Songwriters don’t tend to think in chapters, and it’s rare that their characters appear in more than a single song. But Erin Enderlin builds a novelistic world on her latest album Faulkner County. The place name is real - her home ground of Conway, AR - but the love-sick, addicted and generally conflicted people she sings about, or on behalf of, are of the storyteller’s invention, and yet she knows them intimately.
“I wanted to try some different things,” Enderlin said a few minutes after playing WMOT’s Finally Friday broadcast at 3rd & Lindsley. “I put out a series of four EPs and then the full album with all the songs together, and two extra songs.” Many of those songs, she notes, are interwoven. “Each of the EPs is a collection of three songs based around one character. I think it’s something I’ll definitely try to continue to play with.”
Listen to Erin Enderlin's interview here, starting at 39:00.
Enderlin’s also playing a bit when it comes to her album’s title, a double entendre that pays homage to William Faulkner, a novelist famous for how the characters in his fiction-scape of Yoknapatawpha County, MS appear here and there across multiple books. “It’s so interesting to me how he does that,” Enderlin says, praising “the interplay of characters and the more three-dimensional thought that a character isn’t just in this one three-minute song or this one book. Also when you look at those characters through the lenses of other people - how they see them - or a different event, how that gives so much richness.”
All this said, a much simpler way of enjoying Faulkner County is as an excellent traditional country album made lush with fiddle, pedal steel guitar and harmony guest vocals from Alison Krauss, Vince Gill and Cody Jinks among others. In the opening cut “I Can Be Your Whiskey” one lonely heart tries to coax another away from his inebriants. And from there on it’s a veritable whiskey river, with the spirit appearing in at least half the 14 songs. “The Queen of Marina Del Rey” gets in the head of a woman burdened by nostalgia. “These Boots” are a biography told through a beloved pair, “stubborn as an old oak tree, heels dug in and roots run deep.” A handful of covers, include the classic “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You) and the contemporary “Sweet Emmylou,” reveal an artist as dedicated to interpreting and uplifting great country songs as writing them.
Enderlin broke into the business remarkably young and fast, while still an undergraduate at Middle Tennessee State University. This isn’t supposed to happen, but during her senior year, she landed cuts by Alan Jackson and Randy Travis. Jackson’s take on “Monday Morning Church,” a mournful lament with harmony vocals by Patty Loveless, was released in late 2004 and hit #5 on the Billboard country chart. She explains that through her collegiate life as a recording industry major, she worked open mics and attended every business event she could, meticulously keeping records of new relationships. An ASCAP seminar led to some mentorship and a tip to a publisher and demo recordings and the pitch to Jackson’s producer.
That’s a classic, old-school Nashville trajectory for the fortunate and talented few, but it also revealed Enderlin as an old-school country songwriter at a time when the biz was leaning away from tradition. Her discography in the years since has closely allied with the heritage-minded musicians in the genre, including Lee Ann Womack and a recent cut by Reba McEntire. So it’s worked and it’s cleared some bandwidth to put Enderlin out on stage more. “Nashville goes through different iterations,” she says. “But I think there’s always going to be a place for this kind of country music and I feel lucky to keep getting to make it and make records that I 100% love and am excited about.”
Enderlin, who says she expects to be busier on the road than ever in 2020, will play the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree on Dec. 14 in Nashville, and she’s touring in January with Sunny Sweeny.