REVIEW: Tessy Lou Williams’ Self-Titled Release is Juke Joint Nostalgia


Country music is simply meant to be played live. What used to be called “hillbilly music” predates the internet, CDs, 8-track players and even universal access to turntables and AM/FM radio. Eventually, music clubs and honky-tonks largely replaced front porches and backyards. Now, in 2020, those live music venues have (temporarily, one hopes) been replaced by…the internet. It ain’t the same. But I’ve found the cure! Pop in a copy of Tessy Lou Williams’ self-titled solo debut – it’s soaked in sad country songs and juke joint nostalgia.

The album sets down roots in heartbreak territory with its first track, “Your Forever Will Never Say Goodbye.” Williams and songwriter Mike Ward namecheck two of the all-time heartbreakers, Hank and Patsy, and hope for a better return than they found – “We went walking after midnight in the rain/Maybe it’ll wash away/The sorrows of yesterday.” The fiddle and pedal steel, mournful as they are, indicate otherwise. “Why Do I Still Want You,” ambling along on an acoustic guitar line, tries to find comfort in old Psalms, but number 23 in particular provides no answer: “If the lord is my shepherd and I shall not want/Then why do I still want you?”

Williams’ previous band, Tessy Lou and the Shotgun Stars, was more of a good-time bar band, one with fantastic musicianship (including her father, Kenny, on bass). This album, however, is firmly centered on Williams’ classic country voice and her own story, which began in Montana before moving to Austin, then Tennessee. “Mountain Time in Memphis” is Williams’ first Nashville co-write (with Jerry Salley), and it mourns what’s left behind as much as it revels in discovery of the new – “Man, what a change of view/From a small town near Missoula/To the City of the Blues.” Fellow small-towner (and good friend) Brennen Leigh chips on a song, the classic country wordplay of “Somebody’s Drinking About You,” with both women singing to the man who’s pushed his luck one too many times: “When you stumble in after dawn/How long before you notice that I’m finally gone?”

In addition to the weepers, there’s some honky-tonk fun on the record. “Round and Round,” a faster, fiddle-driven tune, details small-town life as it passes through the type of country bar we’re all missing so much right now. As Williams sings about “a four-piece band, a one-horse town,” you can almost hear the beer bottles clink off the chicken wire. Likewise, “Busy Counting Bridges,” another uptempo number, finds the singer passing time in a bar, but in whiskey-fueled introspection – “I’m busy counting bridges/The ones I’ve crossed that led me to this hurt.” 

It’s the country heartbreakers, though, that are Williams’ bread and butter. “Midnight Arms” has her wishing she had the gumption to resist her occasional tryst – “I’ll never get out of this situation/If I can’t hardly wait to be back in.”  “One More Night” has her back in a bar, broken-hearted and begging for another drink – “I know you’re closing, but I’m broken.” And the record wraps with a Webb Pierce slice of melancholy, “Pathway of Teardrops,” a late-night, last call show-closer, which, in Williams’ hands and voice, is perfect for the moment when we’re all able to get back out and take in live music together.

Tessy Lou Williams was produced by Luke Wooten and engineered by Austin Stanley and Kyle Manner. Additional songwriting credits go to Larry Cordle, Vanessa Olivarez, Leslie Satcher,    and Wayne P. Walker and June Hazelwood. Musicians on the album include Bryan Sutton (acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and mandolin), Mike Johnson (pedal steel, dobro and pedalbro), Aubrey Haney (fiddle and mandolin), Kevin Grant (bass), Greg Morrow (drums), Mark Beckett (drums), Ashley Campbell (banjo), and Wooten, Cordle, Olivarez, Carl Jackson, Jerry Salley, Brennen Leigh, Kenny Williams, Wes Hightower and Jon Randall (background vocals). 


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