Grace Askew: Scaredy Cat

Despite a center stage spotlight viewed by millions, former The Voice contestants often fail to build a fan base outside the narrow scope of the network lens.

Grace Askew

Scaredy Cat

Label: Self-released
US Release Date: 2014-08-11
UK Release Date: Import

Memphis belle and former The Voice bombshell Grace Askew proves on her first full length recording, Scaredy Cat, that television talent show contestants aren't necessarily disposable. As a critic it's hard to take such artists, not to mention judges, seriously. While the platform of, say, American Idol, garners maximum exposure, the showcased talent is often of the spoon fed, middle of the road variety. This is fine and well for mass consumption. But much like a politician trying too hard to sell himself to too many people, it comes off as disingenuous if not duplicitous at best, sadly inauthentic at worst. This is probably why the post-season track record for most contestant-musicians (excuse me, vocalists) is so poor.

Despite a center stage spotlight viewed by millions, something most working musicians would sell their first born for a shot at, these former contestants often fail to build a fan base outside the narrow scope of the network lens. It's not because the personalities lack talent, even if it is a technically proficient but soulless talent, but because the type of person willing to actually go out and see a concert or fork over the hard earned for an album as opposed to simply flipping channels from the security of their couch demands authenticity and a connection. Singing a few songs from a sound stage does not a musician make, and it's hard to buy into the tragedy of the hard luck narrative being sung by someone literally snatched from obscurity and thrust into fame without paying any dues at all. Like listening to rich people complain about taxes, the content of the message contained within universally themed lyrics by individually wrapped pop starlets inspires laughter and contempt.

So one shouldn't feel hesitant for expecting mediocrity out of Grace Askew's first release. The only problem is, Scaredy Cat is really, really good. At 27 years, Grace Askew's vocal delivery is reminiscent of a late era Joni Mitchell on certain mid tempo entries. Much too young to sound so seasoned, Ms. Askew's phrasing is a steady, deliberate mechanism that neither attempts to steal focus from the overall song nor struggles to maintain character. Warbling from the higher registers to a breathy contralto within individual tracks, Ms. Askew doesn't come off as trained so much as soulful -- that is, one senses she sings from the heart as opposed to the head.

The best classification for Scaredy Cat would be Americana for good reason. The 11 tracks on the album contain elements of country, folk, gospel, singer songwriter, blues, and just the right touch of rockabilly. Opener “Wild Heart” immediately envelopes the audience in a tender first person narrative that invokes a southern Gothic landscape as setting for reflections on a love that might have been. Although more up tempo tracks later in the album display a fine duality of character and ability to jump genre's with both ease and competency, it is these slower, more personal tracks that really rip at the heart strings.

For instance, “Out On Your Front Steps” paints perfectly the scene of any young, artistically inclined old soul. From the stage, either America's Got Talent or Main Street's rot gut neon, playing music looks like a ball. And it is, but few who don't play will ever realize the work that goes on behind it. Creation, whether it be music, art, literature or whatever, requires a massive amount of wood shedding and self-reflection. Unfortunately, that reflection can be saddled with uncertainty. Whether it be the steps or the stage, this track illustrates wonderfully the distance between a person and their persona, the inner working of the mind and the outside view of the person.

Equally alluring is near closeout “Only Human”, a song purely drenched with emotive resonance. One can distinguish in Askew's voice a story within the story. The lyrics don't help you hate her much, either. It's so strange to hear desperation from the mouth of a babe and it really clinches the fact Askew is not just another pretty face.

Still, national exposure has its perks. Recorded at Sun Studios (that's right, a first album at Sun fucking Studios!) one realizes why Scaredy Cat contains such a nod to the genre's history. Many of our younger readers may not be familiar with Sun. In 1953 an obscure young man named Elvis Presley walked into the studio in Memphis to record a couple tracks for his mamma. This cat went on to become the King. Say what you will for biological necessity, Elvis had a bigger hand in your birth than your own parents. That's how much he changed the world, and Sun would go on to irreparably alter the genetic make-up of pop music as well. Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison all passed through the tiny rooms of Sun Studios. These artists, among others, would have an effect on a couple of English boys that would form a little band called the Beatles and the rest is history, terminating in this moment with Ms. Grace Askew.

It all comes around, yeah? Askew sings old black men songs behind the visage of a young white girl. There's heart and heartbreak there, a great deal of soul, a musical pallet that far exceeds the meager explanation contained herein. Scaredy Cat is both rowdy and sweet, unconventional and respectable. If it's Ms. Askew's ambition to make it in the country market, God bless her heart for the attempt. The industry and market outta Nashville doesn't usually take for those who deserve it. There is no justice in this world, but there is Americana.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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