A Country Singer wrapped in a Country Singer

Subtitle: An eventual music review of Laura Benitez and The Heartache

Album Cover.jpg

In the year of our Lord, 1991, I fell in love with a country singer. I was married at the time, lived in Irvine, California and the singer was not my husband. My husband and I worked at the Improv Comedy Club but in our spare time we interned for MCA Records. MCA would send boxes of promotional CDs and posters which we would take to record stores in Orange and San Diego counties to make displays and provide other promotional services. It was my husband’s gig, but of course I helped. In one of the boxes was the newly coveted CD. I wasn’t familiar with or even into country music, except for Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett, and that was only because I had dated Emmylou’s tour manager way back in my Tennessee days.

The force of my attraction to the music on the promotional CD consumed me. At the time, I did not realize I wanted out of my marriage. But the way the country singer sang about the sidewalks ending and albeit faraway yet achievable planets of love...it unhinged me. I felt the singer’s feelings, his passion, and the utter heart broken-ness that pierced holes into my cynical soul. I wanted his breath in my hair, his arms around my waist and his voice coming out of my own throat. I wanted to be him.

I left my first husband and moved to San Francisco.

In San Francisco, I dusted off my desire to be an artist. I started writing poetry and songs and read my work at poetry slams at the Paradise Lounge and Kilowatt. I drank and smoked a lot. I wound up working as a cocktail waitress at the Warfield, and the San Francisco Improv, the very club my ex-husband and I had opened only two years earlier. I found my pack of wild and woolly “artists,” and for the first and only time in my life, I was single. I was in love with suffering. Having my very own apartment on the corner of Golden Gate and McAllister Street was revolutionary.

One afternoon, while wandering the aisles of Haight Ashbury Music, I saw a sign on the bulletin board that read, ”George looking for Tammy.” By now, I was a fixture at the cutout bins at Amoeba and Rough Trade, digging around for anything I did not know musically and cost about a buck. There were shit-tons of CDs for .99 cents. I was learning about country music. So I auditioned for the band, Western Electric, and low and behold, I got the gig! I learned songs from a cassette tape of practices with the former Tammy, who happened to be none other than Wholesome Jill Olsen, and I started gigging fairly regularly with this Alt-Country band in the Bay Area of California.

Guess who came to town and had a gig at Slim’s?

Guess who became the country singer’s favorite San Francisco girlfriend?

I dated that country singer off and on for years, even had an ill-fated move to Nashville because of an unrequited, unrealistic hope for a future that was hogtied in liquor and lust. I just wasn’t ready to become who I would become.

Instead, I was a cocktail server at the Bluebird Cafe where I shit-talked  other country singers with the bartender who was my bestie-in-woe-begotten-love into the wee hours every night after the cafe closed.

 

All of this to say, it’s not about the man; it’s about the woman. And the Bay Area country singer-songwriter, Laura Benitez and The Heartache’s most recent recording, with all its thorns slays me. It takes me back to so many of the country artists from my early 1990s induction into Sandy’s Country Music Hall of Shame. Falling in love with something I could not have led me to what I could -- my own imperfect voice. Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Jann Browne and Kelly Willis taught me. Freakwater, Sally Timms, Gillian Welch, Maria McKee and Victoria Williams raised me up. That led to Patty Griffin, Candye Kane and Iris DeMent showing me who I  am. Benitez is part of a new generation that continues in this tradition.

with all its thorns is a collection of short stories told through song. Laura's voice reminds me of both Susanna Van Tassel and Lucinda Williams. Her songwriting blends classic elements of honky tonk, country and folk. She hits all the most human places with its earnestness and ire. She is funny, smart and forlorn. My favorite cuts are Whiskey Makes Me Love You (honky tonk) In Red (Murder ballad) and a folk-ballad about the Oakland tragedy, Ghostship, which makes me cry every single time I listen to it. Almost the Right One/Cai mi Cielo brings Doug Sahm & Texas Tornados to mind and Nora Went Down the Mountain is an updated version of To Daddy by the one and only, Dolly Parton. The Heartache are a crack shot country band and Laura is their rose. Here’s your current opportunity to see them.

Laura Benitez & the Heartache play "Whiskey Makes Me Love You" at Neck of the Woods, San Francisco on August 1, 2015