"Break Down Here" (Mercury)
"Me and Emily" (BMG)
When men sing about hitting the highway, it usually signifies freedom. For women, it often means escape.
The difference is crucial and telling. In countless road songsfrom Chuck Berry to Steppenwolf, Bruce Springsteen to Willie Nelsonthe freeway represents pursuing dreams, racing toward a brighter future or into the wind, primed for new experiences. Occasionally, a man speeds off to get away from something, such as in Guy Clark's "L.A. Freeway" and Rodney Crowell's "Leavin' Louisiana in the Broad Daylight."
Women head from home for positive reasons, too, of course, as illustrated by songs like the Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces." But women also leave for reasons that men rarely confront. On two of the best singles on country radio at the momentJulie Roberts' "Break Down Here" and Rachel Proctor's "Me and Emily"the interstate is the final refuge for escaping a bad situation. They're not the first records by women to capture this impulse: Lee Ann Womack's "A Little Past Little Rock," Patty Loveless' "Nothin' but the Wheel" and Terri Clark's "A Little Gasoline," among others, depict the road as a way out of troubled relationships. But the current singles by Roberts and Proctor crystallize the point poignantly.
"Break Down Here" begins with Roberts passing highway markers alone in the rain, her gas gauge leaning on empty, her old car seeping smoke and clanging ominously from under the hood. Drawling with bluesy grit, her voice suggests both desperation and determination as she realizes she's 50 miles from the next motel.
Then, with one vivid detail"Everything I own is in the back in a hefty bag"she jacks up the tension. In the chorus, in an allegory worthy of Lucinda Williams, she reveals why the car must hold up a little longer. "God help me keep moving somehow / Don't let me start wishing I was with him now," she sings in a tone that's both weary and urgent. "I made it this far without crying a single tear / I'd sure hate to break down here."
The next stanza provides the backstory, portraying how her relationship started with passion and promise, but fell apart because of her lover's false pledges and convincing lies. Nevertheless, as her car sputters and the dark rural two-lane seems increasingly perilous, she fights her second thoughts. "I don't know what I'll do if one more thing goes wrong," she concedes, beginning to realize what facing the world alone will mean.
Roberts nails the story's complexities, her raspy alto simmering with anger and resolve, while Brent Rowan's production dips the tale in a spare, swampy arrangement that sounds more like Muscle Shoals than Music Row. Between the lines, it's clear that the singer knows she's made the right decision. But she's also recognizing that the road to a better life presents its own challenges, too, making the tune a more layered representation of real life than the usual country radio fare.
Proctor's "Me and Emily" also deals with escaping betrayal, but here it's a battered wife with an infant in tow. As with "Break Down Here," the single lets the drama unfold in delicate revelations rather than ham-handedly capitalizing on a sympathetic, all-too-real theme.
Once again, the record opens with a front-seat description: There's a floorboard littered with baby toys, soda bottles and empty coffee cups; the radio is off so as not to wake the infant; and the mother notices her low cellphone battery and worries about what she'd do if the car breaks downhere or anywhere.
She, too, is looking for an off-ramp with a cheap motel, a single bed and cable TV. But she's also thinking about the future of her child. What will she say when Emily is old enough to ask about her father and why he's not around? "Will she understand/ That I had to leave?" Proctor sings in a clear, sweet-toned, aching voice. "That's what was best for me and Emily."
In Proctor's case, the gut punch also arrives in the middle stanza. "That house was never clean enough / His dinner never warm enough," she sings, the pain present but sublimated, just as it would have been in the months before she finally left. "So I guess he gave me what he thought I deserved / But it would kill me if he ever raised his hand to her."
Proctor isn't as distinctive a singer as Roberts, but her soprano is luminous and believable, and she doesn't try to dress it up by over-emoting. Similarly, Chris Lindsey's production is conventional pop-countryall drums, layered keys, strings and guitar breaks with sighing harmonies. On "Me and Emily," though, he pares things back and lets the story provide the drama.
Neither of these records is a celebration or anthem, nor resolves the problems ahead. They're snapshots of life-changing decisions caught at the moment of truth, when leaving was the best decision, but won't suddenly make life easier.
Each record also contradicts those who say Music Row no longer deals with blue-collar life. In 2004, the focal point of working-class blues isn't honky-tonks and bars. They arise in living rooms, in kitchens, in parking lots, in workplaces, in churches, at family gatherings and, yes, in bucket seats and on the road.
Hits like Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman," Kenny Chesney's "There Goes My Life," Josh Turner's "Long Black Train" and John Michael Montgomery's "Letters From Home" all represent Middle America as it is today, a place where pride, family, faith and concerns for loved ones off at war resonate. If country music is beginning to connect with a larger audience again, it's because of the real-life truths subtly yet honestly portrayed in songs like "Break Down Here" and "Me and Emily."
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