String #126: Jessi Alexander and Jill Andrews Study Growth In Different Musical Settings

Apr 24, 2020

A few years ago, the fabricated verb “adulting” blew up and went from mildly amusing to ubiquitous and annoying in no time. This meme-as-word chafes because it trivializes the consequential, transitional stages of independence, marriage and children. It’s a lot more interesting when these explosively emotional and nuanced journeys are chronicled by artists, especially country songwriters, especially women who have lived it, as featured on this week’s String.

They’re utterly different in sonic profile. Jessi Alexander embraces classic Nashville schema shot through with Memphis blues. Jill Andrews leans into the fresh air of roots pop, but her mountain music foundations shine through in sturdy, patient melodies. And they both have excellent new albums out that process and partake of  adulthood without smashing it into two dimensions or falling back on buzzwords. “I know why Momma drank,” sings Alexander in a winking nod to Loretta Lynn. “The kids are growing up too fast,” sings Alexander in a wistful swirl of emotions known by moms the world over. They offer two contrasting paths through the same heart space.

Jessi Alexander grew up in Jackson, TN and she’s long said that being musically formed halfway between Nashville and Memphis explains a lot about her. In a conversation from her home in Franklin, she recalls the tug of both.

“My dad would take me to Beale Street,” she says. “He was friends with a bunch of blues musicians. There I am, little, I mean seven, eight years old, and we’re walking down Beale Street. There were a lot of drunks and bums and people passed out. In the 80s, Beale was funky. He took me to see B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy. I was the little girl passing the tip jar. I was immersed in Delta blues, R&B and all that music. But on the other side I was completely obsessed with the Grand Ole Opry and encyclopedic about my study of it.”

After high school, Nashville pulled her, and in her first days in town she landed a backup singing gig, taking her on the road and to the Grand Ole Opry right away. Then it got harder and then it got easier again, a dance of delight and heartbreak expressed in her new song “Damn Country Music.” But her songwriting and voice were bound to get noticed. Patty Loveless recorded her song “I Want To Believe” and Alexander herself got a record deal, releasing Honeysuckle Sweet on Columbia Records in 2005. It had too much Dusty Springfield soul for country radio, and Alexander became one of those artists cherished by Nashville locals, part of our secret stash of greatness, even as her songwriting career paid off with a smash pop song for Miley Cyrus (“The Climb”) and a CMA/ACM Song of the Year (“I Drive Your Truck”). Curiously, Alexander married another such artist, the low-profile, high-talent Jon Randall, and they had twin boys and a daughter three years later. The couple also started the band 18 South, among the funkiest roots bands of the last quarter century in Music City.

This is all to say that Alexander didn’t have the time or impetus to make albums for herself or to tour behind them as one must these days. But in late 2017, she got itchy to commit some new songs that felt more personal to tape, and she called some trusted musicians and producer Leslie Richter (Sheryl Crow, John Hiatt) for some high-caliber demo sessions at Southern Ground studio. Those went so well the team went back some months later and completed what became the compact but powerful nine-song collection Decatur County Red. The title track chronicles the life around a cabin on the Tennessee River near Jackson that belonged to Alexander’s grandmother and that after a near loss to a foreclosure auction and a lot of restoration is now a haven in the country for her family. The album also mines honky tonk temptation, hell-raising and her own country music story. So it’s a short record with a lot to think about and some yearning, beautifully executed country music.

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Credit Ed Rode

Jill Andrews is so explicit in her self-examination that her album Thirties feels like a song cycle. That’s further amplified by the companion book, featuring personal essays and art directed conceptual photo shoots inspired by the 13 tracks. Only lightly abstracted, the works track Jill’s life through the 2010s. It was complicated. “Throughout my thirties I was in a relationship for several years. We had a baby together,” she says. “I was a new mom and I also had another child from a previous relationship. So I was in a vulnerable position and with the relationship I was in, kind of feeling like a single mom all over again. A lot of (the album) is about my previous relationship and raising kids amidst that and growing into myself and looking at my future.”

Extravagant candor, matched with a surpassingly pure and pretty voice, set Andrews apart as a young artist in her first band, the passionately popular everybodyfields from Johnson City, TN, a duo with her partner and music mentor Sam Quinn. Their parting after five years and three albums was difficult, but it led Andrews to move to Nashville where she distinguished herself as a solo artist, making The Mirror in 2011 and The War Inside in 2015. She’s also developed a duo called Hush Kids with Peter Groenwald. Her sound has trended toward ever more modern textures and a sublime serenity, salted with beats where appropriate. In this respect, Thirties is a listening experience rather similar to Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves. Yet the subject matter retains a commendable fearlessness.

“My music has always been very raw and very personal. And it’s always been a comfortable place for me, for whatever reason,” she says. “I’ve been asked many times how do you get on stage and basically sing your journal? And it’s just always been the natural way for me. It’s how I learned how to write songs. And those are the type of songs that I really love, the really raw, personal story songs. So writing the book was just another step, but I will tell you it does feel much scarier than songs. Because this is my story.”

The album dives right into a feeling of being a stranger in her own home in “Sorry Now,” and then in “The Party,” Andrews keeps a stoic front while feeling alone, nurturing an infant amid a swirl of apparently happy people. She says that latter song and the image that made it into the book became a starting point and anchor for the album. “Gimme The Beat Back,” the most energetic track here, takes us to those moments when old friends rally on our behalf to jump start life after ennui. “River Swimming” brings the promise of new love and redemption. And that’s real too. Andrews is newly married. Her family of four lives in a cool modern home in Madison with views of forest and a recording studio in the basement.