Beth McKee, Sugarcane Revival (Independent)

Locals with long memories may recall Beth McKee’s first band, Evangeline, which recorded for Jimmy Buffett’s label in the early ’90s.

A bit ahead of their time, Evangeline looked toward the pop direction country was heading (recording “She’s a Wild One” just before Faith Hill hit with it), but never jumped in headfirst, as their Texas and Louisiana roots were always showing.
McKee’s latest (third) solo album suggests where mainstream country should have gone since then, but definitely didn’t.

This is accessible music with real substance. McKee leans as much to blues as to country these days, and her voice has a warm drawl gained from her various stays in New Orleans, Texas, Florida and Mississippi. Her knack for a commercial hook allows her to pull off some offbeat song angles—most notably on “And Everything Changed.”

A gospel song with a difference, its lyric flat-out celebrates temptation, and the arrangement employs some subtle touches, like accordion and castanets, that take the feel out of church and into somewhere more exotic. Suggesting one of McKee’s role models, the late Laura Nyro, the song blurs the line between spiritual bliss and the more sensual kind.

Elsewhere, McKee combines personal lyrics with solid songcraft. “Promised Land,” about revisiting her Mississippi roots, has a rustic piano-based arrangement that harkens back to Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection era. “Long Road Back,” also about her origins, is a barrelhouse rocker devoid of sentiment. The downside of romance turns up in “You Better Turn Around” which sports a funky Muscle Shoals sound, as well as “Dress of Fire,” a hurt-soaked ballad.

Any number of famous singers could turn all the above into hits, but McKee’s versions don’t need improving on.