Album Review: Melonie Cannon – And The Wheels Turn
Melonie Cannon is back with a new set of songs and the same engaging, acoustically-founded mix of mainstream, bluegrass and traditional country that made her self-titled 2004 debut a revelation. Cannon’s sophomore effort, And the Wheels Turn (quietly released by Rural Rhythm Records earlier this month), fulfills the promise of its predecessor, musically succeeding in ways only imaginable to the stable of hot young blonds currently dominating mainstream attention—many of whom would do well to study Cannon’s example. Gather ’round for the lessons, girls.
Lesson 1: Tell a good story in an honest way.
Cannon resists the urge to kick off her album with a jaunty, attitudinal stomper. Instead, And the Wheels Turn opens with a low-tempo story song (“Cactus in a Coffee Can”—previously released by Jerry Kilgore) with multiple narrative levels, beginning with a chance encounter with a stranger on an airplane: She had the window and I had the aisle/She looked 25 but she was shaking like a child. From there, the stranger goes on to talk about crack, prostitution, reconciliation, and a cactus. In a coffee can.
It’s an affecting piece, in part because it avoids the re-coloration, improbable twists, and tidy resolution on which so many other modern story songs rely. It’s a four-minute window into another person’s life, the only happy twist, if there is one, being simply that the paths of two strangers crossed long enough for them to share a story. By placing “Cactus in a Coffee Can” right up front, Cannon sets a thoughtful tone for the album and establishes her commitment to lyrics that mean something, rather than just words that sound cool set to a catchy melody.
Lesson 2: Keep it simple, but not stupid.
Cannon’s cool, crystalline alto doesn’t strain or overreach, while instrumental work by the likes of Dan Tyminski and Aubrey Haynie is as efficient and robust as one would expect. What’s more, producers Buddy Cannon (Melonie’s father) and Ronnie Bowman have the good sense to keep all that fine picking and singing crisp and clean in the mix.
A similar simplicity characterizes the song selection, which includes co-writes by Cannon herself, songwriter/sister Marla Cannon-Goodman, and both producers. Cannon favors explorations of a feeling over plots ripe with clever twists and turns, so the songs tend to be conceptually simple but emotionally complex. In the album’s finest moments, this insistence on basic emotional truth lends the original material a timeless quality that allows it to blend seamlessly with ambitious covers of Vern Gosdin’s “Set ‘Em Up Joe” and Willie Nelson’s “Back to Earth” (on which Nelson inevitably shows up for a duet).
Lesson 3: It’s possible to celebrate female strength without shrieking.
Not every song about women taking control has to be raised to the rafters (e.g. Martina McBride) or rocked out (e.g. Miranda Lambert), and Cannon’s quieter vision of feminine strength finds expression on a full half of the album’s songs. She’s at her spunkiest on lead single “I Call It Gone,” but the same steely resolve is also evident on the breezy “I’ve Seen Enough of What’s Behind Me” and the gospel-style celebration of “Mary Magdalene,” which extends the strong woman theme back to biblical times.
It is a unique take on female strength that allows room for appreciable nuance. On “I Just Don’t Have It In Me,” Cannon alternately pleads and demands that a cheating husband leave because she can’t bring herself to walk out on him. She confesses that, being strong is bringing me to my knees, but still summons the strength to effectively give him the boot: Don’t say you’re sorry, it don’t matter now/Don’t tell me she didn’t mean anything, just get out. This emotional balancing act doesn’t lend itself to the fist-pumping bravado of songs like “Before He Cheats,” but it does ring infinitely truer as a model of the way actual adult relationships typically function.
On the whole, Cannon’s understated vocals, the warm acoustic setting, and a generally strong set of songs make And the Wheels Turn a supremely enjoyable and consistent effort— although the consistency of the album’s sound does mean that it threatens to fade into the background on the few occasions when the songwriting isn’t quite sharp enough to hold our attention. “It’s All Right There” edges a bit too close to pop-country territory and comes off sounding like a Kenny Chesney album cut, right down to the theme of remembering a youth spent in a small town.
Still, some wealthy, well-connected country kingpin should put this album in the hands of every young female singer currently on a Nashville label roster–fans of good, traditional country music would be eternally grateful.
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