When your whole life revolves around travel and gigging, and that world suddenly stops revolving, what happens? Melissa Carper faced that question in 2020, fresh off the release of her acclaimed Daddy’s Country Gold (ND review). Carper is a joyous nomad, having spent her entire adult life exploring the music and busking scenes in cities as diverse as New Orleans, Austin, and New York. Forced to slow down, and living and working at a friend’s organic vegetable farm outside of Austin with her partner and Sad Daddy bandmate Rebecca Patek, Carper found the energy to write a follow-up: Ramblin’ Soul. The album celebrates Carper’s touring life while finding joy and humor in daily life’s little ups and downs.
Carper kicks the album off with some autobiographical reflections. The title track is a smoothly confident raison d’ȇtre, a Western swing-style distillation of Carper’s life philosophy. The song’s gentle groove resembles Carper’s sense of the ebb and flow of life, celebrating joy and discovery wherever the wind takes her. While she may not have a fixed home, Carper celebrates her roots with “1980 Dodge Van,” the family car that she used to pack up and begin her life as a musician on the road. As Carper grows even more confident with her songwriting, it seems, she has become more open about her own story.
As much as Carper professes to a life of free-flowing feel-good times, Ramblin’ Soul centers a number of difficult people. Carper’s voice is timeless, smooth, and just slightly rugged, as with any lounge singer worth their salt, but it’s unlikely our forebears sang about Zen Buddhism or looking for love while living like an absolute dirtbag. “Zen Buddha” hilariously invokes mantras using a doo-wop-style vocal intro, providing tension in a song about keeping one’s cool with a complicated companion. “Boxers on Backwards” displays more of Carper’s humor in a little ditty about failing to get lucky while you’re down and out, and being satisfied with the outcome. These are timeless themes, of course, and Carper provides a refreshingly modern twist.
“From What I Recall” is the strongest song on the album. Carper’s lyrics are always deceptively simple: Backed by a jaunty tune and carried with Carper’s roguish charm, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking her music is uncomplicated cheer. But Carper has explored memory in interesting ways here and on Daddy’s Country Gold (“Makin’ Memories” earned her an incongruous placement on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.) “From What I Recall” is similarly cinematic, recounting the heartbreak of a relationship that still holds a place in the narrator’s heart.
Ramblin’ Soul replicates the effortless cool from Daddy’s Country Gold. Carper’s relentless creativity spins our grandparents’ music into something immediate and familiar. This doesn’t have to be a pandemic album – there are plenty of frustrations and joys to write about no matter the geopolitical du jour – but knowing that Carper wrote these songs looking ahead to a time when they could be shared makes them all the more poignant.
Melissa Carper’s Ramblin’ Soul is out Nov. 18 on Thirty Tigers.