The Soulful Country of Zoe Muth
We rarely talk about country music as being “soulful” or having “soul.”
Maybe today’s brand of urban twang just doesn’t have enough intimacy, or fragility to be thought of this way. Or maybe country singers have focused too much on the cliches, and to little on the stories. Whatever the case, thank god Zoe Muth is here to change this. With her honey-dripped vocals that sway between heart-broken and gently sobbing, she could easily be the biggest cliché in country music. But the gentle truth of her songwriting and the softness of her voice lend a weight to the music that gives her new CD from Signature Sounds, Starlight Hotel, a true feeling of soulfulness.
As soft-spoken in person as she is in her music, she doesn’t rely on abrasive twang or country polish to get her point across. It’s all there in her lyrics. She’s an astonishingly good songwriter and the fact that Nashville or Hollywood isn’t all over her is more a testament to their myopeia than her lack of talent. Still, don’t feel bad for Muth, she’s one of those very rare musicians whose career rocketed her from obscurity to regional and now national fame in only a few short years. Most musicians struggle and pay a lot of dues early on before they’re even noticed by the press, let alone the jaded, and overwhelmed press of the Seattle music scene. But Muth’s debut CD was just SO. FUCKING. GOOD. that the press immediately jumped on board, heaping praise on her and booking her at every venue in town. Normally, this would make a lot of other musicians jealous, but you simply can’t argue with talent like this.
Muth’s new album, Starlight Hotel, is not a big departure from her debut sound. In fact, I had to go back to her original album to try and parse out how the new album is different. It’s certainly a more polished album, which is good and bad. The music sounds more arranged here and somehow a bit less magical. But it will certainly have more mainstream appeal than the first album, which was pretty damn appealing anyway. On the other hand, there are still mind-blowing tracks with gentle, subtle accompaniment on this album, like the beautiful “Tired Worker’s Song”, so Muth clearly hasn’t lost her voice or her musical touch.
Overall, the tracks are mostly all downtempo, almost dripping with the kind of depression you can only feel during an endless Seattle winter, as the skies steadfastly refuse to clear and the rain just dribbles down the windows of your house. And that’s a good thing. If country was all about happy tunes, it would be polka music (same beat, my friends)! No, country is about hurting inside and needing a good song to touch that hurt. And Muth delivers here, and more. With lyrics like “I never had a job worth keepin’, I never had a dime to spare.” or “I always feel lonely, even in the best of company. If these old blues keep haunting me, I guess I’ll keep movin’ on” from the song “Harvest Moon Blues”, you know you’re listening to country.
But what sets Zoe Muth apart instantly from the overwhelming glut of “tears-in-your-beers” country songs is the intimacy and fragility of her lyrics. She’s hopeful too, but knows that things can go bad just as fast as they can go good. This is best heard on the excellent opening track “I’ve Been Gone” with lyrics like “I’ve been gone for far too long, and next time I leave, you better believe I’m taking you with me” and even a hometown nod: “From the LA smog to the San Francisco fog, to the dust that settles out on the plains, I’d rather be walking with you in that cold Seattle rain”.
As a whole, Starlight Hotel, is a more polished, more mature outing, and though the flashes of incandescent genius that made her debut album so compelling (I still say that her line “I’m 50 percent on a bottle of a hundred proof” is one of the best country lyrics ever) have died down a bit, this is still Zoe Muth at her finest, singing with her heart on her sleeve and with just enough cracks in her voice to make you fall in love with her music all over again.
Honestly, if Zoe Muth can’t change Nashville, then fuck ‘em. They don’t deserve her.
Find out more about our work at Hearth Music. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to promoting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.