This solid country-rock record keeps getting distracted by singer Lauren Staley Morrow's lyrics about her insecurities.
Dead Ringer is the Whiskey Gentry’s third album, and while they aren’t a household name, even in country circles, they’re at least a working band who are out there mounting tours. But lead singer/songwriter Lauren Staley Morrow can’t seem to help singing about her insecurities. That is fine, to some degree. Lots of musicians write about their insecurities and use the music to work through their issues. But on Dead Ringer, Staley Morrow is doing this in a way that seems to indicate a lack of self-awareness. Maybe that’s a misread of her intentions, and she totally knows what she’s doing, but either way, it becomes a distraction from what is otherwise a sprightly and solid country-rock album.
It starts right at the top, with opening song “Following You”, a bright rocker led by a simple electric guitar riff from Staley Morrow’s husband and co-songwriter Jason Morrow. It also features some catchy fiddling from Rurik Nunan that provides excellent accents to the song. Staley Morrow sings about life on the road and being in a touring band, admitting “The worst day on the road beats spreading paint.” But in the heart of the chorus, she declares, “Open mics and singer-songwriter types are all following you.” It’s a weird line that seems like she’s worried about younger musicians coming up behind the Whiskey Gentry and stealing their spotlight. So they need to keep hustling, maybe? It’s not the kind of thing established bands usually admit out loud, and certainly not as the focal point of a pretty typical “the road is tough but worth it” song.
This thread continues into the second track, “Rock and Roll Band”, where Staley Morrow declares herself good at being a rock and roll singer, but also complains about her friends not understanding her rock and roll lifestyle and fans wanting to talk to her after shows when she is just tired. When the band gets to the title track, “Dead Ringer”, Staley Morrow really opens up. Over a honky tonk track, she sings about her life, defensively talking about growing up in suburbia and making straight A’s in college to get an English degree. And then the chorus has her admitting “I play I-IV-V chords in the key of G / Hoping everybody will look at me / And tell me good job / at the end of the show.” But she closes out the refrain with frustration, “Everybody tells me I’m a dead ringer / For a more famous girl / On the radio.” This song is mostly delivered with good humor, but it seems like getting compared to more successful country singers rankles her.
The insecurity section of the album comes to a head with “Martha From Marfa”, a light, bouncy track in which Staley Morrow spends the whole song attacking a former friend for being a country music poser. Except it’s really about how she’s insanely jealous of this former friend’s success. The key problem seems to be identified in this line: “’Cause I knew ya, when you dumped that boy with the Johnny Cash LP’s / And you said ‘This shit’s for rednecks’ / And you handed them to me.” So now that Martha has learned how to play pedal steel guitar in Brooklyn and moved to Nashville and wears vintage Manuel suits and owns a record store in Greenpoint, it is all just too much for Staley Morrow. “They call you country’s newest queen / And that sentence, makes me wanna scream.” In the song’s last verse she allows for the idea that people sometimes grow up and change, but she can’t even let that sentiment lie, concluding, “The only lesson that you’ll learn / Is how to get everything your way.” Which is a pretty good lesson to learn if a person’s chosen field is the cutthroat music business. Finally, Staley Morrow finishes up her chorus with an incredibly weak put-down “I wondered how you did it / But now I know you do it / ‘Cause it’s the cool thing to do.” The misplaced vitriol of this song brings all of Lauren Staley Morrow’s other lyrics of insecurity scattered throughout the record into sharp relief, to the point where it’s enough of a distraction to dominate this whole review.
That’s too bad because when Staley Morrow gets out of her own way and sings about other things besides her self-doubt, the Whiskey Gentry is quite good. The slow, ballad “Looking for Trouble” features the band effectively laying back and letting Staley Morrow’s vocals take center stage and she knocks it out of the park, giving advice to a friend with whom she has a contentious relationship. The gentle music but threatening lyrics is a nice juxtaposition that works really well. “Paris” is a clichéd but fun country rocker (so much so that it shares about 90% of its melody and musical style with Green Day’s early country goof “Dominated Love Slave”) about how much the band loved playing in Paris, complete with a verse in French sung by Jason Morrow.
The great “Say it Anyway” is about a half a step away from being a power-pop classic. The band just cranks up the guitars, gives a cool little riff to the banjo, and piles on the backing vocals in the chorus. It’s one of the album’s highlights, and it gives most of the band brief but effective moments in the spotlight, from Carlton Owens drum fills to Sam Griffin’s bassline. “Drinking Again” actually achieves some subtlety with its lyrics, as Staley Morrow sings about how her drinkin’ had gotten really bad and eventually had to quit and go into recovery. She complains loudly about being in meetings and having to hold hands and talks about how she got started drinking. But the chorus always concludes, “It’s time to start drinking again / But first I gotta make it one more day,” which seems to indicate she’s not actually drinking again and instead getting through one day at a time.
The band also does two effective country covers. Their version of Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” is just as effectively melancholy as Merle’s original, with quiet guitar and organ accompaniment and some nice harmony from Jason Morrow. The band strips Roseanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” of its ‘80s synths and treble-heavy production, replacing it with clear piano and fiddle. Staley Morrow has the kind of voice that can handle Cash’s song without feeling like a pale imitation, which makes it a strong choice for a cover.
There’s a lot to like on Dead Ringer, and fans of country music with healthy doses of roots rock and Americana leanings will get a lot out of this record. With the caveat that Staley Morrow’s lyrics are clearly an issue (at least for me) on nearly half of the album’s songs and that readers of this review may find it as distracting as I did now that I’ve pointed it out. Sorry about that!