The Mystery of Mary Sarah: Country Music's Next Star?
Many critics believe that for the past few years, country music has been experiencing the kind of artistic bankruptcy that comes along once in a generation. But now something odd is happening, and the unlikely catalyst is a teenager from Fort Bend County who once confessed her "MAJOR" crush on Justin Bieber to this very blog.
Photo by Jim McGuire/All photos courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Next week, Cleopatra Records will release Bridges, an album featuring 18-year-old Richmond native Mary Sarah dueting with a clutch of Country Music Hall of Famers including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and the late Ray Price. Also on hand are near-Hall of Famers like the Oak Ridge Boys (her early champions), Ronnie Milsap, Lynn Anderson, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich (ahem) and a few others.
Frankly, Mary Sarah looks and sounds an awful lot like Carrie Underwood: All-American cheerleader good looks and a voice blessed with not only perfect pitch but dynamic range (which, unlike Underwood, she doesn't overuse). On Bridges, she goes well beyond holding her own against some of the greatest talents in country-music history -- most of whom are admittedly getting on in years -- and pretty much steals the show.
But this is no stunt record. Just about anyone who has been to a karaoke bar knows how easy it can be to screw up a song like "Crazy," but the young singer delivers that tune, and others even more difficult to sing, with real musicianship that matches that of her elders. Less surprisingly, she also gives many songs a pronounced youthful zip that once or twice rescues some pretty dated material from the old-folks' home.
Dolly Parton and Mary Sarah in the studio
Of the 12 songs here, Mary Sarah knocks at least a half-dozen of them out of the park: "Jolene" with Dolly Parton; "Crazy" with Nelson; "The Fightin' Side of Me" with Haggard; "Heartaches By the Number" with the late Ray Price; and "Rose Garden" with Lynn Anderson. Even agnostics and atheists might start to squirm when they hear the heights she and Gill take "Go Rest High On That Mountain."
Others, like "Texas When I Die" with Tanya Tucker, aren't far off the pace. If there are any missteps here, it's that some of the most adult-contemporary arrangements like "What a Difference You've Made In My Life" (with Milsap) and "Where the Boys Are" (with Paul Anka) are just irredeemably hokey; unlike "Crazy," some music should have stayed in the early '60s. (But Mary Sarah loves "Where the Boys Are," so there you go.) On the other hand, one of the nicest surprises here is Big & Rich's "The Great Escape," which has none of the flamboyance you might expect from the "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" duo and is instead a thoughtfully understated Haggardesque ballad.
Bridges certainly has its heart in the right place. It's dedicated to Freddy Powers, the longtime Austin singer-songwriter and an old running buddy of Haggard's, who spotted Sarah early on and basically set this whole project in motion. Their tender closing duet, "All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song," could choke up your average stone-faced DPS state trooper. (Now battling Parkinson's disease, Powers is also credited as an executive producer on the album.)
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