Singer/songwriter Stacy Gubb’s debut album, Hurricane, is filled with new bluegrass classics.
You stop for gas during a long drive along a two-lane country highway, it doesn’t really matter which. It could be SR-69 in north Texas– maybe highway 89 near Fairview, UT, or somewhere in Appalachia. Somewhere you’ve never been before, or haven’t been to in a really long time.
As you fill up, you look out at the wide open scene. A bluegrass song is playing over the station’s speaker system. You don’t consider yourself a huge bluegrass aficionado, per se, but you appreciate good music from any genre. You can’t believe how the song seems to match the setting perfectly. And while it has a definite “old-timey” sound, you detect a distinctly fresh tone. The words sung by the emotive soprano weave a story that– even though your brain is fried from watching yellow lines for hours– hijacks your attention. By the time your tank is full, you find yourself rummaging through your glove box looking for something to write with.
“If I can jot down a few lyrics,” you think, “I can Google them in quotes later and figure out who this is.”
Let me spare you the research– you’re listening to Stacy Grubb.
Since this site isn’t solely dedicated to music, and I’m sure the five of you who read this blog no doubt have varying musical tastes, this won’t be so much a review as an introduction.
Those of you who know me know that I’m a fairly picky music listener. I don’t take to artists easily. But when I do, I’m all in. Just ask my wife, who I’ve forced to endure hundreds of hours of Jack Johnson (who she doesn’t particularly care for), and U2 (who she hates with a passion). Fortunately, she and I are in agreement on country artists like Alison Krauss and Sara Evans.
Interestingly, Stacy Grubb’s soprano blends the former’s angelic clarity with the latter’s enveloping richness. Speaking strictly about vocal dynamic, that’s a decent comparison.
But don’t get me wrong– Miss Grubb’s sound is all her own. I first heard Stacy a few years ago on a karaoke contest website. Not sure how I got there, what the place was called, or even which song she was singing. The website was clunky, and the video submission was homemade and grainy.
But the voice and vibe were unforgettable.
I figured it would be only a matter of time before she recorded an album, and I knew that when she did it would be a good one. Which is why I was delighted when she released her debut record, Hurricane, last month.
If Stacy’s voice alone isn’t enough to hook you (it is), her knack for songwriting will be. She penned 9 of the 12 songs on Hurricane, and her lyrics aren’t trite or formulaic or focus group tested with the singular goal of pop radio airplay.
I write newspaper columns and blog posts, not songs. But I’m not unfamiliar with the sometimes grueling, always rewarding process of translating feelings and concepts into words. So I can appreciate– at least to some degree– the mental effort involved in writing lyrics. When I listen to an album, I pay as much attention to the lyrics as I do the music. Tracks like ‘Time Hasn’t Changed Anything’ and ‘I Wonder Where You Are’ are proof enough that even though she’s new to the recording industry, her writing skills are well refined.
This might have something to do with the fact that The West Virgina native is the product of a generations-long bluegrass heritage. It’s in her blood. She grew up singing with her father and has spent the better part of the last decade performing with his bluegrass band. She’s been writing poems and songs as far back as she can remember.
“God gives everybody a special talent and there’s really not a day that passes that I don’t thank Him for making mine music,” Stacy told me in an email. “I never want it to let me go. Nearly everything is a song to me.”
Even when she’s writing about fictional people, Stacy says she feels like their story deserves to be told. And she tells it well. Take the track, ‘Violet Steele,’ for instance. From a storytelling standpoint, the narrative about a murderous orphan is about as tight as it gets.
The phrase “murderous orphan” brings me to one of my favorite aspects of bluegrass. The old stereotype of country music being about losing love and dogs dying is true when it comes to the genre’s roots in ancient Irish folk tunes. These tunes sometimes have very dark and sometimes very morbid undertones that stem from real life during tough times. Irish folk tunes and the modern genres that grew from them are arguably the most organic (even if completely un-sugarcoated) take on the human condition.
“It’s the old Irish tunes that really inspire me,” Stacy told me. “Of course, some of my storylines become fodder for friends and family because they can get so ‘out there,’ but that’s what makes old murder ballads and pub songs so appealing to me. You listen to these stories and think, ‘Oh my gosh. Is this true? Did this really happen to someone? Who wrote this? What were they thinking and feeling when they wrote this? What made them do it?’”
It’s obvious that Stacy is inspired by Alison Krauss and Union Station. Most tracks on Hurricane would feel right at home on AKUS’ Lonely Runs Both Ways. In fact, Union Station’s own Ron Block plays banjo on Hurricane, lending some serious cred to this already solid record.
Hurricane’s title track is a reeling, vengeful piece about a love gone bad. Penned by her father, Alan Johnston, it’s a surefire concert opener. ‘Baby Dear’ is inspiring (albeit in delightfully morbid fashion). West Virginia Wildflower, my favorite track here, tells the story of heritage and sacrifice for love. The song is both intimate and epic, along the lines of Pam Tillis’ ‘River and Highway’– only with a happy ending. Johnston’s ‘Once Upon a Cross’ is a song of praise and gratitude that wraps the set up nicely.
Beautiful voice and writing aside, what makes Miss Grubb so appealing is the fact that she’s a normal person– not some silver plated starlet or media-crafted superstar. She’s a country girl, a young wife and mother with a passion for the music she makes and a healthy respect for its heritage. Stacy Grubb is Appalachia. She is bluegrass.
What does the future hold for her? My guess is that someday you’ll be driving along that same two-lane country highway, singing along to her greatest hits CD.