Just when I begin to think I’ve read all there is to know about the U.S.A., this morning I read about a beauty pageant in Opp, Alabama. It takes place at the annual Rattlesnake Rodeo and individual entry fees range from $40 (aged 6-8) to $100 (aged 18-21, but “never married“). I wonder what impact it would have on a six-year-old to be crowned Miss Rattlesnake Rodeo Beauty Queen. The rodeo celebrates rattlesnakes by skinning them alive, extracting their venom and even cooking them. The event started in the Fifties to stop rattlesnakes overtaking the town and attacking livestock, pets and people, according to the organisers. It has now developed into a multi-format show with children’s entertainment, beauty pageants and live music. Oh yes, and rattlesnakes. Similar events take place all over the U.S.A. but some of them, for example in Georgia, make sure that no snakes are harmed during the course of the event.
Opp is North of Pensacola and South of Tuscaloosa, which means I’ve been close to it but never actually visited. It was named after Henry Opp, a lawyer for the Louisville and Nashville railroad. Its slogan boasts that it is “The City of OPPortunity”. Janet Simpson’s dad grew up in Opp and she would go to the annual rodeo with him. She said that “seeing all those rattlesnakes stacked in cages on street corners in Opp was very formative for me as a child.” I’m not surprised. Janet Simpson’s friend, Michelle, created a fabric, depicting the rodeo which forms the front cover of this album.
“Safe Distance” is Janet Simpson’s second solo album. It was released in 2021, 24 years after her first album which is so rare that the only remaining copy is an original tape from the recording studio. In the meantime, she has played in a variety of bands, including a “slowcore” band called Timber, members of whom provide the backing for “Safe Distance”. However, this album is nothing like Low, Red House Painters or Duster. It reminds me of “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams, “Last Of The True Believers” by Nanci Griffith, and “State Of The Heart” by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Janet Simpson is from Alabama and her Southern twang gives the impression that this is a country album but it’s a little more complex than that. Janet Simpson said that she told her engineer Brad Timko that “I wanted to avoid the common trappings of Americana recordings to help me make different choices. So, no pedal steel. I wanted to reference some of the music I really loved when I first started trying to write songs in fifth grade. At that age, I loved things like Bob Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” and The Bangles’ “All Over The Place”. In the end, it sort of felt like I was making the album that fifth-grade-me would have wanted grown-up me to make.”
Janet Simpson is not one of those Nashville girls. The sort of girl that hold their hats and smile so easily. The girls with tattoos and bubblegum. This is made clear from the opening song, “Nashville Girls” which describes how the singer feels out of place in a honky tonk bar with karoake. She says “I think most people probably know the feeling of being in a crowd and feeling like the oddball, or feeling invisible. I’ve certainly always felt this way.” The video, made by a friend of Janet Simpson with the unlikely name of Chance Shirley, features members of an improv group called Gladys. I’m not making this up. I read it on the Internet, so it must be true. Musically, “Nashville Girls” is pure country-rock as perfected by The Eagles, featuring a controlled, dirty sounding electric guitar playing a beautiful extended solo at the end of the song.
My favourite song on the album is the second track, “Slip”. It’s more low-key than “Nashville Girls”, starting with a simple acoustic guitar before the band kicks in to play a languid medium tempo song. The opening line sets the mood. “It’s been a while since we felt the pain“. She is sitting in a bar and her grasp on reality is fading away. She needs to get away and starts talking to a stranger. “I would gladly slip away with you”. Janet Simpson said, “There is a sense of real danger in that moment of clarity”. Personally, this song has been on repeat for nearly a week now.
The idea of getting away from here, wherever “here” may be, runs through the album. Songs describe an urge to run away from demons, retreat from troubles or simply hide in plain sight. “Ain’t Nobody Lookin’” describes late night existentialism and showcases Janet Simpson’s strong, emotional vocals. “Silverman” is stark and bleak. “Awe & Wonder” drowns in reverb and synthesized voices. “Reno” sounds like it could be a road trip but the hook is “Let’s not go to Reno quite yet”. “Safe Distance” has an excitable, cryptic, waltz rhythm and describes a repressed love affair. “Black Turns Blue” is sung from the bottom of an empty bottle and is reminiscent of the sweetest Nanci Griffith songs, such as “Love In A Memory”. The memorable melody of “Wrecked” disguises an acerbic lyric, aimed at haters and gossip-mongers. The 80’s sound of “Double Lines” amplifies the description of a baleful abyss that wouldn’t have bene out of place on Lloyd Cole’s debut album. Now what was that called?
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