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When Beyoncé included the country-dipped song “Daddy Lessons” on Lemonade, some seemed surprised — which was weird. Queen Bey is from Houston, where (as in most of the South) the word “country” is sometimes thrown around as an insult meaning “unsophisticated.” And her song, with its street-corner beat and hot guitar, reminded listeners that rootsy music has its own kind of elegance. More obviously, “Daddy Issues” joins a songwriting lineage that, since at least the turn of the 1970s, links country’s close narrative eye with the warmth and urgency of soul and the maverick tendencies of rock. This line stretches across racial lines to include Destiny’s Child (who covered Lionel Richie’s pure country “Sail On” on its debut album), hard-to-categorize hitmakers like Joan Osborne and John Mayer, and black bohemes like Jill Scott and John Legend. Now, a powerful new collaboration joins it: Nashville’s Muddy Magnolias.
Jessy Wilson, the Brooklyn-born half of this meridian-crossing duo, once sang backup with Legend, among other R&B stars, and the star appears as a guest artist and guiding presence on Muddy Magnolias’ Broken People. Like Legend, Wilson and her partner Kallie North believe that music should uplift and heal the spirit while retaining some cool sophistication. Broken People is peppered with exhortations to let love remedy the problems that shatter souls and communities, and it’s infused with a spiritualized grandeur that also links Muddy Magnolias to Alicia Keys and, from another angle, Sarah McLachlan. (The achingly lovely “Train” could become the millennial “Angel.”) But there are also alluring love songs like “Why Don’t You Stay?” and playful numbers, like “Devil’s Teeth,” designed to get people dancing in a field. (Muddy Magnolias’ name was made through tours with festival favorites like the Zac Brown Band and Gary Clark Jr.) North and Wilson lean their vocal styles toward each other in a blend that isn’t seamless, but rather mutually respectful: Trading runs and sharing high notes, they stand for a musical — and, by implication, personal — interconnection that keeps each player’s home truths on equal footing with the other’s.
Originally from Texas and relatively new to professional music — she worked as a photographer in Mississippi before giving Nashville songwriting a try — North retains an appealing tinge of rawness in her approach that tempers Wilson’s awe-inspiring, clearly well-honed swagger. Produced by Rick Beato, who’s mostly worked with category-jumping rock artists like Needtobreathe, Parmalee and Trey Anastasio, Broken People avoids the vintage trappings favored by many young soul revivalists in favor of a clean, big, radio-friendly sound. Can this kind of music dodge the EDM beats of the Top 40 to reach a big audience? North and Wilson have the charisma to make that kind of splash. Call Muddy Magnolias rock, soul or even country — these big voices will fill whatever space opens up to them.