Over more than a decade of reviewing bluegrass music, I’ve concluded that the songs that speak to me most directly tend to offer some mix of desire, desperation, and hope.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Something You Didn’t Count On, the Mountain Home Music Co. debut from Jaelee Roberts, doesn’t just speak to me. It practically shouts. Two of the songs are in-the-pocket bluegrass Gospel – I Owe Him Everything and Still Waters – that offer hope to those of us toiling in an uncertain and unsettling world. The other 10 provide sobering, heart-piercing takes on faded or lost love (from both sides of the story). There’s a haunting beauty in the words, whether from Roberts and her co-writers, other wordsmiths on Music Row, or from classics borrowed from country and rock archives.
Desperation, I realize, is a strong word. But how else to label a song that pretty much begs the singer’s used-to-be-special-someone to Lie To Me, as Roberts does in the outstanding song she co-wrote with Jerry Salley and Kelli Kingery. Or the lot assigned to the never-be in the Kelsi Harrigill-penned The Best of Me. It’s easy to imagine the pain someone is feeling as Roberts sings:
The Best of Me
Ain’t yours for the takin’
The Best of Me
To you it won’t come free
All the glitter and gold
Won’t keep you warm out in the cold
Oh you can beg and you can plead
But you won’t get The Best of Me
Those two songs are the best of the bunch, according to this very subjective opinion, but that’s not to say the others are mere fillers. Roberts writes and sings with authority on the title cut, written with Theo MacMillan, and on The Beginning Was the End, penned with Mallory Eagle. And with the help of producer Tim Surrett, she picked some others that fit the emotional arc of the project perfectly.
I was especially eager to hear her take on Landslide. First of all, it’s a terrific song from Stevie Nicks, who knows a thing or two about desperate longing and desire, in life and in song (which for her may be interchangeable). And second, I’ll never knowingly pass up the chance to hear Vince Gill sing, even if it’s a harmony part.
Gill, it turns out, is just one of many marquee names appearing in the credits. Amanda and Kenny Smith add sublime harmonies elsewhere on the record, as do Paul and Kelsi Harrigill. And the pickers, including Alan Bibey on mandolin, Kristin Scott Benson on banjo, and Jimmy Mattingly on fiddle, are top notch. Mattingly might not be a household name in bluegrass, but you’ve heard his work backing Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks, and what he does here is worth focusing on.
So when you add it all up, this isn’t a typical major-label debut. But that’s no surprise. Roberts comes from a music family – dad Danny Roberts is a founding member of The Grascals, and mom Andrea Mullins Roberts was a respected and in-demand performer in her own right before focusing on the business side of bluegrass. You’ve heard of some of her other relatives, too. The apple, as they say, didn’t fall far from the tree.
I’m not suggesting Roberts has had her career handed to her on a silver platter. Despite still being in college, she’s been working her music for years. Seriously, you don’t get chosen to replace Dale Ann Bradley in Sister Sadie solely because of the branches on your family tree. You have to earn it, and Roberts surely has.
I’m confident that if you give Something You Didn’t Count On an honest listen, you’ll soon be singing her praises. That is, if you aren’t already.
Life is full of twists and turns, and nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. But this project sounds and feels like it’s just the beginning of a long and successful journey as a solo artist for Jaelee Roberts.