Beth McKee has logged countless miles along the gulf coast between New Orleans and Florida, and her songwriting harnesses the timeless vibe of the swampland and honkytonks that line the route. Her third solo record, Sugarcane Revival is the culmination of that long journey, a collection of songs celebrating the myriad roads we travel and the rewards of perseverance.
McKee first honed her songwriting chops as keyboardist and founding member of the Cajun-country band Evangeline, who were signed to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Records in the ‘90s. It was on the band’s second album, French Quarter Moon, that McKee’s songwriting talents first rose to the fore, particularly on the cuts “Don’t Cross That Bridge” and “Elvis of the Night,” the surprisingly touching story of a hapless gift shop clerk with an Elvis obsession. Despite the nascent promise she showed as a songwriter, McKee’s first project after Evangeline’s demise, 2010’s I’m That Way, was a tribute to Cajun songwriter Bobby Charles, composer of “See You Later, Alligator” and “Walking to New Orleans.” Already a strong instrumentalist, this collection of Charles covers gave McKee the opportunity to develop (and showcase) her skills as a lead vocalist. 2012’s follow-up, Next to Nowhere, found McKee combining her talents - songwriting, playing, and singing - into a rewarding collection that garnered comparisons to Bonnie Raitt’s best work.
On Sugarcane Revival, self-described “swamp sister” Beth McKee takes listeners on a soulful journey through back-roads and bayous of the gulf region. The first lines of the album set the tone of wanderlust (“Well it’s a long road back . . . and there’s a whole lot of miles lying ahead and behind”) and a majority of the album’s 13 songs address themes of travel and discovery, a search for satisfaction in both place and self. McKee appears here as a restless spirit, constantly searching, yet never adrift. “I chose this direction,” she sings early on, “I’ll take on the consequences.” In “Abraham and Alice”, McKee sings of continued striving: “Are you searching like I am? / Are you wandering like Abraham? / Or are you Alice, seeking Wonderland? / If you find it, take me there if you can.” While, in “A Place for Me”, she addresses the futility of seeking to find one’s self in another, singing, “I keep searching for my reflection / In the eyes of everyone I meet / Hoping to find that connection to the long lost part of me.” An answer might be found in “Promised Land”, with its beautiful image of the self as a dragonfly suspended in the air, as McKee describes travelling the world in search of the perfect fit only to find that home was always right there at the start of the journey. And she reflects on the isolation brought on by so much restlessness in “Nobody Knows Like Me”, declaring, “Nobody knows the lure of surrender when you’ve lost your sense of self will / Nobody hears the bargain being struck when seclusion’s at the heart of the deal,” and, in the next verse, “Nobody hears the sighs that you whisper to get yourself to stay in the game.” McKee delivers these lines with intensity reminiscent of Aretha Franklin in her classics “Think” and “Respect.”
McKee surrounds herself with a fertile and sympathetic collection of musicians on this release, including guitarists Tony Battaglia, Tommy Malone (The Subdudes), and Tim Lee (Tim Lee 3, The Windbreakers), bassists Dan Walters, Barry Dean, and Justin Beckler, drummer Juan Perez, fiddler Jason Thomas (Off-Kilter), and Evangeline’s Rhonda Lohmeyer on mandolin. While the liner notes don’t credit who plays where, McKee’s arrangements and Beckler’s mixing create a cohesive and consistent full-band sound for each cut. The playing is top notch, built around McKee’s keyboard and accordion leads, with a live, organic feel.
Throughout this inspirational album, McKee writes and sings about self-empowerment without resorting to the kinds of clichéd homilies that leave lesser writers sounding like third rate Dr. Phils. She can be sincere without being saccharine, and her wisdom is both warm and well-worn. The album’s centerpiece may be “Right at the Gate”, where she declares “I may not win but I can’t lose / I can’t quit chasing that muse.” The artist’s journey can be a difficult one, each individual dream subject to a hundred disappointments. McKee demonstrates again and again in her reflective lyrics both an open heart and a strength of character, an ability to keep chasing her dreams while accepting no one’s definition of success but her own. “Head on my shoulders, feet in my shoes, / I can walk any road I choose”, she declares, adding, “I am the one who decides where I go”, before concluding, “It’s my story. I’ll write the ending.”