Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Her Country

Kim Richey's Nashville fusion

By Ted Drozdowski

AUGUST 23, 1999:  There seem to be four kinds of county music these days. There's the pop stuff, a mix of up-tempo numbers and sugary ballads plied by mainstream mega-sellers like Brooks & Dunn and Shania Twain. That's what gets played on commercial radio. Then there's alternative country, or the neo-traditionalist movement, which includes everyone from Steve Earle to Wilco to Kevin Welch. That's a singer-songwriters' camp given to penning stories about gritty characters and hard times set to driving rhythms and arrangements that draw on the music's pre-'70s past. Alterna-country's an easy entry to the music for rockers and folk fans. Next come the outright traditionalists; they range from Dwight Yoakam, who has ruled the guitar-heavy Bakersfield sound perfected by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard since he emerged in the '80s, to Mandy Barnett, the latest Patsy Cline torchbearer.

The fourth variation? It's the blend of pop, rock, and folk with a country edge that belongs to Kim Richey. Other Nashville-based artists may be traveling the same terrain, but it's Richey's winning synthesis that's finally getting some airplay thanks to her just-released CD Glimmer (Mercury) and her relentless touring. A veteran songwriter, Richey's rebelled against the constraints of mainstream country to follow her own muse. It's taken her three albums to find her style, but new songs like "Can't Lose Them All," "So It Goes," and "Other Side of Town" combine life's hard lessons with lyric hooks, winning harmonies, and acoustic- and electric-guitar-based arrangements that rock and purr. What ties it all together is her expressive voice, which glides effortlessly from velvet to glass, from streetwise to angelic.

"Glimmer isn't a country record," Richey explained during a recent stop in Boston, where she played on City Hall Plaza. "I'm just trying to do what comes naturally to me, without any constraints of genre."

Indeed, though Richey is well-known in Nashville's music community, she seems more a free, kindred spirit of eclectic Boston singer/songwriter Merrie Amsterburg than of Steve Earle. She even has a couple of Boston connections. She lived here in the summer of 1991, when a friend recruited her to form a band: "We played just once, at the Plough & Stars," she recalls. And when Richey started hitting the road a few years ago, playing clubs, fairs, and radio-station-sponsored shows across the country, her bandleader was an expatriate Bostonian, Angelo Petraglia, who led the Immortals before moving to Nashville in the early '90s. Petraglia co-wrote several songs on Richey's previous album, 1997's aptly titled and critically praised Bitter Sweet. He also produced most of its tracks.

"The first album I made was country. I figured I should do that because I was signed to a country label," Richey says of her debut, 1995's Kim Richey. "But it was produced by Richard Bennett, who works with people like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, so we got no airplay. I'd written a lot of the songs on that record when I was writing for other people, so they're not as personal. For the second record, I used my road band and we made it country-based again. The odd thing is that nobody at the label ever said I had to make a country record."

Richey broke out of the country mold this time by collaborating with an eclectic group of songwriters -- among them her friend Tom Littlefield, country legend Earl Scruggs's son Randy, and unsung rock hero Chuck Prophet, an inventive guitarist and wry, emotional writer who helped Richey layer the break-up ballad "If You Don't Mind" with irony and sweet regret. Equally important was Hugh Padgham's production. The Britisher's A-level résumé includes XTC (one of Richey's favorite bands), Genesis, Sting, the Police, and Melissa Etheridge. Padgham urged Richey not to play rhythm guitar and to concentrate instead on weaving textures of backing harmonies, countermelodies, and other vocal flourishes through Glimmer's 14 songs.

"And the record label told me, 'If you don't figure out a way to make your album in London, you're nuts,' " she recounts. "So after making two records that hadn't sold at all, that's the kind of encouragement I got: 'Make an album totally outside of the format we know how to work and spend a lot of money on it.' "

So far, that unlikely strategy seems to be working. Glimmer sounds bright and Richey seems to be having a ball on stage, delivering her songs with arm-flailing, split-kicking rock-and-roll energy that expresses her undisguised love for performing. "All I want to do right now is be on the road," she attests. "To me it doesn't matter what kind of gig it is, as long as I can sing and play my guitar."


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