When Erin Enderlin writes a song, more is born than melody and rhyme. Women and men leap from her music, as fully formed and real as we are, all blood and sweat, living, loving, killing, and dying.
"I love story songs," Enderlin says from her home in Nashville. "It's amazing to me how in just three minutes, you can create a whole character who wasn't there before that you can really see and even understand."
Enderlin has taken that love of story songs and upped the ante: her new album Whiskeytown Crier puts all the sad souls she's grown so fond of singing and writing about in the same small, fictional city––Whiskeytown. She explains that the second half of the title is a nod to "a newspaper and the old town criers that used to deliver the news." Over forlorn steel and haunting fiddle, the town's secrets are exposed, sometimes with a sense of foreboding that nods to the Louvin Brothers, other times with an empathetic sadness that recalls Reba singing "Fancy."
With the exception of half of one duet, all of the perspectives offered on Whiskeytown Crier are female. The result is unprecedented: a concept album devoted to women's experiences in small town, America––and an inspired musical echo of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
"He's one of my favorite writers," Enderlin says of Faulkner. "As I Lay Dying blew my mind because that was the first book I read that changed characters from chapter to chapter. At first you don't realize it––Faulkner doesn't say, 'Okay, now it's going to be someone new talking.' He just does it. And it was so amazing to me that just by using different words, he could make you see so clearly through the eyes of a different person."
Enderlin has helped listeners see through other's eyes for years. She is the writer behind award-winning songs "Monday Morning Church" by Alan Jackson and "Last Call" by Lee Ann Womack, critically acclaimed "You Don't Know Jack" by Luke Bryan, and a host of other songs for Randy Travis, Terri Clark, Joey + Rory, Tyler Farr, Tara Thompson, Muscadine Bloodline, and more. As an artist, her 2011 eponymous debut earned praise from Billboard, American Songwriter, and others, and led to shows with Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart, Kip Moore, Terri Clark, and more.
Enderlin has also emerged as one of those artists other artists are listening to. Merle Haggard dubbed Enderlin a "wonderful singer," while Miranda Lambert calls her a "badass." "She's a great writer and singer," Lee Ann Womack says. "I'm always excited to hear her stuff."
The Conway, Arkansas-raised Enderlin wrote her first songs in fourth grade, then performed the them for her music classmates. What were the tunes about? "I had one about a kid whose parents were crack addicts, so he was all alone," she says, with a hint of a laugh that acknowledges the disconnect between her age and the topic. "I had one about the environment––all sorts of fun things like that." Typical kid stuff.
Whiskeytown Crier traverses similar territory. Produced by Jamey Johnson and Jim "Moose" Brown, the 13-song record is full-bodied honky tonk, with a lush low-end and layers of steel, fiddle, and guitar. "I just love the steel," Enderlin says. "If I could have a steel and fiddle just follow me around to make my own personal soundtrack, I would."
Enderlin's voice is a force––smooth, strong, and rich, equally capable of barreling through a run, pulling more emotion out of a single note than seemed possible, or delivering subdued, almost spoken, quips. As a writer, she is interested in the motivation behind and aftermath of choices in all kinds of relationships, from romantic to familial to how we view home.
Whiskeytown Crier sets its distinct tone immediately: John Scott Sherrill's unmistakable baritone introduces listeners to the album's theme and setting before the music kicks off with back-to-back murder ballads. "Caroline" bemoans innocence lost and a father who gets revenge as Chris Stapleton howls in the background. Family drama fuels the sauntering "Baby Sister" as well, as Enderlin assumes the role of the sister who's used to being overlooked––then isn't. Sounds including birds, church bells, engines, water, whoops, and hollers, pop up throughout the album, reminding listeners they've been immersed in rural America.
"The Blues are Alive and Well" is a vocal showcase and wry tribute to misery. "I'd been listening to a lot of Merle Haggard, and I was thinking I wanted to write a song that did some phrasing like he does," Enderlin says of the track. "I actually got to hang out with Merle some, and before I could stop myself, I said, 'Oh, I'm trying to write a song like you write. I mean, just the phrasing––but I mean, obviously it's not like you because you're amazing." She laughs, then admits Haggard told her he approved.
Clever self-deprecation and wit come naturally to Enderlin, so it makes sense both qualities pop up in her songs' characters, too. Featuring Randy Houser as her duet partner, "The Coldest in Town" turns a typical bar marquee into a description of a couple. "Whole Nother Bottle of Wine" is moody, lounge-ready country that bemoans how much wine it takes to drown a former lover's memory. "Jesse Joe's Cigarettes" captures the way breakups knock us off balance. "I love sarcasm and a turn of phrase, so I like this song's character," Enderlin says, before drawling the song's hook: "'Ain't love a drag?' Yeah. That's something I would say."
Enderlin wrote or co-wrote every song on the album except two: Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind," recorded by Emmylou Harris, and "Till I Can Make it on My Own," co-written and sung by Tammy Wynette. Ricky Skaggs' and Jon Randall's guest vocals on "Hickory Wind" help create a spellbinding slow build with a gorgeous pay off. "I don't know that I can write a song like that," Enderlin says of the Wynette tune. "It's not naturally where I gravitate to, but I just love it so much. It's so vulnerable." Tackling Wynette is gutsy, and Enderlin succeeds with gusto.
"Broken" is a stunner. A bold song that stares down the cyclic nature of abuse, Enderlin wrote it alone, thinking of several experiences including her time volunteering at retreats for at-risk kids. "People get caught in patterns," she says. "A lot of these kids had not-great home lives. It's extremely hard to get away from that––even after you turn 18 and go out into the world. They were all just trying to figure out ways to become better." Also featuring Stapleton on vocals, "His Memory Walks on Water" is a heartbreaking portrait of a daughter who wills herself to overlook her late father's addiction. It's an insightful tribute to how myth-making creates realities we can live with.
When asked what she hopes listeners take away from Whiskeytown Crier, Enderlin is characteristically empathetic. "I hope they get drawn into these different little worlds, maybe experience some other points of view," she says. "Music really saved me. It's such a great healer. With music, you can just get lost––get out of your own head for three minutes."