At a show in Denver last month, Jesse Dayton introduced his “Charlottesville” by stating, passionately, that we still “need” protest songs. Tunes of a pissed-off political nature have been around longer than rock ‘n’ roll (at least since Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940) and continue to be a force in 2020 (Drive-By Truckers’ latest release, “Thoughts and Prayers”). A great lot of these songs tackle big, universal worries. Some, though, look inward. Della Mae’s fourth album, Headlight, addresses those down-in-your-gut problems and issues a simple plea: SPEAK OUT.
Originating in Boston and based in Nashville, the band has experienced some turnover (most notably, Courtney Hartman’s recent departure), but the core (musician-songwriters Cecilia Woodsmith, Kimber Ludiker and Jenni Lyn Gardner) and mission remain the same: female-centered, string-based and socially aware (the band actively advocates for women’s rights in over 30 countries in conjunction with the U.S. State Department). Headlight, though, is much more personal. The title cut was inspired by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and it catalogs and dismisses every single “doubter” response to claims of sexual assault. More importantly, though, it pleads for empathy – “If it hasn’t happened to you, it will happen to your sister,” and, even more pointedly, encourages listening and believing – “So be a headlight in this dark night/They might not believe you/But I do.” “Waiting For You” takes on an even more personal topic – infertility. Woodsmith mourns the life that may never be – “Now the little clothes I bought before are in the bottom drawer/I don’t know if I should keep them” – while fending off the eternal queries and advice that I’d imagine most childless women get. Again, the song is written to start a conversation – Woodsmith was hesitant to record it but did so hoping to help others ease into discussing such a painful topic.
Even with the most serious of songs, it’s all for naught if the music ain’t good. With Della Mae, though, that’ll never be a problem. Woodsmith (acoustic guitar), Ludiker (fiddle and guitar) and Gardner (mandolin), along with Zoe Guigueno (upright bass, of which there isn’t nearly enough in this joy-deprived world) and Avril Smith (guitar) give you just about the best string band you’ll find, but they’ve branched out and bulked up with electric guitar, piano, keys, percussion, and several appearances by gospel greats The McCrary Sisters. “The Long Game,” a tune about frustration with the music biz (“I’m nine years into a five-year plan) features Roy Bittan-esque piano work by Jen Gunderman. Gunderman’s playing also shines in “First Song Dance,” a barroom stomp of a tune about a woman happily going all-in on a night out.
“Peg Monster” is a barndance-worthy instrumental featuring an outstanding mandolin-fiddle-guitar tradeoff (the musicianship is even more outstanding with the knowledge that most of the album was recorded live in the studio). And The McCrary Sisters add emotional heft to “It’s About Time,” where songwriters Gardner and Melody Walker detail the courage it takes to make the decision to speak out – “Why do I silence all my dreams/When inside all I wanna do is scream.” And the band largely returns to its roots at the conclusion of the album. “I Can’t Pretend,” a somber-but-determined tune based around the acoustic-mandolin-fiddle trio. Woodsmith draws a picture of regret from personal (lost love) to political (taking children from their parents). Once again, she urges us to hear (“We can’t pretend, saints we’ve never been/But those who hold the power/Should listen and amend”), and, when it’s our time, to speak out.
Headlight was produced by Dan Knobler, recorded by Jacob Blumberg, mixed by Knobler and mastered by Paul Blakemore. Additional songwriting credits go to Tony Kamel, Mark Erelli, Jon Weisberger, Maya Elizabeth de Vitry, and Caitlin Elizabeth Canty. Additional musicians include Knobler (electric and acoustic guitars), Jamie Dick (drums and percussion), and guest vocalists Vickie Vaughn and Ruth Moody.
Order Headlight here: http://dellamae.limitedrun.com/
Find Della Mae tour dates here: https://www.dellamae.com/shows