Memphis belle and former The Voice bombshell Grace Askew proves on her first full length recording, Scaredy Cat, that television talent show contestants aren’t necessarily disposable. As a critic it’s hard to take such artists, not to mention judges, seriously. While the platform of, say, American Idol garners maximum exposure, the showcased talent is often of the spoonfed, middle of the road variety. This is fine and well for mass consumption. But much like a politician trying too hard to sell himself to too many people, it comes off as disingenuous if not duplicitous at best, but sadly inauthentic at worst. This is probably why the post-season track record for most contestant-musicians (excuse me, vocalists) is so poor. Despite a center stage spotlight viewed by millions, something most working musicians would sell their first born for a shot at, these former contestants often fail to build a fan base outside the narrow scope of the network lens. It’s not because the personalities lack talent, even if it be a technically proficient but soulless talent, but because the type of person willing to actually go out and see a concert or fork over the hard earned money for an album as opposed to simply flipping channels from the security of their couch demands authenticity and a connection. Singing a few songs from a sound stage does not a musician make, and it’s hard to buy into the tragedy of the hard luck narrative being sung by someone literally snatched from obscurity and thrust into fame without paying any dues at all. Like listening to rich people complain about taxes, the content of the message contained within universally-themed lyrics by individually wrapped pop starlets inspires laughter and contempt.
So one shouldn’t feel hesitant for expecting mediocrity out of Grace Askew’s first release. The only problem is Scaredy Cat is really, really good. At 27 years, Grace Askew’s vocal delivery is reminiscent of a late-era Joni Mitchell on certain mid tempo entries. Much too young to sound so seasoned, Ms. Askew’s phrasing is a steady, deliberate mechanism that neither attempts to steal focus from the over-all song nor struggles to maintain character. Warbling from the higher registers to a breathy contralto within individual tracks, Ms. Askew doesn’t come off as trained so much as soulful–that is, one senses she sings from the heart as opposed to the head.
The best classification for Scaredy Cat, would be Americana for good reason. The 11 tracks of the album contain elements of country, folk, gospel, singer-songwriter, blues, and just the right touch of rockabilly. Opener “Wild Heart” immediately envelopes the audience in a tender first person narrative that invokes a southern Gothic landscape as setting for reflections on a love that might have been. Although more up-tempo tracks later in the album display a fine duality of character and ability to jump genres with both ease and competency, it is these slower, more personal tracks that really rip at the heart strings.
For instance, “Out On Your Front Steps” paints perfectly the scene of any young, artistically-inclined old soul. From the stage, either America’s Got Talent or Main Street’s rot gut neon, playing music looks like a ball. And it is, but few who don’t play will ever realize the work that goes on behind it. Creation, whether it be music, art, literature or whatever, requires a massive amount of wood shedding and self-reflection. Unfortunately that reflection can be saddled with uncertainty. Whether it be the steps or the stage, this track illustrates wonderfully the distance between a person and their persona, the inner working of the mind and the outside view of the person.
Equally alluring, near closeout “Only Human” is a song purely drenched with emotive resonance. One can distinguish in Askew’s voice a story within the story. The lyrics don’t help you hate her much, either. It’s so strange to hear desperation from the mouth of a babe and it really clinches the fact Ms. Askew is not just another pretty face.
Still, national exposure has its perks. Recorded at Sun Studios (that’s right, a first album at Sun fucking Studios!), one realizes why Scaredy Cat contains such a nod to the genre’s history. Many of our younger readers may not be familiar with Sun. In 1953 an obscure young man named Elvis Presley walked into the studio in Memphis to record a couple tracks for his mamma. This cat went on to become the King. Say what you will for biological necessity, Elvis had a bigger hand in your birth than your own parents. That’s how much he changed the world, and Sun would go on to irreparably alter the genetic make-up of pop music as well. Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison all passed through the tiny rooms of Sun Studio. These artists amongst others would have an effect on a couple of English boys that would form a little band called the Beatles and the rest is history, terminating in this moment with Ms. Grace Askew.
It all comes around, yeah? Ms. Askew sings old black men’s songs behind the visage of a young white girl. There’s heart and heartbreak there, a great deal of soul, a musical pallet that far exceeds the meager explanation contained herein. Scaredy Cat is both rowdy and sweet, unconventional and respectable. If it’s Ms. Askews ambition to make it in the country market, God bless her heart for the attempt. The industry and market outta Nashville doesn’t usually take for those who deserve it. There is no justice in this world, but there is Americana.