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Country and Americana music seem to come from two regions of the country – the Southeast and Texas (yes, Texas is its own singular region – just ask any Texan). Most of what reaches my virtual desk has a twang and a drawl. But the loves and laments of songwriters stretch past our most humid states. RJ Cowdery hails from Ohio, but her latest album, What If This Is All There Is, contains enough broken Rust Belt dreams to fit comfortably into the “sad cowboy” genre.
The album begins with “Somewhere A Place”, a quiet, mostly acoustic look at a carefree, careless romantic partner who fled and the damage left behind, both emotional and practical – “The boy you didn’t raise became a man/He patiently waited for your love to come secondhand/Now he don’t give a damn.” “Secrets Of My Dreams” describes a wanderlust familiar to anyone who’s pondered escaping his or her hometown: “Sing a song for Ohio/Don’t forget I love Colorado/All those Rocky Mountain high/Man, it’s almost good to die.” Accompanied by fiddle and mandolin, Cowdery sings of the peace and hope that dreams bring, particularly if you drift off to sleep in a less-than-ideal place.
Cowdery committed to playing music rather late in life, after spending three decades writing songs. She ponders this decision in the slightly more electrified title track – “Gotta figure out where I’m goin’/Maybe I’m not goin’ anywhere” – while also realizing that her gradual approach has its place in the musical world and in her own life – “One song at a time/Is doin’ me just fine.” And “Is There Time” has her trying to excavate what really matters out of the heap of everyday minutia: “It’s a shame how life gets in the way/Starts taking over like a game I’ve got to play.”
What If This Is All There Is also contains a folkish cover of Josh Ritter’s pensive, slow-burning standout “Girl In The War”, then wraps with the two strongest songs on the album, including one of my favorites of the year so far, “Get Out Of Here”. With only her guitar and her always-unadorned voice, It’s a gently self-effacing look at her dreams – “I’m a little bit firecracker/Little bit of Pillsbury dough” – and her late-in-life call to action – “I’d used to think I’d save the world with the words that I’d write down/Now my shiny-belly Buddha on the dashboard’s got a frown.” She knows that only forward motion will bring even a little reality to her lifelong dreams. But “Lost and Found” finds comfort in meandering: “Oh, what a journey/Such a hurry/Let’s slow this whole thing down.” With a sweet, wandering fiddle line, Cowdery warns against single-mindedness: “Here we are serving the chasing of our tails/I think we’ve finally earned the time to sit bit and exhale.” It’s a bit of wisdom that could only come from an experienced songwriter – an experienced PERSON – who’s lived a fair-sized piece of life.
What If This Is All There Is was produced by Amy Speace; recorded, engineered, and mixed by Thomm Jutz at TJTunes in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee; and mastered by Alex McCollough at True East Mastering in Nashville. All songs (except for “Girl In The War”) were penned by Cowdery. Featured musicians include Jutz (acoustic and electric guitar), Mark Fain (upright bass), Lynn Williams (drums and percussion), Jen Gunderman (keys), Justin Moses (banjo, fiddle, mandolin), and Ingrid Graudins, Melissa Greener, and Amy Speace (harmony vocals).