Oh my. Oh my my. That was my initial reaction early Friday morn, when I first played What Else Can She Do, the sophomore set from Red Dirt country singer Kaitlin Butts. Her expressive vocals are the definition of an immersive experience. On the one hand, they’re akin to fireworks lighting up a cloudless sky; on the other, they well and swell like the ocean tide in the dark of night—or, to appropriate yet another metaphor, rain down from overhead. Either/or, in the last instances, you’re left drenched. Add on top of that the songs themselves and, wow. Just wow. They unreel like short stories, just about, spinning unsentimental yet sympathetic portraits of characters whose trials and tribulations echo not from the distance but next door.
The seven-track set opens with “It Won’t Always Be This Way,” inspired by the tough times she and her mother faced after her mom left her father; the title comes from something she and her mom said to each other in an effort to boost their spirits. Unlike many a country song, however, and very much like life, good times don’t come; hope is all they have—and hope, often, seems like a cruel joke.
“Bored If I Don’t” delves into the whys and wherefores of infidelity, with the narrator admitting she shouldn’t while justifying her actions all the same (“I feel like a wild rose plucked and stuck in someone’s windowsill”; she married too soon, in other words). The album’s pièce de résistance, the title track, is next; by way of a country girl whose “big city dreams” failed to materialize, she explores the quiet desperation that’s coursed through the veins and brains of too many.
“Jackson” takes it cue from the long-ago country hit by Johnny Cash and June Carter, with the narrator imagining that she and her man might wind up like that famed couple only to realize that they won’t due to his “empty promises” and “heartbreak lips.” “She’s Using,” about a young woman who leaves home “in a codeine dream” and uses “anyone that hurt her to blame for what she’s done wrong,” is another deft character study that’s told through the eyes of a sibling. “Blood,” the penultimate track,” delves into the familial connections that—for good and ill—have made us who we are. The album concludes with a spellbinding rendition of “In the Pines,” the traditional folk song covered by everyone from Bill Monroe to Lead Belly to Nirvana, that needs to be heard to be believed. Calling it a “tour de force” is an understatement.
As I said up top, the album basically unreels like a series of short stories. Some may scoff at the overall running time, which is only 32 minutes, but there’s no denying its power. It may be a slim tome, in other words, but it’s weighty all the same. Give it a go.