If you haven’t yet heard, or heard of, Sarah Johns or her terrific debut album, Big Love in a Small Town, and are wondering to yourself, “Hmm, I wonder what sort of music Ms. Johns plays?”, look no further than the title track. This is where Johns sings proudly about “sittin’ out on the porch in the evenin’ sippin’ sweet ice tea”, “20 acres out in the boonies”, and “raisin’ beans and babies”. This is country music done right, with one foot planted firmly in classic Nashville (which, for the record, hasn’t sounded better since Lee Ann Womack’s last record) and the other (two-) stepping toward Gretchen Wilson-style girl power.
In a year where Miranda Lambert went and made the country album of the decade, Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts dropped their latest blockbusters, and Reba McEntire, of all people, unseated Kanye’s Graduation atop the Billboard albums chart, it’s too easy to see Johns’ gem of a record getting buried in the shuffle. Its strengths and pleasures will likely be lost on ears unable to hone in on the nuances that distinguish good mainstream country from lousy mainstream country.
On the album’s first two tracks, “When Do I Get to Be a Woman” and “If You Could Hold Your Woman” (“like you hold your whiskey” is how the rest goes), Johns establishes her neo-feminist credentials, but unlike Gretchen or Miranda or, for that matter, Shania (still the godmother of crossover country), she makes few concessions to listeners who can’t tell the difference between country and southern rock. Fiddles loom larger in the mix than guitars, steel or otherwise, and Johns’ voice, as unmistakably Kentucky as, say, Northern State frontwoman Hesta Prynn’s screams Long Island, looms largest.
Not only does Sarah sing with intense power on Big Love‘s 11 songs, she’s clever, too. The lead off single “The One in the Middle” is a woman-scorned track that eschews the elaborate revenge fantasies of “Before He Cheats” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” for a kiss-off as simple as dropping four fingers. The chorus contrasts the finger designated for wedding bands with the one next to it, but Johns delivers her best line as a sort of sly parenthetical: “If you’re asking if I’m done, well, I’m sure not sayin’ you’re number one”.
But anyone familiar with modern country formula knows that feisty up-tempo numbers are only half the battle. Ballads, which have tripped up many promising young country talents, remain a vital part of the equation and they’re where Johns’ specific gifts really shine. The album’s best ballad, and maybe it’s best song period, is called “That’s Just Me Getting Over You’. The verses (“If I’m out at night / with my jeans too tight / lookin’ hot as hell/ in these high heel shoes“) are composed precisely as build-up for a chorus where Johns launches her voice-to-be-reckoned-with into another glass-shattering stratosphere that, in turn, gives way to, what else? Fiddles shedding tears that our heroine won‘t. Perfectly contextualized in a tune about moving on from a painful break-up, it’s not just showy histrionics either. It’s country catharsis.