Country AND Western That Will Break Your Heart (And Mend It Too!)
This is a weird thing to say, but I always felt sorry for the Toy Hearts (sisters Sophia and Hannah Johnson plus Dad Stewart) as they were exceptionally talented, looked good and were bloody hard working; but were treading the circuit and releasing albums in the years just before British Country Music became cool (and profitable).
So it was a lovely surprise when I saw a link to Hannah Johnson’s IndiGoGo page last week financing her maiden solo album; then before I had the chance to pledge some dosh, or ask a mutual friend for a contact number, Stewart sent me an e-mail offering a review copy – RESULT!
It arrived the following morning and hasn’t been out of the car stereo for the last three days.
The opening track Nowhere Train is an absolute delight; with Hannah channelling her inner Reba and Tammy on a delicious slice of Classic Country with enough Telecaster Twang to set my heart on fire.
With not hearing the Toy Hearts for a couple of years I’d forgot what a lovely and distinctive voice young Ms. Johnson has; soft, velvety and with just the slightest ‘rasp’ around the edges; and alongside Stewart’s classy pedal-steel and Chris Shirley’s subtle bass playing gives a truly authentic sound to Morning Cocktail* and the swoonsome West Texas Lullaby.
Hannah co-wrote 3 songs here; but it’s her ability to choose a song to suit her voice that is most impressive. She could easily have gone for a bunch of Classics; but no….there are a couple of brave choices here that work a damn site better than they should. I already own three versions of Trouble in Mind; and there are scores of others but Hannah takes it, turns it inside out and makes it a sultry Western Swing song; perfect for a late night in a Downtown Honky Tonk; and it’s a similar story with Willie Nelson’s Three Days on which she really does get to show her vocal range in all it’s glory.
I had a rye smile when I first heard Hannah purr her way through this sultry version of Not In Birmingham; not just because it’s marvellous; but of course because Ms Johnson comes from Birmingham…..ENGLAND; which I doubt Roger Miller had in mind when he wrote it.
For once Mrs Magpie agree on a ‘favourite song’ and I’m thrilled to say that the clever and bittersweet your Girlfriend Hates Me is a co-write between Hannah and Sarah Sharp; and is as good a Country song that I’ve heard in years; and is absolutely perfect for National Radio and TV; in the UK and US of A!
The Toy Hearts were probably best associated with Bluegrass and possibly Western Swing; but were never ‘one trick ponies’ and Hannah moves through the different genres with the same ease and cool herself; with every song being different enough from the previous one to keep the whole album interesting but nothing ever jars; which is quite some feat for Hannah Stewart and Chris Barns who all co-produced this 36 minutes minutes of Country Heaven.
The funniest part of me keep talking about SHAKEN being an ‘Authentic Country’ album is that expression is out of fashion these days and Hannah Johnson (& The Broken Hearts) recorded the album at the Ameripolitan Studios in Austin TX and has firmly aligned herself (and band) to Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Movement which is rekindling this type of quality music around the globe; and more power to all of them.
PS i I’m pleased to see that sister Sophia, while not in ‘the band’ plays acoustic guitar throughout.
PS ii My car stereo doesn’t have enough room to show the full title of *Morning Cocktail; missing ‘tail’…..which made me blush the first time I looked!
Released July 10th 2017