Sometimes, the magic of time and place brings together a kind of musical enchantment where creative minds simultaneously arise to form a charmed environment. Historical examples (British bands from the 1960s, Austin in the 1970s, Seattle in the 1990s) suggest their influences last well beyond their heyday. They all leave their marks, and their sparks continue to flow for decades. Illustrations of this abound.
A current special scene has emerged in Kentucky, where many promising and prominent talents have currently blossomed, especially in what Joni Mitchell calls (in another context) “the full hyphen: folk-rock-country-jazz-classical”, or in short, “American music”. A current list would include Tyler Childers, S. G. Goodman, Chris Stapleton, Kelsey Waldon, and many other remarkable talents. Abby Hamilton’s debut full-length release, #1 Zookeeper (of the San Diego Zoo), shows that she belongs to this esteemed company.
Hamilton may be young, but she sings with the wisdom of age. “I guess some things never change, it all stays the same / All these generational habits, they just rearrange,” she blithely croons on the title track. She doesn’t know if this is true from her personal encounters. Hamilton just has a vivid imagination. She describes her songwriting as creating “fake worlds rooted in my own experiences processed through my own lens of anxiety and hope”. In other words, she makes it all up until it feels true. She filters her observations of others through what she thinks and feels.
“You put your faith in something you believe is true,” she notes on the Beatlesque (mostly George Harrison-ish) “Whatever Helps You Sleep at Night” and offers alcohol, adultery, and religion as possible antidotes to the pain of living. Hamilton doesn’t judge others. She sees life as a complex and confusing journey. She sympathizes with her fellow beings. The ten songs share an impatience with the world as it is. The instrumentation and production seem purposely rushed. She sings in a voice that suggests she wants to move on before she finishes articulating the existing lyrics.
So we are all waiting to get “Lucky”, scratching off lottery tickets and waiting for a winner. Hamilton discovers what she once thought was “Mayday” was not a cry for help as much as a reminder to keep going. Going for a drive down a mountain road in a “baby blue Mustang” beats standing still, even if it is much more dangerous. Life can be more than tough. It can be boring. Her songs suggest moving on is a cure for what ails you, or at least it will make you feel better.
But Hamilton is more of a thinker than an empath, and she has a wild imagination. The title song’s main character is fictional in a meta sense. Not only is the zookeeper not real, she’s not supposed to be. The zookeeper is just one incarnation the protagonist worriedly imagines is now the new lover of her former lover (whom she misses). Her lover’s new lover is everything from “pretty and smart” to a Harvard graduate to a Nobel Peace Prize winner in Hamilton’s mind. There is no way she can compete.
This brings one to the Kentucky aspect of Hamilton’s art. Detractors from the past would mock Kentuckians as illiterate and uncultured. Contemporary musicians like Hamilton share an inferiority complex that they know is undeserved. There is a resolute literary bent to their lyrics that conveys pride and humility. Hamilton presents her characters’ experiences as valuable simply because of their quotidian relatability. Kentucky is everywhere and everyone.