The term singer/songwriter is bandied about quite a bit, but in reality, those two terms aren’t always given equal emphasis.
On the other hand, Jessi Alexander can claim equal credence as far as both labels are concerned. Her latest album, Decatur County Red, marks her third album as an artist and performer, although her catalog of songs written for others has also marked her as one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville, a city where there’s obviously no shortage of tunesmiths.
In fact, it’s been nearly six years since Alexander’s last effort, 2014’s Down Home, which appeared a full decade after her recording debut, Honeysuckle Sweet, was released in 2004. Fortunately, she didn’t have to rely on a new album to confirm her credence. Given her history of writing massive hits for others — Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Little Big Town, Blake Shelton, Luke Combs, Ashley Monroe, and Miley Cyrus among the many — she’s long since proven that she’s quite the powerhouse when it comes to finding the right formula.
Nevertheless, Alexander claims that the muse — and the music — came to her quite naturally.
“I was haunted by these songs,” she recalls. “I would close the laptop on a song and it would wake me up in the middle of the night. Some of these songs took two years to write and they just wouldn’t let me go. I feel like I really whittled on some of these songs for a long time. Some writers sit down, they find an idea, and then they write it. That’s a forced way of doing things. This was the opposite and maybe my brain needed that, not trying to force a circle in a square hole. There were no rules. I didn’t have to worry about the tempo, if it was too country, if it was too redneck. Whatever. I had nobody looking over my shoulder.”
By comparison, it was also a precipitous route that led to the new record. Family tragedy, a split from her first high-profile label, Columbia Records, and other personal circumstances preoccupied her for much of the past decade.
“A lot happened in those years,” she concedes. “After my first record, my mom passed away from ovarian cancer and I had to really come to terms with how I was going to be an only child living in a motherless world. I was a 20-something with a failed record deal, but that led me to writing songs and then getting huge success while also raising three children. There was no way I was going to leave them to pursue an artist deal. So now it’s just like a really great time in my life.”
In the interim, she’s found herself straddling the divide between what’s always been considered country and the increasing proliferation of the sound that’s come to be called Americana. Alexander doesn’t try to identify with one tag or the other, but she does admit it causes other people to speculate on her stance.
“It’s a fascinating discussion, what’s considered country and what’s considered Americana,” she muses. “It’s just very bizarre the things they deem Americana and the things they deem country. For me personally, it’s very clear what country is. It means vulnerability, it means storytelling, it’s in the instrumentation like the pedal steel. I know that I can find a fit anywhere. There was never any discussion about that. I couldn’t care. I can do country, Nashville country, Americana — you can call it whatever you want to call it. For me, in my heart of hearts, it’s the kind of country music I grew up on.”
Still, she welcomes the fact that today’s sound has evolved to the point where it’s reaping wider recognition.
“It’s an exciting time,” she says. “Years ago, there was no Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, all these people that have gone on to knock down a lot of doors. They lean between Americana and country. I think there’s a lot more opportunity out there for people like myself who make music. But there are some weird divides out there.”
It’s little wonder then that the songs on the new album were borne from her experience growing up in western Tennessee. As a result, the sound of the album is both basic and unassuming and, at the same time, also genuinely sincere.
“As a songwriter, I like to do two things,” Alexander says. “I like to paint pictures, and at the same time, I like to not identify the images and the colors too much because I like people to make their own story out of it. So that’s pretty much my goal. As a songwriter I want you to feel the bite and see the neon, but as a listener, I want you to make your own assumptions and put your own experience or your own romance into it. With any songs that I’m part of, I like to keep it kind of general in terms of the thoughts and ideas.”
That said, the new album offers a decidedly personal perspective.
“I grew up either working in the woodshed with my granddaddy, who was a carpenter, or painting with my dad, learning to knit or doing things around our farmhouse,” she recalls. “I hope other people can hear themselves in these songs. I wanted this to be a record for the working class, the working mom, the stay-at-home mom, the kind of country people I was raised around. It’s a pure love letter to them, and that’s why it’s called Decatur County Red.”
At the same time, Alexander also gives a nod to a genre with a timeless tradition, one that’s morphed in other directions.
“I’m deeply rooted in country music,” she insists. “I have an encyclopedic knowledge of country music, and I’m not just talking Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. I was a kid that was deeply beyond that — I found all the classic songwriters. So I really feel that this album is kind of a tip of the hat to all that and also a tip of the hat to the Nashville traditional songwriter.”
Although Alexander is giving a nod to her own past and the musical mantra that originally inspired her, she said she was able to shape it in her own way. As a result, it was a liberating experience and, she says, one of the most satisfying efforts of her career. Call it a comeback or simply a timely return; either way, she’s obviously enthused.
“What’s cool about this is that it feels like it’s on my terms,” Alexander confides. “That’s because I have the confidence as a writer. I have the confidence as a singer and performer. I’ve already succeeded in my eyes far more than I ever dreamed I could. When I was living in West Tennessee, I never dreamed I could be a songwriter, so to my mind, this is all gravy, and it’s a cool perspective to have. For once, I had no one to answer to.”