Country artist gets personal and takes aim.
On first listen ‘California Centuries,’ the third album from Laura Benitez & The Heartache is a straight-up country album; up-tempo and joyful with a hint of bluegrass. But Benitez doesn’t write about beer runs in a pickup truck or sitting on the front porch eating apple pie. If previous albums saw Benitez writing in a detached, third person narrative, here she goes personal, big time.
‘A Love Like Yours’ is a love letter to her partner Bryan Kilgore who, as well as providing harmony vocals on the album, was the inspiration for the album title; the ‘Centuries’ referring to his passion for long distance cycling. The family theme is revisited in ‘All Songs’ as Benitez recalls comforting the couple’s daughter with songs sung as wildfires raged nearby.
However, Benitez’s definition of personal is not confined to the immediate closeness of family. ‘Gaslight’ includes references to the mass shootings that plague America, police brutality including that meted out to George Floyd and the #MeToo movement; “25 men, women, and children died in a small Texas town, 38 went to hear some country songs when a sniper mowed them down, our thought and prayers are with them, god bless the NRA’ cause that’s the price of freedom that we all have to pay.”
As Benitez explains “The melody is a protest against the way that modern country artists and songwriters have aligned themselves with conservative values instead of using their platforms to push for social change………and exaggerated to show the hypocrisy of advocating for free speech while trying to silence others. It makes me furious every time I sing it.”
Opening track ‘Bad Things’ deals with collective denial. Citing wildfires and climate change, Covid and the refugee crisis, Benitez sharpens her pencil and takes aim at the denial that most of us bring to our everyday lives “Bad Things happen somewhere else, bad things happen to other people, bad things happen to other names, in another time and place.”
‘California Centuries’ is, in many ways, a brave album. The (Dixie) Chicks are living proof of how standing up and daring to have an opinion in a polarised society can attract a whole load of trouble. But, in the Chick’s own words, Benitez is clearly not ready to make nice. That initial assumption of a fundamentally up-tempo slice of country music isn’t entirely misplaced but the sharp edges to the songwriting make this something more. By refusing to respect genre boundaries, in singing of topics many are afraid to even discuss in public, in challenging her own industry and other powerful lobbies, Benitez deserves huge respect.