Gwen Sebastian is one of those talented singers who has been quietly working hard in the music business for years. She has released solo albums, appeared on The Voice and can now be heard singing as part of Miranda Lambert’s band. Being the backing singer pays the bills but Once Upon A Time in the West: Act 1 proves that Gwen deserves a chance to stand centre circle and be heard on her own merits.
The opening title track is an ode to her cowboy who hails not from the OK Corral but from London Town. Instead of hanging around saloons and shootouts, they stay in drinking wine and watching old Spaghetti westerns. There’s no real-life danger but the music recreates the atmosphere of those dusty desert towns with dramatic guitars and swooping sounds. Unlike the dark heart of the west we’ve heard on the Joana Serrat or Juanita Stein albums, this song doesn’t take itself too seriously. If it was a movie it would end with a widescreen kiss and Gwen drinking in the bar with her girl gang, rather than in a hail of bullets.
Gwen has songwriting credits on The Weight of These Wings, and Miranda returns the favour on this album. The first collaboration is the excellent single Cadillac – a slice of soulful yearning, imaging escape and freedom from a bad relationship. She’s a highway vagabond, hitting the road and leaving her troubles behind. It was a real treat to hear Gwen sing this one live at Miranda’s show earlier this year, her effortless performance showing she’s at home on the big stage.
The friends you keep can tell you a lot about a person so it’s another good sign to see Ashley Monroe’s name on Wing & a Feather. This is a really beautiful song, using pedal steel to echo the sad disbelief at the possible end of a relationship. I don’t need you she says, but she’s lying to herself. Of course she needs him, just like Willie needs weed, rainbows need colour and Boston needs baseball. If there was any justice this song would be on the country charts right now, but hey that dream is dead. So how about giving Gwen a role on that long rumoured new Pistol Annies project – she’d fit right in with those gals.
The album also features some twangy rock-influenced songs like Love Birds, Quicksand and Ain’t All That Bad, which are enjoyable but it’s the ballads which really shine. Cry to Jackson is about homesickness and heartbreak, featuring Blu Sanders. The warmth of the vocals underscores the sweet sadness of the song. Losers and Lashes is such a perfect title for a country song (actually someone should start a dating blog called this ASAP). It’s a song about the tribulations of being a girl, dating and all the effort required just to live up to mad mythical standards of beauty. This is the stand out track on the album – forget about ‘Female’ here’s the real truth. Lose the losers, keep the lashes she sings to the sound of women everywhere cheering in agreement.
Oh Cowboy features Miranda on backing vocals and it’s nice to hear the tables turned. This is a sad song about a cowboy with a tough life who is weighed down by the burdens he drags behind him in his wagon. His solution to all this stress is simple: playing the guitar and singing with his girl. We’re there with him, listening to his song and the crackle of the campfire. In the end music and love are all we need to get by. I’m Not With The Band is the story of the troubadour life from the point of view of the partner left at home. I miss you, she sings sounding resigned to a life of separation. Touring involves sacrifices but when they result in songs as stunning as this then maybe it might all be worthwhile.
Listening to this album you can’t help but conclude that Gwen has the talent to be working as a full-time solo singer. However nowadays that is not always enough – look at how independent acts like Lindi Ortega and The Secret Sisters have struggled. Maybe she’s doing the sensible thing by joining a band and releasing her music on the side as well. All you can keep doing is keep singing and take what opportunities you can.
‘Once Upon A Time in the West: Act One’ is a strong collection of songs and the best ones keep the classic country music flame burning bright. The addition of ‘Act One‘ to the title suggests Gwen Sebastian is just beginning her story and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
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