Sandy Hook, Kentucky, located in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern part of the state, is the sort of forgotten America which gets press only when politicians need it to boost likability or garner votes. Country musician Keith Whitley once hailed from there. Now we can say that Leah Blevins does, too.
“I’m still here/To some degree” she sings in “Fossil” from her upcoming album First Time Feeling, out on August 6th from Thirty Tigers. She definitely keeps one foot in those Kentucky Hills, and not just in a Mitch McConnell way that only serves selfish desires. It’s there in the very first note she belts with the song “Afraid.” The album opens with a slinky echo and reverb laden guitar — one that would not be out of place in a Stranger Things trailer with those vibes from the 1980s — but soon is overtaken with that voice. Blevins definitely has that voice, too. Her singing leans into its Kentucky roots in a way that reveals an accent that’s both perfect and strong.
It’s that voice that will render many reviews to subject her to Margo Price and Iris DeMent comparisons, which are mildly warranted. (Price’s is more rounded and much less Southern; DeMent’s has sharper edges.) Leah Blevins does square perfectly with those ladies in genre, though. She finds the truth, the truth that country music can share in both heartbreaks and laughter.
The fifth song, “Fossil,” veers away from any country clichés by peppering echo guitar and touches of feedback, not the sort of sounds in any modern country sensibility. The fiddle in “Beautiful Disaster” helps move the melody rather than make an appearance simply because some country music producer demands it for airplay. “Magnolias” begins with a simple bass line and drum beat in 4-4 time in what sounds like a slower dance number in the vein of the best TV theme songs from previous decades only to shift to the closest of what the album has to The Chicks’ style song, one that radio likely will still avoid despite its clear connections to country music and country radio.
One of the best elements of First Time Feeling is that even a cursory listen exhibits that the instrumentation were played in a studio, likely live, and no song relies on any repetition of drum tracks, a common procedure in the hit machine of Nashville. And when Leah Blevins hits the high notes of the lyrics “I believe” in the song “Believe,” it’s a feat that cultivates hope, a hope that country music will continue forever. A belief.
Her songwriting lives up to the best of the genre, too. Throughout, there are “poor white folks on the pills” which are a welcome, honest replacement to flawless young girls sitting on the back of a tailgate and drinking their cold beers; no worries equates to all lies. Blevins understands the power and truth in images rather than implicit specifics.
The best of the bunch, though, goes to the title track. “First Time Feeling” adds a nice organ touch that wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-90’s Wallflowers song yet still remains a great country song. And “Clutter” will stand the test of time, too, so the album isn’t standing on its shoulders alone.
The entire album is full of great songs. And though it could’ve used a few more like the opener “Afraid,” “Clutter,” or “First Time Feeling,” the slower songs are well positioned not to harm the overall beauty and resonance of a pure country record.
The veracity in both the music and the lyrics are much appreciated as I’m sure they are in those small mountain towns of Eastern Kentucky. Leah Blevins has such truths in droves.