional contours comprise the dominant theme and bring out the songwriter’s best. The title track is a beautiful ballad about “the last of her kind,” sung with warmth and tender feeling for a Southern woman of the old school—the old South–who loves “Elvis and Jesus and her red Cadillac” and has a “shoebox full of 80 year dreams/like the newspaper clipping when she was Homecoming Queen.” Glen Harrell’s beautiful fiddling enhances the depth of feeling in Ms. Carroll’s vocal in a lovely arrangement fleshed out by keys and sumptuous background voices reminding us “you’ll never see the likes of her again.” Rarely has the phrase “gone with the wind” been more apt than in its deployment here. The gentle swing of “Southland Rules” celebrates talismans such as fried baloney on Wonder Bread, smoked turkey, the blues and a certain social politesse, with Mark Narmore again contributing mightily on piano with some lively, rolling and tumbling flourishes. Revisiting the title song of her 1993 debut album, Southern Woman, Ms. Carroll explores the duality of the titular character in a lowdown, bluesy arrangement and a knowing vocal fully cognizant of the truth in describing a female breed that “knows all the crazies” but “can move with the slickest…” and also “be the missus in the life of her favorite man.” Interesting, too, how she draws out the second word of the title to make it sound like “Southern wo-man” in a rendering alluring and breathty. Rick Steff’s accordion and Narmore’s piano lend “Family Reunion Day” a lighthearted New Orleans feel, as the lyrics describe a festive occasion that can’t help but be shadowed by harsh reality: “nowadays all we getting in the latest family picture/is another one missing.” Ms. Carroll writes and sings in the here and now—certain archetypal southerners and beloved (or rued, such as Aunt Maxine in “Family Reunion”) kinfolk are simply gone. This is the South she lives in.
‘Water Run Deep,’ Sandy Carroll, from Last Southern Belle
But the Old South begs to be considered as well, and so it is. Last Southern Belle concludes with a triptych of tunes evoking defining, indelible characteristics of the southern landscape—the gospel fervor of the self-reliant spiritual treatise “Hallelujah Hill” with its thumping percussion and elevating call-and-response passages; the ineluctable pull of the past cast in full-on gospel terms in the rousing “Water Run Deep”: and the ghosts of the Civil War summoned in the eerie, unsettling dirge, “Boys of Shiloh.” This latter is the type of song you need a moment to take in, absorbing the full, dour, atmospheric impact of Harrell’s fiddle and Thelton Vanderford’s sorrowful banjo underscoring the futility of war as Ms. Carroll describes it in her lyrics and evokes it in her foreboding vocal. At the end, her incantatory chant of “some they go to heaven right away” starts to sound like a blessing as it burrows into your consciousness. But it’s more—the artist is bringing us full circle here, since “some they go to heaven right away” might well be heard as another way of saying “the dark is giving way to a better day,” the key sentiment of the album’s opening track, “Driving Toward the Sun.”
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen. As it was in the beginning, and now, and always, and to the ages of ages. Amen.