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Tennessee Heritage and Nashville Storytelling: Jessi Alexander’s Decatur County Red

On March 27th Jessi Alexander released Decatur County Red, an eight-track album replete with fervent country instrumentation, clever lyrical writing, and soaring southern vocals. Alexander’s style sits in the country realm (with some discernible blues and folk influences) and predominantly features electric guitars, acoustics, and pedal steel alongside acoustic drums and electric bass. There are pensive, meditative cuts on the album such as “Damn Country Music” and “I Should Probably Go Now” as well as more energetic, irreverent songs such as “Mama Drank” and the title track “Decatur County Red.” As a whole, the album does not attempt to reinvent the wheel, but what sets the album apart from many other contemporary country records is the quality of Alexander’s writing and the subjects she addresses. From the challenges of pursuing songwriting for a living on “Damn Country Music” to the difficulties of being a full-time working mother on “Mama Drank.” Alexander’s lyrical writing takes center stage.

With work spanning two decades in Nashville, Alexander songwriting has established her as a staple of the Nashville songwriting scene. Alexander has placed songs with many of the biggest names in country music—from Little Big Town to Patty Loveless—and she is perhaps best known for penning four Country #1s. Her list includes Blake Shelton’s “Drink on It” (2011) and “Mine Would Be You” (2013), as well as Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck” (2013). Perhaps most notably, Alexander wrote Miley Cyrus’s 2009 hit “The Climb.”

It follows naturally that Alexander’s greatest strength on Decatur County Red would be the quality of her lyrics and vocals. On the eponymous track “Decatur Country Red,” Alexander sings about her roots in Decatur, Tennessee: the county where her family is originally from. The lyrics establish Alexander’s southern heritage, but they also symbolically establishes the Southern style that underpins her album. The song even features a fantastic guitar solo in the post-chorus. In “Mama Drank,” an upbeat cut, Alexander confronts the difficulty of juggling a demanding full-time job with raising children. She sings, “It’s a delicate dance working like a man while you’re keeping your apron tied.” She ultimately commiserates with her mother in the chorus, concluding “Now I know why my mama drank.” While the subject matter of the song is serious and even bleak, Alexander’s voice feels resilient and defiant throughout. Overall, “Mama Drank” reveals one of Alexander’s greatest strengths: she can write a song that is disheartening and make it still feel buoyant.

“Damn Country Music” is another song that is sobering yet energetic and captivating. The song, which is my favorite off the album, was originally recorded with Tim McGraw and featured on his 2015 album of the same name. However, Alexander’s version is more sentimental than McGraw’s and perhaps closer to her heart. Alexander begins the song chronicling her journey from home to Music City to pursue music, “I packed it all on a whim / threw an old Hank cassette tape in / Dad’s ’84 rusty Ford / he swore we’d never make it.” From the onset, Alexander establishes the improbability that she’d make it out of her town, and what’s more, that she would make it in country music. The song focuses on the emotional cost of leaving as Alexander sings of letting her mother down and breaking an “angel’s heart” by leaving town. The Drums only come in for Alexander in the chorus in her version, as the song reaches its pinnacle. Overall, the song expresses the joy of writing music and “chasin’” the “songs in your head,” while possessing a realistic perspective on the sacrifices that go along with the life of an aspiring songwriter in Nashville.

While Alexander’s quality is very consistent, two other records that really stand out across the eight-track album are “I Should Probably Go Now,” and “My Problem is You.” “I Should Probably Go Now” is a sparse record, detailing the temptations one can feel even in a committed marriage. The song’s verses are visceral and establish a mood and sense of place very well (a country bar, neon lights begin to blur as the night drags on) and culminates with the understated lyrics, “I should probably go now.” It is a good examination of the struggle between love and lust, loyalty and curiosity.

With my “My Problem is You,” Alexander sings alongside strummed guitar and airy electric. The song is a metaphoric exploration of how desire for someone can be like a drug: a form of dependency. The song is cleverly composed, hiding the narrator’s real dependency until the chorus where Alexander sings: “you wanna know the truth / my problem is you.”

Overall, Decatur County Red is a strong work from the Nashville veteran, and with its moments of thoughtful reflection and vulnerability, it is an album well worth listening to this week.

Written by Brennan White


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