AMY SPEACE with THE ORPHAN BRIGADE – There Used To Be Horses Here (Proper PRPCD159)

There Used To Be Horses HereUnder normal circumstances I wouldn’t get a sight of an Amy Speace album so There Used To Be Horses Here is the first one I’ve settled down to listen to. The album was written in 2019 at a very emotional time in Amy’s life and recorded in East Nashville with the core band of Josh Britt, Ben Glover and Neilson Hubbard plus some special guests including a string quartet. I suppose I was expecting something very country and it’s true that the country elements are in there but calling it country doesn’t do it justice and that’s down to the songs.

Amy’s son had just celebrated his first birthday and her father had been diagnosed with cancer – he died just after Amy had finished the writing – and that whole maelstrom of emotions suffuses her work. The opening song, ‘Down The Trail’ comes from a childhood memory as do the title track and, later, ‘Father’s Day’. These songs provide a framework for the record as Amy recalls riding with her parents and brother in a “baby blue Pontiac, ten feet off the ground” – she must have been very young – and remembers a paddock full of horses near where the family lived. The images may seem mundane but I suppose those are the ones that stick in the memory but also provide a context.

After two relatively pastoral tracks Amy abruptly direction with the gospel-blues of ‘Hallelujah Train’: the kind of song that Janis Joplin would have tackled with considerable relish and which gives the band the chance to stretch out. After ‘Father’s Day’ comes the meat of the set. ‘Grief Is A Lonely Land’ needs no explanation – “I’m sad and I’m mad and I’m missing you” is addressed to her father, of course, amid swirling strings and ‘One Year’ to her son, while ‘Give Me Love’ is, I presume, for her husband.

‘River Rise’ is a bit of a puzzle. It seems to be simply an account of the regular flooding that hits Tennessee from time to time – there were 1000-year floods in 2010 and, coincidently, there were more major floods last month – but other commentators say it mirrors the speed of recording; all done in four days with no more than one or two takes. Certainly, there is a rawness about the track with some delicious growling guitar from Johnny Duke and I’m betting it turns into a live favourite.

‘Shotgun Hearts’ is a coming of age memory set in New York; it seems that Amy misspent at least some of her youth. As she sings “Surprising what comes back to haunt when you visit a place” that sort of sums up something of what the record is about. ‘Mother Is A Country’ is a lullaby for her son but I suspect that it also says something about Amy’s view of herself. Finally, Warren Zevon’s ‘Don’t Let Us Get Sick’ is a wish for all of us.

There Used To Be Horses Here could have been downbeat, maudlin, lachrymose – any number of negatives – but it isn’t. True, there are a few tear-jerking moments (even for an old cynic like me) but there is also some glorious, uplifting music.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘There Used To Be Horses Here’ – official video: