By TOM SPEED
There are two Grace Askews on display on the Memphis native’s third full-length album, Scaredy Cat. One is the budding TV star who came to national prominence last year on the reality game show The Voice by knocking “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’” out of the proverbial park; the potential Nashville starlet, singing shimmering songs of subtle regret and heartbreak. Those songs are mostly sparse, buoyed with pedal steel, and typified by a hushed delivery that draws deep from the wood and wire of acoustic instruments.
Then there’s the other Grace, the Memphis gal who grew up on Elvis and the rockabilly and blues of her hometown, not so far from the North Mississippi Hill country; the one who likes to get down and dirty and play her slide guitar with a fuzzy amplification and sings with a gritty growl, an aura of mischievousness in her drawl.
These two sides of Askew are neatly divided into the first and second halves of Scaredy Cat. Back in the vinyl days, we would’ve called them the “country side” and the “blues side.” But the truth is that she’s at her best when those distinctions are more difficult to make.
On that TV show, when pressed to describe her sound, she called it “bluntry,” a mix of country and blues. That’s a pretty fair billing for her best songs.
On the “country side,” “Bad Habit” exhibits a slight yodel as Adam Woodward’s accordion provides woozy bedrock for a lover’s lament. On the haunting gospel lamentation of “Calvary,” Askew ponders spiritual conundrums. And the folksy “Out On Your Front Steps” not only calls to mind the songs of John Prine, it actually name-checks him in the process. Askew is a songwriter first and foremost, and her years of honing her songcraft show.
The blues songs more or less follow familiar tropes. Songs about liquor stores, sexual innuendo, jukeboxes, secret meetings under a sycamore tree. Here it’s all about the groove and Askew and her pals know how to raise a ruckus when they want to.
“Tip Top Liquor”shows off her slide guitar skills with a stomp blues beat decorated with Kell Kellum’s pedal steel. It epitomizes the sound of this record, a mixture of honky tonk and blues, hill country groove, drawling and throaty growls.
While that little brief stint of TV celebrity may have garnered her a modicum of mainstream attention, when it was over it was back to work, touring the south in her pickup truck and heading into famed hometown Sun studios, where Askew and her pals cut Scaredy Cat mostly live. The TV experience doesn’t seem to have put too much polish on her sound.
But you do have to wonder if her accentuated drawl isn’t a little more intentionally pronounced than before. On the jaunty “Anywhere But Here,” amid a slap bass acoustic groove and a reverb swath, she seems to be having so much fun with her linguistic drawls she makes them near unintelligible. One wonders if she’s trying to fit the “southern gal” mode, or if she’s just channeling her inner Lucinda Williams, maybe even mocking those who would label her as simply a country singer.
The reverb-drenched acoustic blues of “Turn A Blind Eye” gives us a clue. Askew sings in a high lonesome wail over slide guitar, “Well it’s Texas, Nashville, New York or L.A./ them big city lights be the only way/so they say/if you want to be a big ‘ol star/ But here I see it, it’s last call at the bar.”
Simultaneously lamenting the passing of time and perhaps a tempered ambition, but reveling in the contentment of her home. In the end, she’s still more Memphis than Nashville. Or L.A.
DOWNLOAD: Bad Habit, Out On Your Front Steps, Turn A Blind Eye, Scaredy Cat