While I don’t find her voice as distinctive as Linda Ronstadt, to whom she’s often likened, the Illinois singer-songwriter’s sound is firmly rooted in the guitar twang Americana of 70s Laurel Canyon. Tales And Tributes Of The Deserving And Not So is her debut album after two EPs, the last back in 2012, co-produced by her guitarist and partner Greg Whitson and variously featuring pedal steel, organ, mandolin, banjo and violin, opening with ‘Golden Sun’, recalling her journey back east from Los Angeles with her young son in tow, heading into the sun and a metaphorical better tomorrow.
Both it and the similarly upbeat tempo ‘Mississippi Risin’’, in which the river serves as an image of a divided America and the hope of it joining back together, are solid enough but it’s not until the snakey blues lope of ‘Outlaw’ that it truly catches fire, the song derived from a story written in her younger years about a honky tonk scuffle that left one dead and one on the run. The momentum’s maintained with the softer, slower ‘Travellin’ Ghosts’ with its ticking guitar line and yearning vocals underscored by pedal steel tears as she sings of having to cast off the shadows of the past and move into the light.
‘Generation’ is another highlight, a mid-tempo country jog that comes from a musician’s heart, drawing on her own struggles with the music industry where the money has taken precedence over the message. From here, the view turns to the emotional landscape of her journey, striking country rock notes with the infectious melody lines and chorus hook of the chugging ‘Heartbreak Heart’ and, opening on slide guitar, the more bluegrassy bounce of ‘Restless Kind’.
It hits the final stretch, slowing it down for the measured tempo of ‘Earthquake’, a vocally soaring tribute to a family member’s sacrifice in helping the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake before closing up in punchy blues rocking fashion with ‘No Time For Loving You,’ a riff-driven number about the emotional cost of being a travelling musician, though I suspect it works better in a hot barroom than it does on disc.
At the end of the day, despite some fine songs, it doesn’t quite have the staying power to establish her as a new Americana force, but, nevertheless, it’s still a deserving calling card you’ll want to keep in mind for the future.
Artist’s website: www.kellysteward.com
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