If Ry Cooder and Alison Krauss had a love child, she might grow up to sound like Eilen Jewell. The Idaho-born singer-songwriter’s haunting voice and evocative lyrics have built her a cult following over the last decade, but she’s still totally unknown to mainstream listeners.
Although Jewell’s music is definitely rooted in the country genre, songs like “Half-Broke Horse” and “No Place To Go” are in a different universe from anything on the Billboard Country chart. Her voice and her subject matter defy comparison: a bit of Patsy Cline’s sweetness, a dash of Loretta Lynn’s sass; some of Johnny Cash’s weariness, a hint of Waylon Jennings’ swagger. There’s just nobody quite like Ms. Jewell.
In a popular music landscape littered with manufactured products and derivative copycats, Jewell is the real deal: an original artist. Her videos tend to feature her more upbeat songs, but the downtempo numbers are where she really stands apart.
From the socially-conscious “The Flood” (a searing indictment of the public officials who failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina) to the deeply personal “Songbird” (written to her infant daughter), Jewell’s range as a songwriter is deep and broad. Her three most recent albums — Sundown Over Ghost Town, Queen Of The Minor Key, and Boundary County — contain more distinctive, truly memorable songs than most songwriters come up with in a lifetime.
Stylistically, Jewell’s music could be described as “Americana.” But it’s not the hokey Americana that plays on movie soundtracks under scenes of sunny cornfields. It’s the music of a land that is lonely, unforgiving, and deeply in debt. It’s the sonic equivalent of a tattered American flag blowing in a cold wind. Consider these lines from “Green Hills.”
I’ve seen your sad towns,
Too barren for ghosts
Empty silos on state highways
Five o’clock light, signposts
I’ve seen your old tracks
Like scars on your hands
Giving nothing to no one
Dried vines, iron brands
For dollar bills our great green hills
Sink down into wasteland
And when they’re gone they leave you alone
To hide your face in the sand
This is not your typical country music subject matter. With the exception of John Mellencamp’s “Rain On The Scarecrow,” not too many popular songs tackle the topic of grinding, small-town poverty.
Despite prevalent themes of heartache and decay, Jewell’s music also reflect optimism and gratitude. In “My Hometown,” she paints a much sunnier picture of rural life.
If kindness could be held
It would feel like where I’m from
The soft greeting of a neighbor
The warm hand of a stranger
Patience each with the other
Embracing a sister or brother
If I could hold it in my palm
To the world I’d pass it on
Or to any who might not have found
The kindness of my hometown
Refreshingly, for a contemporary artist, Jewell is more interested in exploring the human condition than prescribing for it. You won’t find pop-psychology clichés about accepting yourself and thinking positive thoughts on her albums. Instead, you’ll meet a Cupid who sports a sawed-off six gauge shotgun instead of the usual bow and arrow; lingering memories of lost love; and abandoned towns full of rusting cars and shuttered buildings.
If you’re tired of the music you usually listen to, and you can’t find anything new on the radio, let Eilen Jewell help you escape. She’ll take you to a place that may not be cheerful, but most certainly will be real.