Country music, like the blues, depends on authenticity to escape the tendency to become its own caricature. Often this is harder to achieve than it appears, especially in country, where the symbols of the everyman have been co-opted by dumbed-down booze swilling party anthems that mock the reality of country living while supposedly celebrating its charms and virtues.
The trouble with symbols is that if they are treated too casually, or too reverently, they become ripe for satire and stereotyping. Walking the line between the two extremes is tricky, and depends more on the messenger than even the message itself. On "Barbed Wire" Sarah Pierce walks the line with skill and finesse.
Thank God for Pierce and her ability to reclaim the core values of country music with her honesty and straightforward approach. Make no mistake, the symbols are all here, presented in their ordinary glory. In this case, the messenger redeems the message within the symbols and delivers a simple, unvarnished look at life in the heartland.
Joining Pierce on her journey is her husband Merel Bregante, a veteran of the country rock scene having spent time in seminal groups like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and a long stint with Loggins & Messina. The two are assisted by several guests, including brothers Cody and Willy Braun of Reckless Kelly, and the Dirt Band’s banjo ace John McEuen.
Bregante and Pierce have produced a no-frills straight ahead record that succeeds in part due to its lack of Music City slickness. Recorded north of Austin, the thirteen tracks feel as direct as a conversation across a split rail fence.
Pierce fearlessly drives headlong into a “Small Town,” perhaps one of the biggest icons of country music, and one that has received its share of misrepresentation. The opening track is wonderfully bereft of any hint of corn. "Small Town" celebrates the people and a lifestyle where the stars and stripes fly from the houses of folks who are proud of what the flag stands for. The lack of a jingoistic approach, the simple acceptance of this important aspect of daily life, is what elevates the song above the radio fodder that passes for country cool.
All the other avatars of rural life are present on the album. Cowboy boots, pickup trucks, barbed wire fences, Saturday night dances are all here, displayed truthfully; neither hokey tokens nor sepia-toned relics, they are in fact merely real, and that is a revelation in itself.
One of the keys to this collection of songs is Pierce’s vocal treatment. In an age when young warblers are wet-nursed on the big label dreams of the singing contest shows, Pierce excels at simply singing the song. By taking this approach she demonstrates that the best way to sing about a simple life is to convey it in a manner that avoids the mythical. This is not to say her voice is plain or dull, it is not. But rather that she knows its strengths and weaknesses and finds the sweet spot the listener immediately recognizes as integrity. It is this integrity that reclaims the symbols of country life and preserves the value therein.
Released last August this one slipped under my radar until recently. Fortunately I discovered a quiet classic that deserves a wider reception. Sarah Pierce restores our faith in country music and ourselves.