I grew up in, and spent my formative years navigating the pitfalls and perils of life in, a small North Carolina town.
There’s a certain pride that comes with having survived, an even bigger sense of accomplishment for those who escaped.
But small towns aren’t that easy to shake. They take hold in small ways, some good, some not.
I have no idea where Jessi Robertson grew up, but I’m betting it was a place where most of the people could fit inside a small arena with plenty of seats to spare. I just get that feeling listening to her new album, titled appropriately, Small Town Girls.
Robertson has a voice that sounds like you imagine a hard life would sound, if a hard life could put its ups and downs to song.
That’s a compliment, by the way. A big one. I love full-throated, smokey-voiced female singers. It’s a weakness that goes back many, many years. Martha Davis, Stevie Nicks, Johnette Napolitano. These were the voices of my youth belting out some of the songs that defined me then, and some still to this day. I remember the first time I heard Melissa Etheridge way back in 1988, the edgy, raw emotional energy she brought to her debut album just whalloped me hard.
Jessi Robertson has that same fiery edge, reminding me of what made Etheridge such a vocal force early on, before she become content to settle for adult contemporary AOR. If you doubt me, skip immediately to Track 3, “Half Moon,” and crank the volume. The song is a hook-laden tour-de-force that I’m betting will catch you off-guard the same way Etheridge did me with “Like the Way I Do.” There’s that same sense of a fleeting connection, so powerful, like a micro-burst of emotion, that just causes the poor narrator’s soul to implode.
“I feel my body break away from me
Fragments spinning out without gravity
In the stereo static I can’t be read
I tried to laugh but I screamed instead”
The eponymous “Small Town Girls” crackles with missed opportunities and wasted chances, the bad decisions that become public fodder, the hateful stares, whispers and sneers.
“Small town girls learn how to tell big lies
When the neighbors know all the details of your lives
And gloss over the heartache in your eyes”
You can’t write about life in a small town unless you’ve lived it because life in a small town can be brutal. Everyone knows your business. Neighbors keep score of how many different people have left your little house in the harsh light of breaking day. And they don’t mind calling you a slut just under breath so you can hear, but no one else. Small town life makes you long to be surrounded by strangers. It makes you daydream about planning your escape.
“I thought someone was coming to rescue me
A savior or a hero or destiny
I waited patiently, expectantly
And I learned to save myself eventually”
Small Town Girls isn’t a definitive classic. I suspect Robertson is still working her way toward that goal. But she fires on all cylinders on enough tracks that you can’t deny the album as a whole. It’s one of those discs where you keep it playing in the background while you work, but crank the knob every other song or so.
And then you get to the kicker, the finest moment, which she saves for the closing song, “Whiskey and Cigarettes.”
It’s a song of immense power, if only because it twists convention on its head. Often times, in a small town, people equate last call with the last chance to reach out and grab someone, anyone, so they don’t have to be alone.
It made me think of the three years I spent in North Alabama just after college, and the anxious energy that would pulse through the honkytonk bar as closing time crept close. The crowd would tense, furtive glances surveying the floor. The men would scope out the single women like they were an animal who had somehow broken from the herd. And more often than not, the women seemed to long for that late-night opportunity, pride and morals be damned.
But in Robertson’s world, that just ain’t how it goes. She lets it be known that she’s not a victim. She has no fear saying she doesn’t need anyone to fill any void.
“…’cause a real woman don’t need anyone’s help getting home
A real woman don’t feel lonely even when she’s alone
A real woman conquers you and then quickly forgets
A real woman drinks whiskey and smokes cigarettes”
There’s no doubting that this is a deeply personal song. Robertson owns each verse like she’s lived it. You can practically taste the Jack Daniels in her words and small the Marlboro smoke that’s settled in her hair. It’s a crowning achievement, a hopeful herald of even better songs to come.