HEATHER LITTLE – By Now (Need To Know Music NTK2401HL)

By NowWhile her songs have spawned hits for others, Miranda Lambert and Sunny Sweeney among them, the Texas-born musician has rarely ventured into her own spotlight, By Now being only her second full-length release, some eleven years after the first. Assembling a stellar line-up of backing musicians that include Duke Levine, Jared Tyler, Eamon McLoughlin and Russ Pahl, as well as an array of guest vocalists, it’s an album that spins stories both autobiographical and fictional, addressing a range of issues that both challenge and inspire what it means to be human.

The details altered to protect the innocent, Rusty Van Sickle on backing, it opens with the otherwise autobiographical ‘Five Deer County’ which, to a banjo backdrop, documents the cost to others of following a pursuit, in this case how one man’s deer hunting in Texas impacted on family and marriage (“He spent the rent and Thanksgiving Day/In a box in a field for two years straight… I’ve been the girl in the truck/Been the wife on the phone/He’s the king of the hills/In his silver throne all alone/I used to take that shotgun ride/Running around checking feeders by the low headlights/Little one number three is five months old/Daddy tags out early and he don’t come home”) but still not acting up (“I ain’t no ball and chain/I’d rather give him back his name/And let him have all he’s ever dreamed”).

Making a marriage work can be hard (Little should know, she’s on her third) and the accordion flavoured ‘Hands Like Mine’, the first of two featuring Patty Griffin, was written at a time she thought her latest was falling apart (it didn’t), looking back on the first (“the boy that gave it to me/He promised me the moon/But all he had was the dark where it belonged/He didn’t know the rollercoaster we were on/Was a one-way ride straight to hell”) and second (“I was digging myself a hole/And the love that I exhumed/Was not like I recalled/When the old wears off all you got is the truth/It wasn’t his fault/Guess I thought time would leave him like he was/I had to tear apart all I built for my heart in my mind”), blaming herself (“I make diamonds turn to coal/There’s not one dream I haven’t crushed/I break everything I touch/It’s not your fault/I’m always the wrecking ball”) and coming to the sad conclusion that “They don’t make a ring/For hands like mine”.

Featuring Leslie Satcher, strings and tinkling piano, drawn from real life, ‘Razor Wire’ has a multiple narrative, the first verse in the voice of a drug addict who went missing so many times her family stopped going out to look for her (“If I’m gone for very long remember/I would never stay away of my own accord/When I’m under the spell of that great darkness/It holds my mind for ransom I never can afford”), the second and third also about abandonment by family, both biological and chosen, as she plaintively sings “If I’m ever lost please come and find me/Bring all your guns and your sharpest hunting knives/Load for bear and set out early/Walk all day and well into the night/When the sun fails you, light your lanterns/Let them burn the whole night through/Cause all the while you’re wandering/And wondering what to do/I’ll be looking for you too”. Someone should make this a homelessness anthem.

As with her marriage song, and presumably equally autobiographical, the slow shuffling ‘Bones’ is about learning from your mistakes and embracing your past (“I keep those days in a cardboard box/On a high-up shelf and the door stays locked/Somehow they get out and dance around/You know I still love every single one/But they weigh a ton”), advising it’s healthier to dance with your skeletons rather than keep them locked in the closet. Ronnie Bowman on backing, the fingerpicked folksy crooned ‘Better By Now’ is another number being hard on herself for errors in judgement about her lovers (“I don’t want your hands/I don’t want your tools/Your knife is dirty and your plans are cruel…Well I burned up the clutch in the Cavalier/Drove all the way home in second gear/Like’ta killed myself trying to disappear/Trying not to be stuck with you out here… I’ve wasted a lot of love being wrong/I learn to late and I stay too long/You carved a hole in the soul of me/And I filled it up with gasoline”).

Accompanied by piano and mournful cello, ‘Landfall’ comes from a particularly painful memory and the realisation, as a young girl, that one day her gran’ma (“my absolute shelter, strength, hard lesson teacher, keeper, shepherd, lifeline to the heavens, accomplice, partner in crime, and my friend”) would one day die, of having a panic attack when she was 23 for the same reason and then struggling to process her passing when Little was 46, the same age her gran was when she was born (“It’s been coming all my life/One gentle breeze at a time/Even though it’s no surprise/I’m blown away/It’s brought me rainbows and misery/Watered the ground underneath my feet/And it’s about to take my safe place to hide/I know by the chaos in my chest/And the peace in the eye/Our storm is making landfall tonight”).

