Karen Jonas. Country Songs. At The Helm Records

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I presume that there’s a gender imbalance in Americana Music, after all there is everywhere else. For every Lucinda Williams there are ten males who will hog the limelight but it seems that recently there has been a welcome upsurge in female artists who are making waves. Courtney Marie Andrews and Margo Price especially come to mind and on the evidence of her second album Karen Jonas should jump to the front of the queue. From Fredericksburg, Virginia, Jonas, like Price (and Sturgill Simpson) grabs a traditional country sound and drags it squealing and bleating into the present. She has the Bakersfield Sound with some honky tonk chops down to a tee while she’s also able to turn in a yearning ballad. She sounds great, sometimes sultry, sometimes sassy and her lyrics range from her thoughts on Dwight Yoakam’s tight fit jeans to a country rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The album opens on a highlight as the honky tonk strains of the title song sashay into ear sight with fiddle and twangtastic guitar to the fore as Jonas sings about her entree into the world of beery sad songs. It’s all down to her boyfriend leaving her apparently as she needed her heart good and broken before she could sing along. The dim fellow then gets compared to Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam with Yoakam singled out for wearing his jeans tighter than Jonas does. It’s a magnificent song, somewhat tongue in cheek but Jonas delivers it perfectly. The following Keep Your Hands To Yourself is a rip snorting warning to another dastardly guy with Jonas well in control of the situation as the song speeds along while Ophelia is a guitar fuelled Bakersfield filed romp which finds Jonas advising womenfolk not to let their double dealin’ men drive them crazy. There’s more country rumble on the The Fair Shake which twinkles with pedal steel and soulful organ over a doleful twang guitar before erupting into an angry outburst.

It’s not all vibrant country strutting. The Garden shimmers with graceful guitar, pedal steel and piano as Jonas recalls a long ago tryst, “I was 17, you were 21″ she sings amidst images redolent of a teenage romance idyll whilst she also harbours a thought that eventually she and her lover will be reunited in the titular garden. The one quibble here is that a squalling guitar solo bursts out midway through somewhat spoiling the mood, a rare misstep from Tim Bray who otherwise is spot on throughout the album. Wasting Time is a ballad with crossover appeal, just ripe for the plucking while Wandering Heart harks back to the likes of Patsy Cline as does the country torch of Why Don’t You Stay. There are echoes of another Country heroine on Whiskey and Dandelions where Jonas taps into Dolly Parton territory on a song about a woman who dreams about getting enough money to, “buy a little house where we both could live” but is actually content with her lot and her relationship singing, “Don’t buy me roses and bring me wine, I like cheap whiskey and dandelions”.  

Jonas closes the album with the sly and slightly louche tale of Yankee Doodle Went Home, her voice a smoky delight, the band in a late night soul jazz groove, a fine end to what is a great album.

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