Trisha Yearwood recorded a song once, way back in 1995 on Thinkin’ About You, called “On a Bus to St. Cloud”. The song contains everything that makes Yearwood such an emotive singer. It’s half country, half bluesy jazz, with a final verse that shifts Yearwood’s smooth Skeeter Davis-like voice to a controlled, brilliant roar. The song not only defines Trisha Yearwood as a vocalist and ultimate conveyor of heartfelt imagery and romance, it’s an example of the best writing contemporary country music offers.
Since that album and that song, Yearwood has continued to make fine music. She’s reliable, always ready with a collection of accessible, powerful tracks. Jasper County continues this tradition with one overriding difference — while Everybody Knows, Where Your Road Leads, and 2001’s Inside Out were good, Jasper County is superb. And, though it seemed impossible before I started playing it, near every single song on the album leaves “St. Cloud” in the dust.
Rumor has it, Yearwood waited as long as she did to follow up Inside Out due to an exhaustive song search. It’s paid off, because the tracks here each carry a specific style and personality that speak to its theme of exploring love in all its forms. It’s the usual theme for a country record, especially a modern one, but Yearwood’s class as a performer shifts even the most standard dedication to love lost, contained, empty, potential, new, or dead, into an area all its own. Each song here expresses its particular emotion so differently and perfectly so that the theme is a whole lot less pervading or overbearing than might be expected. Nothing is easy for Trisha Yearwood. She’s got the knack for knowing the songs that suit her, and the sentiment that her low, stirring voice makes sensual and dramatic.
“Standing Out in a Crowd”, for example, is hidden in the middle of the album, but is its true opener as it kicks off Yearwood’s deliberations on love with the very first kind — parental: “Mother said, “Stand up straight / Don’t let your classmates make / You feel like you don’t belong. / So not like the rest of them, / Someday, the best of them / Will realize they were wrong.” It doesn’t directly say so, but at the song’s conclusion, as Trisha sings from the perspective of a girl starting school and dreading the possibility that she might not fit in, her mother’s words linger. Standing out will eventually be desired, but, even when she does stand out, the singer still has doubts and fears that all is copasetic.
The lingering words of advice come back in other songs, and the fear remains, too. According to much of the material here, love and fear work together. Only “Sweet Love” is an outright love song, and surprisingly it’s the album’s weakest track. Every other song mixes emotion, even positive emotion, with doubt. Not pessimistically, but warily, as though the singer’s been hurt and fears the same love-traps whenever embarking on something new.
“River of You” brings to mind images of all encompassing devotion, symbolized, of course, by submergence in a river (“I’m drifting, I’m drowning, / There’s nothing I can do but fall into the river of you”), but there’s measured amounts of nervousness and regret on the way under (“Every tear adds to the water that I keep swimmin’ in, / Even I know, I’m a fool”). Regret shows up again on “Who Invented the Wheel”, an expertly constructed piece in which the singer looks so far away from herself or her partner regarding the dissolution of romance to blame whoever invented “the rock and the black top that made the highway, / For the wheel and the steel for the car, / That took him away”. Even “Georgia Rain”, the album’s first single and one of its standout songs, is a what-could-have-been lament.
The listener is eventually allowed a reprieve all this anxiety with the three songs that round out the record. “Gimme the Good Stuff”, “Try Me”, and “It’s Alright” don’t refer specifically to newfound love, but contemplate instead what might just wander around love’s corner with a little luck and some old-fashioned dedication. “When you go to sleep and you can’t find a dream, / Won’t you try me? / A place where you can whisper the secrets you keep, / That’s what I’ll be,” Yearwood sings, with soulful support from Ronnie Dunn.
Jasper County itself a dedication, to the kind of charged existence that only comes with love-experience, good and bad. Yearwood’s writers make the case that we are who we are because of love alone, from parental love to through to the enduring, adoring kind that some us might be lucky enough to see in our lifetimes.