If, as Neil Young sang, “old ways can be a ball and chain,” then bending the past to fit the present is a herculean endeavor. Part of it, especially as it pertains to music, is that If it’s not done right, it can come across as cartoonish. I’m thinking of “outlaw country” here and how wannabes routinely learn the wrong lessons from Waylon, Willie and the others that founded the movement way back in the 1970s. It was never about a specific sound or style, about wearing a hat, shades or vest, getting rowdy and proclaiming yourself the best. At its core, the “outlaw sound” simply stripped off the slick veneer that Nashville’s stewards applied to recordings at the time – nothing more, nothing less. It was about staying true to both the song and one’s self, in other words, and building on the best from the past while infusing it with something new.
Charlie Marie fits that mold. Hers is the sound of traditional country injected with what she calls on her website “a fresh perspective,” similar in many respects to how Dwight Yoakam gave new life to the Bakersfield sound in the ’80s. “Soul Train,” which kicks off the 12-track Ramble On, is a great example. (No, it’s not the theme from the long-running TV dance party, which actually had quite a few theme songs during its 15 years on the air, though it does hold a cool groove one can two-step to.) If anything, it’s an infectious statement of purpose: “Rolling ‘round the bend/peace and love is where we’re headin’/it’s all about the country, not the fame/come on take a ride on a soul train…”
(And, yeah, it’d make for a great medley with Bruce Springsteen’s similarly themed “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Just sayin’.)
The songs that follow are built from the same blueprint, all constructed from traditional stock yet reframed for the present. “Tequila & Lime,” for instance, finds her promising a prospective one-night fling that there’s “no need to worry about tomorrow/I won’t call you mine/Let’s act like we’re living on borrowed time/Boy, I’m tequila and you’re the lime…” The aching “El Paso” is another highpoint, in which she laments losing her man – but with a twist: He’s left her not for another woman, but a man: “You love who you love/baby, that’s not a crime/but a cheater is a cheater/your dirty laundry’s on the line.”
A few songs date back several years – “40 Miles From Memphis” and “Daddy,” for example, hail from an EP she released in 2015, while “Cowboys and Indians” and “Kiss My Boots” were part of a smart live set she released in 2018. (Both are available via her Bandcamp page and are well worth the downloads.) “40 Miles,” in its original incarnation, is fully formed, but is just her and an electric guitar – more of a sketch or demo than anything. Here, however, it’s turned into a sinewy wonder that pulsates like a supernova. Her vocals, too, have grown by leaps and bounds.
The same growth can be discerned on the other tracks. In their original form, they were good – but, fleshed out and supported by a crack band, they’re even better. Some folks have said she often sounds like Patsy Cline, who is one of her idols, but I hear a little bit of Reba, too. Most of all, however, I hear Charlie Marie, the woman and artist. If hers is a talent still in the process of becoming, and my hunch is that’s the case, Ramble On is a sweet taste of what’s in store. It echoes the ages, yet never feels old. It’s well worth many listens.
The track list: