Physically based in Kings Heath, Birmingham but with her spiritual and musical homes shared between Nashville and Austin, Johnson was formerly one–third of Western Swing and bluegrass trio The Toy Hearts. But then, a couple of years back, guitarist and fellow vocalist sister Sophia decide to move to Austin, initially putting the band on hiatus and, eventually, seeing her form Hannah Johnson and The Broken Hearts, with father Stewart still on lap steel.
The band name’s now been dropped to make this Johnson’s solo debut, recorded in Austin with dad, resident bassist Chris Shirley and a clutch of solid session musicians, but also, indicating that whatever family rift may have occurred things is now in the past, with Sophia co-producing and featured on acoustic guitar.
Rooted in the old country, the blues and honky tonk of the Ameripolitan sound, there’s no huge musical departure from former days, the album comprising three original songs and eight covers from some of the genre’s greats. It’s one of Hannah’s that gets things rolling with the chugging Telecaster founded ‘Nowhere Train’, an early example of how she can switch from a silky purr to a gravel growl in the same line. ‘Morning Cocktail’ is another original, a slow waltzing, steel weeping number about drowning the hurt of a destructive relationship in rather too much alcohol that comes with a dreamily reflective guitar bridge.
The first cover comes from the Willie Nelson catalogue with a sultry swing and shuffle through ‘Three Days’, then it’s back to her remaining original, a co-write with Sarah Sharp on the fingerclicking sassy laid back 40s Andrews Sisters meets Patsy Cline swing of the playful ‘Your Girlfriend Hates Me’ with Emily Gimble on piano.
From hereon in, it’s an easy rolling journey through well chosen covers, headed up by Skeets McDonald’s honky tonker ‘Gotta Get You From That Crowd’ about a lover who spends a little too much time raising a glass with his friends. Next up, and again highlighting that growl, she transforms jazz pianist Richard M. Jones much covered (from Aretha and Nina to Led Zep and Johnny Cash) eight-bar blues ‘Trouble In Mind’ into slinky Western Swing.
Referring to Alabama rather than her hometown, ‘Not In Birmingham’ gently slides through the Roger Miller number with brushed drums and twangsome guitar, picking up the Western Swing banner again for a sweetly sung ‘Sooner or Later’ by Bob Wills before dipping into rock n roll tinged, fiddle-flavoured old time country with ‘Never No More’ and another potent guitar solo.
She brings the show to a close with a couple of contrasting numbers; first, a gentle home on the range sway through Gwil Owen’s ‘West Texas Lullaby’, taken at a just slightly faster tempo than the version popularised by Toni Price, and then breaking out Bryce Clarke’s acoustic mandolin for the scratchy goodtime jellyroll flapper flurry of ‘Shake It & Break It’ by “Father of the Delta Blues” Charlie Patton.
A dynamic live performer too, Johnson proved her authenticity chops long ago with the Toy Hearts, but this serves as a terrific launch of what promises to be an equally illustrious and acclaimed solo career.
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Artist’s website: www.hjbrokenhearts.com
‘Not In Birmingham’ – live: