On the line
by James M. Manheim
Kim Richey grew up in southwestern Ohio, right on the line dividing rock-speaking from country-speaking lands, and her musical career has turned on intriguing tensions between the two styles. In concert she's dispassionate, penetrating, a bit standoffish, eschewing both country sentiment and rock force. Her concert at the Ark on Wednesday, July 10, offers an early glimpse of Kim Richey's next stage.
A songwriter from the start, Richey gravitated toward Nashville in the late 1980s and kept company with the ancestors of what's now called alt-country Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd, among others. She turned into a wicked tunesmith and hit it big in 1995 with an eponymous album that caught the best of the insouciant girl power that helped propel country to unprecedented sales. Upbeat and packed with hooks, her songs drew comparisons to those of John Hiatt, another rocker who suffers when his connections to Nashville get stretched too thin, and she approaches his considerable craft. Richey drew plenty of non-country fans, but the country instrumentation that pervaded her first CD set off the dryness of her voice to best advantage.
Then Richey fell into an odd sort of creative disunity. Her second album, Bitter Sweet, moved more to the pop side, and by the time of 1999's Glitter she was headed straight down the middle of the road toward Sheryl Crow-style pop-rock. The album lacked any country dimension, and while it wasn't bad, others did the same thing better; Richey didn't link up with the adult-pop audience she was courting. Meanwhile, the country-pop tunesmith in Richey reasserted herself with a series of songs recorded by others Trisha Yearwood, Terri Clark, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and even heroines of the halter-top set like Mindy McCready.
Glitter was three years ago, and since then Richey has been mostly silent. Mention of a new album circulated and got posted on her website, but nothing materialized. Now Richey is touring in advance of the release, finally,
of Rise, slated for this fall. Her publicists have kept a lid on the contents, but there's reason to believe this music will be worth being the first one on your block to hear. The album is coming out on Nashville's Lost Highway label, home to a rising tide of alt-country acts. She's touring with only a bassist and her own acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Her producer this time around is Bill Bottrell, responsible for plenty of Sheryl Crow but also for the triumphant I Am Shelby Lynne album; he should be able to put Richey front and center and draw out what she has to say.
Is Richey getting back to her roots? We'll have to wait and find out. But she's definitely stripping things down, reemerging, trusting herself. I'm betting that'll be something to see.
[Originally published in July, 2002.]