A well made album with a touch of the old school and plenty of songwriting promise.
Sarah McCulloch is described as a Country/Americana singer-songwriter and her music probably falls at the outer edge of this site’s parameters. It was partly the quality and comprehensive nature of the press kit that encouraged a further look – on the basis that if the artist and their representatives were so visibly and obviously serious about the songs then surely they were worth a listen. And they are – the suggestion being that fans of Dolly Parton, Lori McKenna, Miranda Lambert, and Lee Ann Womack will find something to enjoy here. The opening track, ‘Honey to a Bear’, has that typical Parton quality of frothy provocativeness – although if ‘wiggling’ and ‘giggling’ and fighting off rivals are not your cup of tea there’s no need to worry – there is more, and better, to come.
The making of the album coincided with a divorce and a move ‘home’ to South Florida after a decade of living in New York state. Born in Miami, McCulloch was raised in the Big Cypress Swamp (sounds wonderfully mysterious doesn’t it?) in a house built with lumber from her father’s sawmill. She was home-schooled for most of her formative years and drew songwriting inspiration from childhood, surrounded as she was by, ‘Seminole Indians and Florida pioneers‘. McCulloch describes her father as a, ‘force of nature, he was a pioneer who was always growing spiritually – he taught me the meaning of hard work and perseverance’.
Several of the songs are about the search for love, regret at its passing and the quest for something new – a sloughing off of the old and a welcome to the future. All are well crafted – as is the whole album which has the feel of quality – but can occasionally feel like listening to tales wherein women’s lives are defined by men – but then that is often at the heart of country music and it is the same when a man wields the pen. It’s telling when thinking about the music that passes our way how much is slanted toward affairs of the heart and how little toward other, at least equally serious, matters. Having just watched the TV production about Elizabeth Holmes / Theranos and her $9 billion scam if there isn’t a song to be written there about how America works (or doesn’t) then hats deserve to be eaten. All of this is why, ‘I’m just an old Chunk of Coal’ – the Billy Joe Shaver penned tale of self-improvement – comes as something of a refreshing change after a number of songs about faithless or imagined lovers. It takes a rare talent to bring something new to that subject.
However, that aside, in all of her writing McCulloch shows a great ability to put lyrics together and write some excellent, tellingly apt and unusual lines. ‘Lost With You’, describes an experience that I am sure is common to many in a way that is easy to identify with,
I wanna get lost with you ride around all night / Then sleep all day in the warm sunlight / Gonna have a lot to say with nothin’ to do / Roll the windows down get lost with you’.
‘Sugartown’, describes a place long left behind with more witty wordplay, ‘They’re still raisin’ cane there on Friday night / Them Okeechobee boys still lookin’ for a fight’.
‘Sawmilller’s Daughter’, (which is exactly who McCulloch is) opens with the disarming, ‘Way back in the swamp where the crickets chomp’, which just raises a smile. The song then closes with a clever couplet around one word, ‘For every chance you get there’s a chance you met / So take a chance every chance that you can’.
As a final example here are some lines from, ‘Sun and the Moon’, where the, ‘Ring and the rice’, offers a memorable image of marriage,
‘It’s the roll and the dice and the game and the bet / It’s the ring and the rice and the baby’s first step / It’s all of the chances we’re taking by saying I do’.
McCulloch sings well and there’s plenty here that will have you humming along and tapping a foot although perhaps the slow tempo of, ‘Florida Line’ does least for her voice. The album is produced by Jim Bickerstaff and is written entirely by McCulloch bar the one track. Recording took place at East Avalon Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and features a variety of players including Terry Feller – drums, Bob Wray – bass, John Willis – guitars and banjo, Donny Carpenter – fiddle, Stan Geberer – harmonica, Clayton Ivey – Hammond B3 and pianos, Pat Severs – pedal steel guitar, Landis Yarovyy, David Hester, Jim Bickerstaff, Savannah Bickerstaff, Leslie Gardner – background vocals, Kelvin Holly – guitar.
Skope magazine said of McCulloch’s second album manages the same trick as her first, combining a modern vibe with a traditional sound, and her voice is more than able to convey her finely wrought lyrics. Whilst, ‘Sawmiller’s Daughter’, was made in the understandable shade of emotional upheaval, which explains some of the choice of subject matter, it would be nice to see McCulloch spread those storytelling horizons more widely as her recorded career develops – there being absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t.