I’d like to describe Elaina Kay’s debut album, Issues, like a rocket ship — but I think a galloping horse but might be more apt in this case. Kay grew up near the Texas-Oklahoma border, waking up each day at 4 a.m. to help out on the family farm. A stint on her college rodeo team (!!!) got Kay used to the touring life but, lucky for all of us, she turned her talent toward music.
And there’s a lot to go around. Issues, helmed by Texas troubadour Paul Cauthen, canters from song to song, balancing humor and pain on a knife’s edge. The album jumps to life with the humorous “Daddy Issues,” a sure-footed toe-tapper that would be an otherwise clever outlaw country song — if it weren’t for the fact that sometimes life is stranger than fiction. It’s the true story of Kay learning about her biological father’s run-in with the law. Kay writes, “the song is about embracing our issues or problems that stem from our upbringing and to make light of the term ‘she’s got daddy issues.’ This shouldn’t be a bad or sad thing; it’s about being proud of what made us who we are.”
Kay alternates these wry tracks with pathos: “Cheating Me Out of Love” is a sorrowful rumination on betrayal followed up by “Pull Your Own Weight,” which suggests maybe the narrator is better off without a burdensome relationship. While “Saint” is mournful, Kay is firmly in control of her destiny, no passive recipient of pain. Kay’s confidence here reminds me of Sarah Shook — but fueled by Corona and Blue Moon instead of the hard stuff.
Ultimately, Kay seems most comfortable on those songs where she can be proud of the adversity she’s faced, rather than mourning the harm others have caused her. “Rodeo” lovingly describes life on the road and cleverly blends the borders between Kay’s experiences on the varsity rodeo circuit and rock and roll. Kay seems to relish the adversity and uncertainty as an opportunity to prove her mettle, and Issues shows she’s got what it takes.
At only 8 tracks, I wish Issues was longer — that’s my only complaint. All of these songs are clearly the product of careful revision and curation, polished into gems that the Texas Gentlemen, Kay’s backing band in the studio, execute with passion and style. Issues is not the kind of album that’s going to be a game-changer. There’s a lot of tried-and-true country music here: cheating lovers, road songs, animal husbandry. But Issues sets out to prove that tried-and-true is perfectly excellent if you have the right people holding the reins.