Memphis Means Music Month: Grace Askew
Ed. Note: October is Memphis Means Music Month, so each week I’ll bring you a post about a current Memphis musician. Today I’m happy to present this guest post by John McHugh, who reviewed Grace Askew’s latest album, Scaredy Cat, released in August.
You can get the album at local record stores or the usual places online. Grace will be performing at the Dixon's Art on Fire party on October 25.
There may be other places that breed such an admirable disregard for the conventional, but it seems to me that only a young gal from Memphis, Tennessee, would do what singer-songwriter Grace Askew has done in the last two years.
First, she spent two months as a top contender on the nation's most acclaimed live-television singing competition, which earned her the attention of everyone from country superstar Blake Shelton (her coach on NBC's The Voice) to Rolling Stone, which awarded her the title of "#1 most robbed contestant" after her exit on the show's Season Four knockout rounds.
Next, she returned home to record eleven sparsely arranged first-takes of her own songs at Sun Studio, then released it in August as her first album since catching her big break. Not a track of the album, "Scaredy Cat", sounds remotely similar to any country/pop radio single in the last fifty years.
Grace Askew is a native Memphian whose mix of blues and country – a combination the 27-year-old has termed "bluntly" – she developed during the last five years as a touring musician. It takes full form on her excellent full-length album.
"Scaredy Cat" kicks off with a stirring autobiographical ballad, "Wild Heart". (Listen to "Wild Heart" here.) The opening lines have Askew crooning low in her smoky alto, "Mustangs and politics / rusted chains and pistol whips / Tobacco brown and red dirt / you nearly drowned and never get hurt", vivid and distinctly southern bits of imagery that set the tone for the album's freewheeling spirit and enchanting lyrical quality.
From this start, the album's sequence borrows from an old school approach to record making: the two sides of the record each have a distinct mood, but live in the same sonic universe and together create a cohesive listening experience, a steady trip downstream. Tracks 1 – 5 are largely down-tempo, contemplative, and filled with an unmistakable sense of heartache and longing.
Once this set of tunes closes with the moving "Out on Your Front Steps", a somber reflection on the universality of regret love lost, all bets are off. Side Two begins with "Tip Top Liquor", a raucous ode to Madison Avenue's very own, and the party doesn't let up until the album's sneering title track gets thrown off the rails to crash into the finale, sparks flying.
One key to Askew's success on "Scaredy Cat" is her recognition of the power of unoccupied space in music. Maybe it was the spirit of legendary artists past hanging in the corners of the tiny tracking room at Sun, where she recorded. Or maybe Askew simply has the same great instincts as those who came before her.
Whatever the case, she seems to have discovered that what's so riveting about classic Memphis rock 'n' roll records – about half of which were cut in the same room as hers – is how much empty space the artists left, how intimate the human voice can sound in near silence.
Askew achieves this sense of presence and humanity, and she uses nothing more than her voice, a pair of electric guitars, and the occasional double bass or piano. No drums, no synthesizers, no samples, no filler.
To say, then, that "Scaredy Cat' is an odd record for contemporary female country with with a large and growing fan base is both an understatement and, in the context of what today passes for country (the unending assembly line of gasoline-slick tunes about cruising for babes on imaginary backwood roads sung by muscular, thumbish dudes in factory-faded designer denim and flatbill caps) a compliment of the highest order.
It should surprise no one who has followed Askew's career or watched her complete on The Voice that her vocal performance throughout the album (sung in 100 percent live single takes, mind you) is nothing short of impressive and often leans toward the spectacular.
What may be a surprise, though, is that a young singer with enormous commercial potential just released a country album with roots that run closer to the Delta blues of Son House and Furry Lewis than anything ever thought of by Faith or Reba, much less T-Swift or Miranda Lambert.
Askew's decision to turn defiantly away from the shiny, shallow gleam of modern popular country seems to be addressed directly in the third verse of "Turn A Blind Eye": "Well, its, 'Texas, Nashville, New York, or L.A. Them big city lights be the only way', so they say, 'if you wanna be a big old' star'. But here I sit, it's last call at the bar."
Though, as one listens more closely to Askew's newest album, maybe there wasn't a decision to be made at all. She knows who she is, and this is it. As it turns out, "Scaredy Cat" is the work of a young artist who is anything but afraid, and a raw and daring record that values honesty above all else.
About the Author
John McHugh is a recent graduate of Rhodes College. Born into a musical family in Nashville, he was raised on the sounds of Memphis soul and rock ’n’ roll. He lives on Kwik Check’s bi bim bop, loves to spend hours flipping through records at Shangri-La, and firmly believes that Otis Redding was the greatest singer to ever walk the earth. Check out his blog Blame It On The Stones.