Lizzy Long may not be a familiar name to southern gospel listeners, but she’s achieved notoriety on the bluegrass circuit through her work with the likes of Earl Scruggs and Little Roy Lewis. This is her first solo album. Her voice is probably most comparable to Tammy Wynette, but it’s very much her own. It’s pure and rich and keeps your ears coming back for more. Long herself co-wrote a number of the songs for this project, together with Wayne Haun, Joel Lindsey, Lyn Rowell, and others. For the most part, it resides firmly in country/bluegrass territory, with a couple of detours into Broadway and
schmaltz inspirational. Click on to read my track-by-track review.
1. Blueberry Pie: The title track, written by Wayne Haun, Val Dacus and Randall Garland, is a sweet ode to the strong and silent types who show their tender side only to a privileged few. Although it’s almost too sweet, and a little bit confusing. For example, to begin drawing the contrast between how the husband appears on the outside and how loving he actually is towards his wife, the chorus says, “You’re as cold as the North Wind in winter.” I find it hard to think of a person who truly is cold, yet also “as sweet as blueberry pie.” I could think of other words like “reticent,” “prickly,” or “difficult” that would still create that contrast without leaning towards contradiction. (Obviously these are no-gos as lyrical replacements, but I’m just explaining why I think the actual line should be re-worked.)
2. Speak Now: As a music critic, I confess that I sometimes put writers like Haun and Joel Lindsay into a box, believing I’ve essentially figured out what their strengths and limitations are. But then they’ll go and surprise me with a song like this. It’s elegant, graceful, poetic, and feels like it could have been at home on a classic country album.
Speak now, or speak nevermore
I don’t have a lifetime to wait
Speak now, or let me go free
Tomorrow just might be too late
3. Communication Breakdown: This breathless bluegrass jam is cute, but the lyrics flow a little awkwardly. The first verse in particular could use a few tweaks. But I’d like to see someone do a husband and wife lip-sync performance to it!
4. Love, I’m in Love: Featuring guest BGVs from Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, this is my personal pick of the project. Written by Lizzy and Lyn Rowell, it has some of the best lyrics on the album. Only a few lines give away that it’s contemporary work. (E.g., “My dreams all made sense.”) But then you have a lovely passage like this:
Taking you for granted is the last thing I would do
When I make a promise, you can trust it to be true
I could search forever, never find a love like this
Now it’s time the whole world knows that you’re my last first kiss
5. God is There: This is the project’s first real misstep, despite a nice cameo from Rhonda Vincent. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with the string orchestration, but it completely interrupts the stylistic flow, suddenly switching from bluegrass to a more
schmaltzy, I mean inspirational sound. The song as a whole continues this feel. Lyrically, it reminded me somewhat of 4Him’s hit “Where There is Faith” (e.g., both songs depict a widow at a funeral). But where that song had some vividness and drive to it, this one sags and plods. I think I prefer Wayne and Joel when they’re writing throwback country.
6. It Don’t Take Much: Neither of the writers on this one are in-house at StowTown Records. It’s a bit saccharine, with an especially cringe-worthy first verse that repeatedly calls a highschool basketball player “little” and depicts his father praying for the team’s victory. (Is that even biblical?) The second verse is better, following a pastor as he makes his rounds at a nursing home, but the sudden switch from relatively trivial to fairly sad and weighty is awkward.
7. Figueroa Mountain: Okay, now we’re back on track, with another truly delish throwback bluegrass number (this one a collaboration among Haun/Lindsey/Long). In case anyone’s wondering, yes, Figueroa Mountain is a real peak in the Rockies. Alison Krauss and Union Station could add this to their set any time.
8. Backwoods Lullaby: Lee Black has talked a little bit about this co-write with Twila Labar, which draws from the well of his own personal memories. It’s neat to know that these first person lyrics about a little woodland slice of heaven are actually based on reality. And in Lizzy’s hands, it really does become a lullaby.
9. Feed the Birds: Bless Lizzy’s heart, she said in an interview, “I feel a need to explain why this is on here.” But it’s perfect for her voice, and to my ears, it actually fits in more comfortably than “God is There” because of the stripped-down arrangement. Restraining the urge to orchestrate makes an already gorgeous tune even more haunting. (I could go either way on the sudden outbreak of Disney in the background vocals partway through, though it does sound pretty.) My one nit-pick is that she changes the lyric, “You know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares” to “shows that they care.” Not only does it lose the grammatically correct generic “he,” it also makes the line sing less well. Sort of like the linguistic equivalent of converting a lossless FLAAC to a lossy mp3.
10. Love’s a Mountain Road: Co-writer Lyn Rowell seems to like making metaphors out of mountains, valleys and such in her work (see also “Jesus is Holding My Hand”). In this one, she and Long use a mountain climb as a metaphor for love, and a very good one too. It contains some hard truths for any couple, but with the promise of hope. “Don’t bother looking back to level ground. You started this journey, so keep doing down. When the path turns so rocky, why you’re getting somewhere.”
11. When My Heart Cries: This is an odd way to close out the album. It’s a song that seems to have trouble figuring out what it wants to be. The lyrics paint a story of heartbreak, while the music is upbeat. However, it’s clearly not in the tongue-in-cheek tradition of a “Walking After Midnight.” Lines like “I keep hoping you never find out what you’ve done to the best of my dreams” or “You don’t deserve to know how much pain your lies have left behind” are far too personal not to be taken seriously. But when you blend them with Long’s simple, sweet delivery, plus a cheerful fiddle and banjo, the listener doesn’t know how to feel when he listens to the complete product. Lyrics like these need someone like Stevie Nicks to put some grit and guts into them. I may roll my eyes when I hear Stevie wailing away on the line “You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you” on “Silver Springs” (like, seriously, get over it), yet it feels real, and I believe her. But Lizzy Long isn’t a naturally angsty singer. Hence, she shouldn’t try to sing angsty lyrics.
Final thoughts: I always enjoy discovering a new artistic voice, and that’s exactly what Lizzy Long showcases on this project, in both a literal and a songwriting sense. She sings each song with an unaffected grace, and three of the absolute best selections have her name on them. It’s not a perfect project, but it’s a breath of fresh air in an over-crowded, over-produced industry.
Rating: 4.5 stars