On the 1st August 2016, a crime was committed against the unsuspecting British public: LeAnn Rimes butchered ‘The Story’ live on teatime BBC One magazine programme ‘The One Show’. It’s a veritable behemoth of a song, and while Carlile didn’t actually pen it herself, it being one of two tracks on the album of the same name written solely by Phil Hanseroth (one of the two brothers who remain part of Carlile’s band today), absolutely no one can belt that song out like she can. But for it to even reach the attention of the artists like Rimes who would go on to attempt a cover, it of course had to find exposure, something that wasn’t gained through the expected channels of radio play or even gigging. No, the key was soapy primetime drama.
As with a lot of americana artists in the mid-00s to early-10s, Carlile benefited greatly from the title track getting associated with an American network television show – in her case the apex of such programmes: ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. It wasn’t even actually Carlile’s performance of the song that initially got it noticed, but a cover done by one of the show’s stars Sara Ramirez, but still, it was enough to bump up Carlile’s profile and get not just the track, but also the titular album, noticed.
Given the scope of the aforementioned title track, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the album is so much more than that one song. The pain of a lost relationship feels fresh and raw on every listen to ‘Turpentine’, which is unsurprising when you discover the song was actually penned by Carlile as a teen, and really, is there any heartache greater than a teenage one? The fact the song is included on the album at all is thanks to the album’s super producer in the form of T Bone Burnett, who helped Carlile see the song as worthy of a place. “I was born when I met you / Now I’m dying to forget you,” she opens on ‘Cannonball’, two lines that so neatly sum up what is so often the rise and consequential fall of love.
“If you had eyes like golden crowns / And diamonds in your fingertips / You’d waste it,” Carlile sings with biting cruelty on ‘Wasted’. “If shining wisdom passed your lips / And travelled to the ears of God / You’d waste it,” she continues, and even the lilting piano isn’t enough to soften the blow. Rivalling the title track in its scope, on ‘Again Today’ Carlile pulls off some truly stunning vocal moves, all as the music crashes like waves on a rocky shore. “Broken sticks and broken stones / Will turn to dust just like our bones again today / I’m broken down / Not good enough / The broken promises add up again today,” she roars on the climactic bridge.
‘Downpour’ is a tale as old as country music: How hard life is on the road without loved ones. “I’m like the rain in a downpour / I wash away what you long for / And I wave goodbye with the sun in my eyes / I wish I could be there tonight,” Carlile sings regretfully against lush strings (In this specific case, Carlile revealed the subject in question is actually her parents since she was afraid of missing what was their 25th anniversary at the time from being on tour).
“Have you ever stared into a starry sky? / Lyin’ on your back, you’re askin’ why? / What’s the purpose, I wonder, who am I?” Carlile asks, although life’s big questions remain unanswered but at least posed by the end of ‘Have You Ever’, the second track to be penned by Hanseroth, while on the sweetly sad hidden track ‘Hiding My Heart’, Carlile admits to being so bruised from past experience that she’s now too scared to love: “I wish I could lay down beside you when the day is done / And wake up to your face against the morning sun,” she confesses. “But like everything I’ve ever known you’ll disappear one day / So I’ll spend my whole life hiding my heart away.”
If you’re in any doubt of the cultural impact of the album, in 2017 a tribute album titled ‘Cover Stories’ was released with Carlile’s blessing to benefit War Child UK. Each track of ‘The Story’ is covered, with an impressive line-up featuring stalwarts of americana like Kris Kristofferson, Margo Price and Indigo Girls, but also more mainstream stars like Pearl Jam, Dolly Parton and Adele. Still not impressed? Barack Obama also wrote a foreword for the project, saying: “As an artist, Brandi Carlile is using her talent on behalf of the most vulnerable among us, children living in areas of conflict. She reminds us that, together, we can build for our children a more just, peaceful world.”
It’s hard to believe, really, that ‘The Story’ was released just a little over 15 years ago, given what a celebrated and venerated stateswoman of the americana world Carlile has since become. “We didn’t live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven, but we live in the time of Joni Mitchell”, she said in 2019 before performing Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ in its entirety; she may feel that we are living in the time of Joni Mitchell, but for the rest of us, it’s the time of Brandi Carlile.