Every Monday evening, many of Nashville's finest female singer-songwriters gather at The Listening Room Cafe to share stories and heartfelt music. There's nothing quite like plopping down at a newly-minted table, ordering a tall Hap & Harry's draft and settling in for an hour of truly great music. What transpired on Monday (July 7) was a moment in time, as five equally stunning and remarkably talented young ladies, American Idol's Janelle Arthur among them, took the stage to bless the crowd with the power of words.
Only able to perform two songs apiece, each singer — Arthur, Nicole Johnson, Lena Stein, Kalie Shorr and Morgan Dawson — hand picked excellently written songs to showcase their talent. If this was the only time the crowd saw them, they wanted to leave a mark. The ultimately 10-song acoustic show was a wrinkle in time, begging the question: why are none of these women signed to a label? With each breath, each pause, each nuance of a lyric, these stylists proved that their weight in gold is as valuable as that of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift.
In fact, Shorr's feathery voice (fourth in the stellar lineup) is quite reminiscent of Swift. The power she exudes in just a coo or soft whisper is touching, especially on "Smoke And Mirrors" (a co-write with fellow performer Dawson, who also supplied tender harmony). Even on her first tune, "Square On," she gripped the lyrics tight, precisely hitting the notes with maturity and passion. Shorr, I hear Swift will need an opener on her next arena-sized tour.
The evening launched with the soulful dexterity of Johnson, whose short set demonstrated her reach and mainstream appeal. On "Temporary Good Time," she took to task late-night romance in a significant way, fitting somewhere between Underwood's "Last Name" and Swift's "Red," but obtaining a vastly more meaningful calculation and rough edge.
Arthur, who finished in fifth on Idol's 12th installment, delivered one of the night's finest moments with "Pine Hill," a song she co-wrote with Marty Dodson and Jennifer Hanson. Based on an 1890 murder, the blonde powerhouse laid into the story-song with unabashed grit and soaring exuberance, showcasing a much more refined vocal than when she appeared on the hit Fox TV series. The dark tale is an unexpected delight, considering her often sunny disposition. It opens on a retelling of that infamous night of gambling which resulted in a shoot out and two men dead, sinisterly weaving in a modern perspective. In the same vein as The Band Perry's "Better Dig Two," Arthur ponders on a relationship, vowing that if things go south, the lover will have hell to pay. "If you cheat on me, I promise it'll go down like it did up on Pine Hill," she sings on the aggressive chorus.
Her following performance, of a song called "Love You Anyway," took a step back from the black abyss, but continued the heartbreak theme of the evening. Borrowing compelling traits from Trisha Yearwood's "I Would've Loved You Anyway," Arthur did not miss a beat (as the surrounding crowd became a bit rowdy after too many beers). As before, her voiced wrapped neatly around the notes but left the listeners suspended in air for roughly three minutes. It was captivating.
Stein was next on the docket, with a pair of exceptionally written tunes: "No Chaser" and "As I Go." The latter song, especially, was one of the best examples of organic love-strewn storytelling. "Don't shop for wine on an empty heart," she cooed, strumming her guitar. It was clear with the first few notes that she knew exactly what it meant to have your heart broken, and she laid it all out on the stage.
Last (and certainly not least), Dawson ended the evening on an outstanding high note. On "Why You Gotta Be That Guy," the singer packed a punch, her voice lilting and powering through each subtle reference and delicate lyric. She didn't need power notes to get her message across; she allowed the lyrics to cut through the noise and hit the audience in the face. The sheer control she has over her voice is dazzling and continued on the closer "More Like You."
But before tabs could be closed and chairs could be shuffled back into place, the fivesome treated the audience with a collaborative effort, on The Wreckers' "Leave The Pieces." Each singer took a moment to shine, suppling harmony (where needed) or singing on a verse or two. It was a fine demonstration that more females need and deserve to be heard in the Music Row market. Any well-dressed record exec worth his salt would benefit with signing any (and all) of these singers.
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