Amy Speace album cover

REVIEW: Amy Speace “There Used to Be Horses Here” is Magic Storytelling


No one really knows where musical talent comes from, especially in a non-musical family. And we’re not talking about hard work or repetition or even inspiration, but that innate ability that so few among us seem to naturally possess. Singer-songwriter Amy Speace slowly gained the acceptance, then admiration, then outright advocacy of her all-business father only after entering her forties. Her new album, There Used To Be Horses Here (Proper Records), explores the jumbled-up year of emotions between her son’s first birthday and the loss of her father, by then her biggest supporter.

The album begins with “Down the Trail,” which tells two stories – a memory from her father’s youth and the last hours of his life. Set up by two acoustic guitars and a mandolin, then bolstered by a small spring section, the song gives us the image of a carefree drive along the backroads of rural Maryland before transitioning into her father’s present-day goodbye – “Daughter my heart is ready/For that trail to take me home.” The family’s gathered – “Everyone’s come who is coming” – and hearts are breaking. But like that long-ago ride in a convertible, it’s freeing for Speace’s father, and it’s superb storytelling from his daughter.

Speace continues to be a surrogate for her father’s life while mixing her own memories into the title track. Her parents lived in a cabin on property bordered by a horse farm. Like many places, the farm has been replaced by sprawl, which saddens Speace during her last drive to the old home – “I wanted to see them that day in October/Running fast up the hill to the sky.” She’s saying goodbye to her youth, her father and a piece of all of our past.

Speace’s musical and songwriting accomplices on There Used To Be Horses Here are The Orphan Brigade, a Nashville-based trio (Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Joshua Britt – give their stuff a listen sometime) who provide much of the stunning musical accompaniment on the record. String arrangements from Danny Mitchell complete the full sound, and Paul Nelson’s cello part on “Grief Is a Lonely Land” is, suitably, heartbreaking. And the entire ensemble, along with Americana vet Garrison Starr, pitches in on a spirited (and pandemic-appropriate) cover of Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” 

But the magic on There Used To Be Horses Here is in its storytelling, from Speace’s first 12 months with her son in “One Year,” where a quick line like “Write my way to this wakening day” is sure to frustrate most of us other scribblers out there, to “Father’s Day,” a farewell to Dad which recalls the good moments in a relationship that grew complicated. She tries everything to make him stay – “Keep talking of the trees, Dad…As you fade away from me, Dad” – knowing full well that he won’t. In her bio, Speace describes the studio environment, particularly with all of these gifted musicians, as a process that should be allowed to remain unscripted, the outcome of which can’t be entirely dictated, so it’s best to let it all play out – “You should never let anything be perfect.” With the complex loves that she’s trying to communicate on There Used to Be Horses Here, though, she comes pretty damn close.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: the title track – it’s gorgeous, sad, and Speace can hold one HELL of a note.

There Used To Be Horses Here was produced by Amy Speace and The Orphan Brigade, recorded and mixed by Dylan Alldredge and mastered by Jim Demain. Songs were written by Speace, Britt, Glover, Hubbard, Jon Vezner and Robby Hecht. Additional musicians on the album include Glover (acoustic guitar, vocals), Hubbard (acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, vocals), Britt (mandolin, vocals), Dean Marold (bass), Garrison Star (vocals), Johnny Duke (electric guitar), David Davidson (violin), David Angell (violin), Kirstin Wilkinson (viola), Paul Nelson (cello), Danny Mitchell (piano), and Will Kimbrough (electric guitar). 

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