What is country music? [Here insert a really really long argument about the signs and signifiers of country, about pedal steel guitar notes ringing in the night air, about fiddles and shuffles and adherence to tradition, Bill Monroe Hank Williams Johnny Cash Willie Waylon and the boys Tammy Loretta Dolly and the girls, etc. End by concluding that country music isn’t really about its signifiers, listen to country radio, the songs are all over the place, country music is all about the FEEL, if you know what it’s all about you can hear it in the unlikeliest places. Say it all pretty, though.]
So when I say that Comin’ from Where I’m From was last year’s best country record, I don’t say that because there are wailing violins or honky-tonk piano runs on it. On the surface, it’s R&B music—in fact, it’s the best R&B album of the year too. Anthony Hamilton‘s voice is a thing from God, a soaring pleading hard-edged thing, thick in that southern way, Al Green one minute and Otis Redding the next, a thing to treasure. And the music that underlies this voice is much more like D’Angelo and Prince than Wynonna or Toby, serious organ workouts with hip-hop beats, mostly slow jamz with a neo-soul/Stax mix. It’s very telling that the first song here samples an Al Green song and a Jay-Z song, because that’s where the sound is comin’ from.
But what I’m talking about is the FEEL of the songs. That first song is “Mama Knew Love”, a tribute to Hamilton’s hard-working mother, the mother that all of us have somewhere in our hearts. This tribute, though, is far away from what a typical R&B singer would do, and it’s all in the details. Hamilton’s mother knew “love like the back roads”, she cooked scrambled eggs despite the swelling in her legs and then walked “to work about two or three miles” where she “wiped pee just to make the ends meet”—this is a country mom, a true goddess of the rural black South. Which DOES exist. In these soul clothes, “Mama Knew Love” has a beating country heart.
The same feeling pops up on song after song. Sure, there’s a pimpin’ song—because there always is—but although the verses are all about how his woman better stay in line, the choruses talk about the care with which he’ll treat her, a particularly rural kind of care: food. The song is called “Cornbread, Fish, and Collard Greens”, because he knows that’s what she really needs. And Hamilton’s sense of humor (“I put the juice in Jheri curls”) undercuts all of his other mean-mugging so that it ends up more a tease than any kind of threat.
The country-ism continues on many of the songs. Despite the drug metaphor on “Float” and the overt drugs-take-me-away “Chyna Black”, these are just like C&W drinking songs, which are really just songs about loneliness. A quote from the latter goes straight to the heart of the matter: “Chyna Black is like my old Ford / Picks me up, helps me carry the load”. When Hamilton writes a song about a good woman, he calls it “Since I Seen’t You”. When he does a song called “I’m a Mess”, he sounds a lot more like Brad Paisley than Paisley Park: “You could have called, you could have wrote, you could have tried / I’d rather you slit me across the throat so I can die / Instead of leaving no explanation as to why / You don’t want me no more”.
Does he know he’s doing this? Hell yeah he does. There’s a song here called “Lucille”, a heartbreaking thing about an ex-girlfriend who has lapsed back into her former life of alcoholism and abuse, the chorus of which begins “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille”—sound familiar? But that older country-ass Kenny Rogers “Lucille” song was ridiculously and intentionally corny (“Four hungry children, and a crop in the fields”), and this one is bleak and specific: “I overheard someone say they saw you crying in a bar last night / With a blackened eye, with a blackened eye”. The track is eerie and circular, with a rotating acoustic riff and a spacy bridge section, it wouldn’t ever pass muster on any “Hot Country” station or any other station I can think of, either. But when Hamilton starts testifying at the end, “I never woulda hit you baby”, it hits harder than “The Thunder Rolls” or any other song in the history of the world, and no sane human being could hear this and be able to resist bursting into tears.
He’s a poet, I swear to God. Every single song has some kind of weird twist to it that marks it as an Anthony Hamilton song. Well, every song except “My First Love”, a lengthy slow-dance duet with LaToiya Williams that aims to be a prom jam and nothing more. Apart from that, I think we’re seeing the debut of a great American songwriter. He’s not fancy with his lyrics, less a Smokey than an Al Green—and yes, I know that’s the third time I’ve mentioned Al Green, it’s intentional. He’s the saddest and most sensitive loser in the world on “Charlene”: “But I forgot about loving her / Damn the money, the diamonds and furs / What about the hard day she had with the baby? / All she needs is for me to love her”.
And the title track is much deeper and scarier than you know if you’ve just seen the video or heard it somewhere. He starts out the song in a bad way (“Sitting here, guess I didn’t make bail / Got time and a story to tell”) and then describes, bit by bit, how he got there: poor kid, had to hustle his way up, met a light-skinned college girl, tried to hang with her, found out she was shady and then back to the chorus, and a bridge. No more mention of the girl. We do hear a little more: “Wanted nothing but to love somebody / Steady hustling just to feed my family / Too scared to have kids and do like my daddy did / ‘Cause I’m so scared of failing”. The depth of feeling here is surreal, it’s the entire history of the cycle of poverty and criminality and the accompanying surrender of self-esteem all in one verse. But remember, everyone, he’s still in the cell. And he hasn’t mentioned the girl again. Is this because she dumped him? Or is it something more sinister: did he kill her? Is that why he’s in jail? The ambiguity is terrifying, and disturbing, and brilliant.
I proudly voted this album #1 in the Country Music Critic’s Poll for Nashville Scene magazine, and I would have done the same in an R&B poll. It’s the perfect intersection of the two genres; it’s sad and funny and scary and welcoming all at the same time. Great things will come from this man Anthony Hamilton; one great thing already has.