[Image: Sarah Beatty, onstage during an unidentified performance.]
Like writing (especially fiction), music (especially rock/pop) seems to resist categorization more often than it accepts it. The term “genre” suits the purposes of marketers and distributors at least as much as those of performers and audiences: How do we pitch the products in Category X, using what language, images, and metaphors? How much shelf or disk space, or how much bandwidth will we need to display our Category-X holdings? How much money should we set aside to promote a Category X artist, versus one in Category Y — what will customers pay? And so on.
The artists themselves often try to duck the question (making liberal use of the slash character, as in “punk/power-pop/postmodern,” or claiming a revolutionary fervor the work may or may not deserve, like “a genre-busting novel”); sometimes, they answer it apparently head-on, but in a way which allows the audience to cast its own hopes or disregard on the work (“I write mainstream fiction,” or “I’m a singer-songwriter”).
All of which is to say: my sympathies are heartily extended to Sarah Beatty, her record label, and her management. In various places around the Interwebs I’ve found terms like these to describe her: “singer/songwriter,” “folk,” “old fashioned folk/country blues,” “blues, jazz, country, and soulful styled roots music”… And really, I have no idea what to call her, either. Maybe the best clue about what to expect appeared in a 2012 interview at the 100 Mile Microphone blog. The interviewer asks for an explanation of her first album’s title, Black Gramophone, since it contains no such song or other reference:
[SB] I thought about using a song title, or just my name, but the words ‘Black Gramophone’ just came to me one day, and made sense. Gramophones have this long musical history—RCA, the Grammies—but for me, my music is inspired by old styles. There’s a certain gravitas to my songs, and black represents that, visually.
[100MM] But it’s not funeral black—it’s little black dress black!
[SB] Oh! Thank you! Yes, it’s not meant to be dour. However, there’s a seriousness about it.
If you read between the lines here, you’ll see why this exchange appealed to me: she thinks about her work, and she knows how to use language, and she welcomes light and dark in equal measure.
These traits are all borne out in the debut single from her new album, both called Bandit Queen. While the album’s SoundCloud page, not yet publicly available, self-identifies using a lot of the same terms from the above list (folk, Americana, jazz, blues, etc.), it also includes a new one: folklore.
Whatever other songs on the album might deserve that label, “Bandit Queen” itself, oh yeah: folklore. It’s based on the story — “colorful,” to say the least — of the 19th-century “queen of the outlaws,” Belle Starr. (That’s her to the left, in a photo which Beatty considered using for the album’s art.) More than one party pooper has taken pains — sometimes exhaustive ones — to, er, shoot holes in Starr’s story as it’s popularly come down to us. But listen: folklore, okay? Boiled down, the shape of that story goes something as follows:
Old-West woman of some years — and a checkered domestic life — declines to go quietly into any goddam good night, thank you very much. Instead, she takes up bank robbery, horse-stealing, gunplay, murder, and general cussed criminal orneriness, and dies as she’d lived: violently and disreputably.
I mean, consider: Starr’s daughter became a madam in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Could there be a more perfect little biographical detail for such a creature as a “queen of the outlaws”?
Beatty’s lyrics here are cast in Starr’s own imagined voice. A sampling (the end of the first verse plus the chorus):
I’m a well dressed, fast talking, educated woman, with 40 dead men in sight.
I’m the baddest bandit queen, you did ever see,
I am Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr, hotter than top-rail kerosene.
I’m the baddest bandit queen, you ever did see.
Every detail in these words strikes me as perfectly balanced. But presented in the context of the kicking, take-no-prisoners music — well, I’m just knocked out by this song. That simple see at the end of the above excerpt? Somehow, Beatty’s voice manages to make of that an entire declamatory phrase, comprising what sounds like fifteen or twenty syllables.
She seems to like trying out various effects with her voice, pulling it down low and then rippling up and out: I wonder what would happen if I did this thing…? The voice goes up and down and slithers sideways; at one point, Beatty strongly reminds me of something which Aretha Franklin manages to pull off about 30-40 seconds into “Think.” Franklin’s voice itself: something of a Belle Star among a crowd of more everyday “strong woman” instruments, am I right? This is quite a stunt for Beatty, no matter how musically dissimilar the songs might be otherwise.
Over there at the right, the SoundCloud player for the acoustic version of the tune; listen for yourself. And keep your eyes (and ears) open for the upcoming February 3 release of the full Bandit Queen. What happens to it will ultimately be in the hands of all those confused marketing-and-distribution institutions I mentioned earlier, but it deserves a wide, hungry audience of music lovers.
Edit to add (2017-02-18): The Bandit Queen album, all thirteen songs, is exactly what I’d expected it to be: in short, more of the same kind of smart, idiosyncratic, generous songwork on display in the single’s acoustic version.