Opening with static crackle, the uptempo drawled alt-country ‘Transistor Radio’, a wish for the old days, turns the attention to the darker side of social media and smart phones, and, how, relating to her finding out via Facebook and text messages, about the passing of friend and family members, they can create a disassociation between the loss and the person, the narrator relating how she, an old school “analog trespasser through their digital ages”, learnt of the death of her estranged father (“He never wrote, he barely called, he left well enough alone”) from a message on her phone.

‘California Queen’ is another number steeped in reflection, a falling apart but a bond that remains (“I’m coming over/I know it’s late/I’m not drinking/I’m cold sober/All these girls you find/I know you like the mystery/Ah but you and I/We got history”), a declaration of enduring friendship (“I will always be the queen of your California king/While all the jesters come and go with no strings attached/They don’t know I am a fixture/I am a mixture of confusion and the surest thing you will ever know”).Though perhaps the line “You are my carnal distraction from the war that’s always raging” may suggest friendship with benefits.

The second to feature Griffin, as the title suggests, ‘This Life Without You’ speaks of loss and, though not autobiographical per se, was inspired by two friends who struggled with physical and mental illness, one of them choosing end it on their own terms as she sings of the aftermath and the emptiness for those left behind (“It’s like you said/They cry a while then they smile/And talk about the good times y’all spent/Well good for them/They come over, they call/They send flowers, then they stop/And it’s just me and too much room in our bed”).

Again, not to be read literally personally, child abuse is the subject of the deceptively dreamy strings and piano ballad ‘My Father’s Roof’ (“Under my father’s roof/Lived a hard angry man/Without a prayer or a plan/To ever change/My father’s roof/Leaked like a sieve/You could drown if you didn’t know your place…Cause there’s a sniper in the rafters/And it’s only kill or capture/And all the bullets are a hundred and forty proof”). In some ways, ‘Saint Christopher’ has a resonance with that in that it’s about how people may not be what they seem, including your perception of self. Crystal Bowersox on backing and Pahl on pedal steel, Little sings “I used to wonder what it’s like to be that girl/Sitting way up close to him in the pew/His strong across my shoulders/Have long blonde hair draped over/The sleeve of his only suit/Now I wonder what it’s like to be that man/And get my belly full of Sunday dinner that night/Hang that suit up in the closet/With some strange perfume still on it/Knowing damn well what I prayed for wasn’t right”. With those we think of saints turning out to be sinners (“They’re all winners every time until they ain’t”), the title comes from the piercing lines “I still don’t believe your stories or the fairytales you told/But I talked to your Saint Christopher last night/I sat beside him on the curb and/Through the bourbon on his breath/He wiped his face and said ‘I swear to God I tried… Oh I tried’”.

Following the album’s thread, the penultimate track, ‘Sunset Inn’ is about whatever refuge we call home when the world proves cruel (“I got a room at the Sunset Inn/It don’t ask for where I’ve been/Or the whereabouts of the love that I was in…Don’t throw your heart to a white knight/Cause he’s a rodeo clown/He’ll turn the whole world upside down/Just dying to save someone again”) and you realise “A little better looks like love/

When it’s really just one step above/The pain you’ve always known”. And while “you ain’t special/You ain’t different/You ain’t no one”, at least the room at the Sunset Inn is “only mine and not for him”.

By Now ends, Van Plating (who also plays violin on the album) on backing for Little’s 2006 co-write with Lambert (who had hit with it in 2008), ‘Gunpowder And Lead’, another song about domestic abuse, this time with the woman taking a stand (“I’m going home gonna load my shotgun/Wait by the door and light a cigarette/He wants a fight, well now he’s got one…Slapped my face and he shook me like a ragdoll/Don’t that sound like a real man/I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of … His fist is big but my gun’s bigger/He’ll find out when I pull the trigger”).

In many ways, the songs mine very familiar country tropes, but Little still manages to bring fresh perspectives and, listening to the way she sings them, there should be some sort of regulation that mandates her to not leave another decade before she does it again. Buy now.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.heatherlittlemusic.com

‘Better By Now’ – live:

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