Karen Pittelman grew up listening to her parents’ country record collection and despite starting out in a punk band she eventually found herself wanting to sing songs about heartbreak. Only by using the pedal steel did she find the musical ‘essence of sorrow’ she was looking for, played here by Elana Redfield (drummer Tammi Johnson completes the trio). The Narrow Place is an album connected to the musical roots of country music but thematically and lyrically unique.
Karen and the Sorrows are trailblazers in the queer country scene – running events like the Gay Ole Opry and Another Country Festival. For too long country has been seen as a deeply conservative genre and many bands and fans feel excluded from the white bro-country narrative. Welcoming more diverse artists to the genre is something that can only be beneficial to its future survival.
Of course it’s deeply ironic that most alternative country is actually more traditional in terms of its sound than anything you can hear on MANstream radio. This album is no exception, with the opening song Back Down to the Dirt a perfect introduction to the vocal style and country heart of this band. There’s no dirt here in the sound, it’s raw in terms of production but the singing is as sweet as cherry pie.
This is followed by the best song on the album, the melodic ‘Can’t Miss What You Never Have‘, which is about ‘living in between’ and dreaming of a ‘normal’ life. It’s about that ache for the things you don’t have, for the life you want but are excluded from. In this song I guess it’s about the perfect notion of family life but it could be about anything. The themes and experiences here are personal but they become universal truths, like the best songs do.
Take Me For A Ride turns the beer and truck song on its head – this is sung by a girl, for a girl. So simple an idea and hardly rebellious since gay marriage is legal but we just don’t hear enough of these songs in country. Even out stars like Brandy Clark still take on character roles and sing about men and Girl Crush was a cop out since it was framed in terms of a man. Country music is three chords and the truth after all – it can’t be real if you’re too afraid to sing about who you actually love.
Another simple way to make a song diverse is heard on The Man Who Loves You, where gender roles are switched. This is a great little folk inspired number, a sweet melody sung to a lover in the hope of turning things around in their relationship. The Wire and ‘Everything I Had‘ are slices of heartbreak with a more bluesy rock sound, yet slow and mournful. Nowhere puts the pedal steel right to the front, and this is a lovely lilting song of lost love.
The Price of the Ticket is inspired by a James Baldwin essay on racism, here the personal becomes political. The voice is high but this feminine heart is what makes songs like this so uniquely affecting. Walk Through the Desert had a seventies rock feel to it while I Was Just Your Fool is a classic country shuffle.
The Narrow Place may have been inspired by heartbreak like so many other country albums of the past but Karen & the Sorrows transcend the cliches and offer a genuinely distinctive listening experience.