Welcome to the inaugural edition of Delayed Plays, an occasional series in which I’ll spotlight relatively recent albums that, for whatever reason (usually time, competing interests and/or my ignorance), I missed. Music doesn’t come with a sell-by date, after all; it’s not a perishable commodity. So, whether released last week, month or year, the good vibrations (and accompanying excitations) are still there to be enjoyed….
Static crackles from the radio. A lonesome voice floats forth, followed by a guitar, fiddle, mandolin and harmony vocals, the collective rippling through the frequencies of spacetime like spirits freed from earthly constraints. Although released last fall, to my ears Bella White’s Just Like Leaving could well be from last century, akin to one of the many ancient treasures I dug up in the mid-1980s while exploring my college radio station’s voluminous LP library.
Have no fear: I won’t go off the rails with reminisces about my Folk Show days. Rather, I’ll simply take what I just said one step further: Listening to Just Like Leaving for the first time a few weeks back conjured the same sense of wonder I experienced when listening to some of the aged vinyl I found in that music library.
The Kentucky Colonels were one such discovery. If you haven’t heard of that bluegrass band, know this: They were birthed not in Kentucky or Tennessee, but Burbank, Cal., in 1954, and featured Clarence White – yep, the very guitarist who turned many ears when he signed on with the Byrds in 1968. The Front Porch String Band were another find; the crystalline vocals of Claire Lynch, who also played guitar, stopped time. They sounded fresh to my ears then and now, all these years later.
Just Like Leaving is simultaneously old and new, retrospective and prescient, and everything in between. It’s the past, present and future, in other words, but not just of and for bluegrass, but of and for American music writ large (despite being made by a Canadian, albeit one who lived in Boston for a spell before moving to Nashville). It’s an album that, after one listen, feels like it’s been with you forever and a day.
The set opens with “Gutted,” which kicks in with an unlikely admission: “I was gutted, I felt soft/so I took to drinking with the hopes of getting lost/for when you’re always losing it’s hard to see your wins/then I start using and I’m numb again.” In four concise lines, she pegs the hopelessness that fuels substance abuse. She also confides that, though she thinks of doing so, running away won’t quell her problems: “I’d be a fool to think my burdens are something I don’t carry.” In short, the song sets the mood for the album, which collects nine self-penned stories of hard times, hard truths and wounded hearts.
One of my favorites from the album is “Do You Think About Me at All,” which opens like a traveling’ song: “I came up from North Carolina, through Nashville, Tennessee/I crossed mountains and rivers and places with names from the songs my daddy once sang to me.” But, as the title suggests, the song isn’t about where she’s going, but what – and who – she’s left behind: “Do you think about me when I’m not there?/Do you think about me at all?/Many a night I’ve laid awake/Do you think about me when I’m gone?”
The title track is another hurtin’ song, this one with insights into life that – my Lord, White was 20 when she recorded it, probably younger when she wrote it, and yet the hard-won truths are things many folks twice or thrice her age have yet to come to grips with: “Some things they just like leaving, like people, love and money/and I don’t know what it’s all running from/Perhaps the fear of splitting open, showing some parts of yourself that you don’t even really want to know.”
Heartache, heartbreak, moving on and looking back, venting to vent and damning those who cross us is easy to do in print, song or when alone in a room. But digging deeper, creating stories – and avoiding cliches – that create a sense of shared empathy is much harder. Which is to say: In addition to her emotive singing voice, which cracks with emotion, White possesses a compositional voice that bowls me over. Hers is less that of a poet and more in keeping with that of a short story writer, where deft character development and quick-hit plot points are art forms in and of themselves.
I’ll end with a confession that will probably surprise few who’ve read this post this far: Just Like Leaving is the reason I decided to start the Delayed Plays series. If I’d been aware of it last year, it would have made my top albums of 2020. It’s a flat-out, stone-cold stunner. Don’t miss it.
The track list: