Beth McKee's 'Dreamwood Acres' Is the Kind of Album to Savor
Beth McKee's music shows just how vibrant and vital America's independent roots music scene remains.
16 May 2018
Beth McKee's work has inspired comparisons to Bonnie Raitt and Carol King, yet her fifth release, Dreamwood Acres, shows her to have grown into an incomparable artist whose work follows her own muse and forges her own unique path through American roots music. McKee's songwriting evokes the best of the past and the many influences she has gained on her travels throughout the American South. The songs on Dreamwood Acres are cloaked in the regional sounds of America's Southern back roads and interstates, and they tell real stories of strong women facing choices that are never easy and challenges that are not always overcome.
Album openers "Angus" and "Are You Happy Now?" both confront the challenges facing an artist, reaching into universal questions and desires: the anxieties of leaving home, the fear of failure, the sacrifice of personal relationships, and the burden of creativity. "Where will the four winds carry you?", she asks in the former, "Will you give it your all, refuse to compromise, / Climb the highest hill and claim the golden prize?" McKee's questions become even sharper in "Are You Happy Now?", where she asks the now successful artist "Will you thank the ones who helped you bear your heavy load / Or are you dumb enough to think you pulled it off on your own?" These are powerful, knowing songs that anyone who has striven to earn a living from their creativity will identify with, either having confronted such questions themselves or watched others struggle with or succumb to the traps of ambition.
"The Balancing Act" is another song that confronts the business of art. It is one of the album's most affecting performances, a twisted-calliope blues that one suspects reveal some of McKee's most personal perspectives on the business of music making: "The balancing act is hard it's a fact / Just take a look at my sketchy track record / It's all about time when making a dime /In a treacherous climb, take my word." Meanwhile, the swampy blues of "The Mad Potter of Biloxi" introduces the figure of another singular artist beating herself a path through the trials of life to follow her own muse.
McKee's songwriting eye and voice take on much more throughout Dreamwood Acres. The rocking "Resurrection Mary" tells the tragic story of a local-favorite bar matron and possible prostitute who was found murdered after an evening of revelry, most poignantly when it takes on the perspective of Mary's loving, lost parents who share the family burial plot only to suffer her ghost's sneaking off each night just as in life. "Between the Lines" beautifully captures the plight of a lost lover with the narrator's repeated plea of "Have I been on your mind" answered only by McKee's melancholy accordion. Another of the album's highlights is the political as personal, sassy blues of "Echo Chamber", where McKee confronts a stubborn believer with the question, "What if you find out at the reckoning the other side had it right?" It's a song custom made for our current social media madness.
Throughout the record, McKee's voice is fully emotive and expressive without the need for affectation or artificial enhancement. She's a singer's singer, focused upon what the song needs to convey its best emotion rather than radio-pop convention. Her band is similarly unpretentious yet expansive, adapting to every need and driving the album forward. Drummer Juan Perez anchors every song, regardless of how slippery guitarists Jeffrey Dean Foster and Grant Peyton may play at any given genre, and producer John Pfiffner (a Mitch Easter protégé) brings a brightness to each track. Dreamwood Acres is the kind of album to savor, and it is an example of just how vital and vibrant the independent American music scene remains.