Following on from her recent EP, Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Kelley McRae returns with a new album ‘The Wayside‘, again featuring husband and co-writer Matt Castelein on guitar and augmented with lap and pedal steel, violin, mandolin, and even a touch of bouzouki. Having forsaken their New York apartment and domestic comforts for a travelling life in a VW camper, as the album title hints, the songs are very much informed by changing landscapes and the regret and hope that go with them.
Land Of The Noonday Sun is the first port of call, a calm, reflective strum about letting the path take you where it leads, the line “I have no claim on this land – but my heart sings just like it’s home” a sort of variation on wherever I lay my hat. Musically, things get a little brisker on Hard Night, a bluesy song about emerging from “the years with no land in sight”, finding salvation in the final hours in the dawn as “she is beside you laughing in the sun.”
Change and accepting the shifting rhythms of life is also at the heart of the spirit-lifting, lovely, harmony-soaked If You Need Me which offers the hard fought wisdom that “anything worth holding onto is worth letting go.” Of course, even if you need to accept it, change is not always welcome, and sadness and resignation hangs over the softly guitar rippling Reach You as she sings “time has taken us in different directions. We are not the people that we used to be. And when I think of you my heart stumbles. You’re the one that I can’t reach, I don’t know how to reach you anymore.”
Of the standout title track, a jangly guitar driven, fiddle-accompanied number with a stomping beat and synchronised vocals that for some reason reminds me of The Byrds’ Ballad of Easy Rider, McRae says it’s “ the place along the side of the road where things get left behind, or where you go to rest awhile, or where you go find something you lost along the way.”
Things then get relatively rowdy as the pace changes dramatically on Red Dirt Road, an urgent rhythm, bass and dobro driving things along, punctuated by a bluesy guitar break, with a lyric that references Guthrie and, in “I love all of that sky and the people getting by and the way they got their heels dug deep”, sets the urge for going against the appeal of having roots, the line “you were born here and you’ll die under Oklahoma skies” a tribute rather than a condemnation.
As such, it resonates with A Long Time, a softly strummed close harmony number that riffs on the story of the prodigal, returning home after a long absence and finding a welcome harder to take than rejection – “It’d be easy – if you just turned away – if you slammed the door in my face . It’d be easy – if you burned the whole house down – if you hadn’t stayed right here and saved my place.”
Wistful pedal steel streaks the plaintive hymnal country of Rare Bird, an achingly beautiful song that touches on the weariness of life, but also the determination not to give up on what drives you and brings you joy…“the sunsets from up there – they must be amazing. And it’s hard to give that up – though it’s rest that you are craving”.
Things shift musically again on the two penultimate tracks, Tell It Again edging to the gentle pop side of Americana with its uplifting chorus. while Rose brings an unexpected bluesy jazz arrangement, McRae showing a different side to her vocals.
Castelein’s acoustic fingerpicked circling riff counterpointed by dobro, the album closes on a reflective note, All The Days That Have Come Before, a song that returns to the opening theme of not holding on to the miles that lie behind, surrendering yourself to what will be and letting the road take you where it leads, McRae’s delivery and the emotion in her voice evocative of the finest moments of Emmylou and Gretchen Peters. “There’s a road laid out before me – I’ll take one step, then the other,” she sings. I highly recommend keeping her company along the way.
The Wayside is out now
Photo Credit: Brandon Dickerson