Classic Americana Albums: k.d. lang “Shadowland”

Sire Records, 1988

Album cover art for kd lang's 'Shadowland'

Album cover art for kd lang's 'Shadowland'While Canadian singer-songwriter k.d. lang achieved international success in 1992 with the release of her signature jazzy romantic album ‘Ingenue’ she created three solid country albums just prior to that: ‘Angel With A Lariat,’ ‘Shadowland,’ and ‘Absolute Torch And Twang.’ lang was among the new unembellished, authentic artists like Steve Earle and Ricky Skaggs who were signed by Nashville executives anxiously competing with pop labels in the ’80s. She had enough credibility to sing on a Grammy-winning duet of ‘Crying’ with Roy Orbison in 1987.

Before moving on from country, however, lang teamed up with legendary producer and longtime A&R rep Owen Bradley in 1988 to create a classic haute Nashville album with touches of pop and jazz (Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Walker’s ‘Black Coffee,’ made famous by Sarah Vaughan). Bradley had been impressed by one of lang’s appearances on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,’ either one of her performances with her backing band The Reclines or with Orbison, and was eager to work with her. He was known for his work with dozens of artists, including Patsy Cline, a personal heroine of lang’s to whose emotional vocals lang’s own were often compared. The Reclines had started out as a Patsy Cline cover band.

lang and Bradley’s collaboration on ‘Shadowland’ not only paid homage to lang’s country roots but made the songs sound much more modern. It’s a strong reminder of how well-suited to the lush material her voice was. Bradley gave her his 25-year-old unrecorded song ‘Shadowland,’ a difficult song with sudden octave jumps not just any singer could pull off. She also did a magnificent job on Chris Isaak’s very western-sounding ‘Western Stars,’ The Tobias Brothers’ ‘Tears Don’t Care Who Cries Them,’ and Billy Walker’s old-school country ‘Down To My Last Cigarette.’ Bradley enlisted his nephew Bobby to engineer the album and his brother Harold to play bass and banjo. He also brought in surviving “angels” Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee to appear on ‘Honky Tonk Angels Medley.’ In the video for that song, lang appears alongside these three hyper-feminine country performers but, with her characteristic cheeky confidence, appears to be having the time of her life. Keep in mind that despite her androgynous appearance, lang wouldn’t publicly come out as a lesbian until 1992. That didn’t stop the promotional blurbs and many of the reviews for ‘Shadowland’ from being embarrassingly sexist and condescending, calling her “The Prairie Princess” and, with no hint of irony, saying “she puts on her cocktail-dress-and-pearl-necklace voice for Frank Loesser’s standard ‘I Wish I Didn’t Love You So.’” 

Whether or not it was a front or youthful swagger, who knows, but lang had a remarkable level of confidence in her ability, despite facing a level of personal criticism and hate that no traditional contemporaries in country music had to endure. If she hadn’t been made to feel so unwelcome, as a vegetarian, animal activist, and lesbian in country music at the time – the target of bullying, sabotage, and death threats – maybe she would have stayed in the genre a bit longer. Country stars like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris eventually also did public service announcements for PETA. There are more openly LGBT artists in country music now, many of whom credit lang for inspiring them to play music. Vegetarianism and veganism are so common in mainstream society now that they are no longer remarkable. Even Johnny Cash became a vegetarian.

On the other hand, maybe lang would have left country behind after her next album ‘Absolute Torch And Twang’ anyway, regardless of her reception in the country music community. ‘Shadowland’ shows clear signs of the direction she would take in only a couple of years, with her seductive croon making the album’s stand-out torch songs nothing short of magical.  


About Kimberly Bright 85 Articles
Indiana native, freelance writer specializing in British, Canadian, and American music and cultural history, flyover states, session musicians, overlooked and unsung artists. Author of 'Chris Spedding: Reluctant Guitar Hero.' You can contact her at
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Mary Jane

Thanks for this. Nice to be reminded of great LGBTQ artists. As a queer woman who was lucky to see the Starlight in Kansas City some years ago, along with the guvna of Kansas I sat behind who happens to have a queer son. Wonderful show then, wonderful reminder now that in these times we need to keep music and art front and center. xo

Kimberly Bright

That sounds like a fantastic concert! I am holding out hope for a lang Vegas residency someday.

David D Harper

I’m not even an American, yet I’ve come to despise Jim Jordan (and the GOP generally thanks to members like him) and to fervently hope that Jordan and his ilk will be swept out of power, and that sad era of US history ended.