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Madison Cunningham’s Revealing Second Album

Madison Cunningham
Claire Marie Vogel

It figures that I’d find out about Madison Cunningham through Chris Thile, because game recognizes game. It was 2018 and I was excited to see Thile’s progressive string band Punch Brothers at the Ryman Auditorium. Opening the show was a 20-year-old songwriter from Los Angeles whose solo set got my attention. I took some notes, but she didn’t change my life. That happened a couple of years later when I heard her debut album Who Are You Now after it had been nominated for the Americana Album Grammy Award.

The artist’s name rang a bell, and I eventually made the connection back to that Ryman show. And on the album, with full band arrangements and scintillating, peculiar pop-folk songs like “Trouble Found Me” and “Plain Letters”, I could hear layers of thought and musicianship that come along very rarely. Thile, who in the meantime had invited Cunningham on his then-running Live From Here public radio show many times, tweeted that the album was “FRIGHTENINGLY good.” 

Now we’ve had six months to live with her second full-length album Revealer, and I think Thile’s rave review would apply to it as well. Nominated for Best Folk Album at this week’s Grammy Awards, it seems miscast by the Recording Academy, because it has even more power, electricity and hooks than its predecessor. (She expresses befuddlement that she was ever cast as a folk artist, though she fits in the eclectic mix that is Americana.) There’s some darker and more self-investigating material here too, and plenty of dynamic range, from her most poignant ballad in “Life According To Raechel” to her most ferocious track yet in “Your Hate Could Power A Train.” 

Madison Cunningham

I got to meet Madison on her first headlining tour through Nashville about a month before the 2020 pandemic shutdown. There I learned of her background growing up in a musical church environment in Orange County, CA and about her close attention to the guitar, which synchs up with and supports her vocals with more inventiveness and sophistication than just about any guitar-slinging singer-songwriter I could name. That integral musical relationship is still strong, she tells me in Episode 233 of The String, a conversation held over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles.

“It's the linchpin of my interests,” Madison says of her electric guitar playing. “I do think that it's kind of been a North Star. It kind of writes the songs.” That said, she observes that she’s always thought of herself as a songwriter first, and that makes sense. Cunningham doesn’t solo or shred. Her guitar lines and breaks are worked out and integral to the structure of the tunes, and her deft finger picking can be light and frothy as in the cyclical intro to “All I’ve Ever Known” or banging and riffy, like the muscular “Hospital.” 

Cunningham’s plans for 2020 were to tour a lot less and write a lot more, with a second album in mind. So perhaps the timing of the pandemic was better for her than other young artists with a release planned for that spring, though it wasn’t easy. “I felt like I was completely severed from reality in general,” she says, adding that “I am thankful for it, because I felt like I got some tools from that, which, you know, allowed me to understand how to write from a place that feels incredibly barren.” 

Touring came back more easily than she feared as well. “By the time 2020 came around, you know, my ambition was full grown. And it was just really sad to see a lot of that (opportunity) sort of avalanche and fall apart - and not know if it would come back,” she says. “And thankfully, I think that's what's been spectacular about (2022), is it felt like it wasn't in vain. And like people remembered, and it didn't feel like we started over.”

Madison Cunningham will perform on the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony, which streams live on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 2:30 pm central time at Grammy.com and on the Recording Academy's YouTube channel.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org