In roots music, women don't have to roar to be heard

By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


November 23, 2005

Every few years, the rock press discovers that women have been making great music and declares a Year of the Woman in Rock.

In roots music, every year qualifies, for it's a genre in which women are among the standard-bearers and known by their first names: Lucinda (Williams), Emmylou (Harris) and Eliza (Gilkyson), to name just three.

And unlike rockers, twangy women are allowed to grow, and age, with dignity, criss-crossing the boundaries of folk, bluegrass, country, blues and even rock.

This year has been a good one for rootsy female artists, from youngsters starting out to veterans making a comeback. These six women are among the best. They may not all qualify as the Class of 2005, but they all are among the class of 2005.

Patricia Vonne
"Guitars and
Grade: A
Austin, Texas, resident Vonne's second CD leaps from the speakers with a pair of roots rockers -- "Joe's Gone Ridin'" and "Texas Burning" -- followed by the flamenco number "La Gitana de Triana," setting the pattern for this marvelous bilingual CD. Vonne, the sister of movie director Robert Rodriguez and an actress who played Zorro Girl in "Sin City," has help from some of Austin's finest musicians, but she's a force to be reckoned with on her own. A bonus video of the Spanish-language track "Traeme Paz," from her brother's film "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," is included.


Adrienne Young
and Little Sadie
"The Art of Virtue"
Grade: B+
Young, a newcomer star of Twangfest 2004, returns with a sophomore effort as charming as her debut. Its instrumental and story songs are rooted in acoustic Celtic and mountain music, and Young, partner Will Kimbrough and her talented band step -- as in dance -- through its 15 tracks. The songs may deal with virtues handed down over time, but the music is fresh and alive. Highlights include the title song, "Hills & Hollers," "Jump the Broom" and the Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace." Young's notes on each song add to the charm, and there's even a little diary to keep track of your adherence to the 13 virtues.


Shannon McNally
Grade: A
McNally is by turn tough and tender, laid back and defiant, and her second CD is a rootsy triumph of rock, country and soul that echoes her influences -- Dylan, the Stones/Faces and the Band -- without copying anything. Produced by former Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton, "Geronimo" displays a sexy and substantial singer and songwriter whose voice is always in service of the song. The wonderful ballad "Beautiful and Strange" is the kind of song that would be a four-minute screech for most modern singers, but McNally's keen sense of dynamics heightens tension by keeping the brakes on. She also makes the CD's two covers her own, giving a lemonade-on-the-veranda reading to Bobby Charles' "Tennessee Blues" and a Caribbean lilt to Taj Mahal's "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes."


Shannon O'Connor
"Low in Paradise"
Grade: B
"I got a girl child she looks like her daddy/Sometimes I think it haunts me," is the first line Shannon O'Connor sings on the kickoff track "Ride." It signals an unusual goal the Pittsburgh native and North Carolina resident has for her debut CD: find the father of her 10-year-old daughter who left without knowing O'Connor was pregnant. But O'Connor uses a light touch -- her Web site calls her music "sultry Americana" -- on several tracks that recall classic country, bluegrass and Celtic song forms before settling into a midtempo singer-songwriter groove. Relaxed, almost off-hand vocals caress a CD full of love songs, some sexy ("Cowboy Robot") and some edgy ("Falling for You"). A promising debut.


Cindy Bullens
"dream #29"
Grade: A
Bullens is on her third comeback and, if there's any justice, it will be the charm. The Massachusetts native started out backing up Elton John in the '70s and sang three songs on the "Grease" soundtrack before kicking off her solo career. "dream #29" is her third CD since her daughter Jessie died of cancer in 1996, and it combines the best of a powerful singer-songwriter with the no-holds-barred rock of the Stones. Sir Elton destroys a piano on the title tune, roadhouse belter Delbert McClinton duets on the sassy "This Ain't Love" and Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield harmonizes ably on "7 Days" ("I was four years old/Ted Williams played in town/My mother took my brother/She said I was too young"). "Jellico Highway," "Paper & Glass" -- well, they're all highlights.


Shelly Fairchild
Grade: B-
Mississippian Fairchild is by far the most mainstream country artist in this group. And it's a testament to her voice that, for the most part, she rises above the full Nashville stranglehold, such as the unnecessary singers and horns mucking up the bluesy groove of "Down Into Muddy Water." But Fairchild does fine work with "Kiss Me," "Tiny Town," "Ride" and "Time Machine." And "Fear of Flying," a classic ballad, benefits from a lighter production touch. Columbia Records obviously hoped to catch lightning like that sparked by corporate labelmate Gretchen Wilson. And tracks such as "You Don't Lie Here Anymore" do cover similar "Redneck Woman" territory. But there's only one Wilson, and maybe next time we'll get simply Shelly. Consumer note: Original pressings of this CD, since recalled by Sony/BMG, are copy-protected with a digital rights management scheme that has been called spyware by leading antivirus-software manufacturers.