REVIEW: Jaelee Roberts — Something You Didn’t Count On (LP)
Jaelee Roberts has this music in her DNA. The daughter of industry executive Andrea Roberts and longtime bluegrass musician Danny Roberts, Jaelee’s exposure to the wild and wooly world of professional musicians began Day One. She is thoroughly steeped in the country, blues, and bluegrass traditions evidenced by the songs included on her debut album Something You Didn’t Count On.
The full-length release in May of this year catapulted Roberts into the bluegrass genre’s forefront with good reason. She starts the album off with its title song, often a sign of the artist’s self-confidence, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it is the case here. Roberts is working with a cadre of veteran bluegrass/country players but, ultimately, it is her voice and its interpretative powers that are the track’s highlight. It’s a superlative way to open the collection.
She maintains a strong connection with tradition and isn’t bashful about exhibiting that side. “I Owe Him Everything” expresses religious impulses with moving earnestness — the economy of the way the song expresses its central sentiment, gratitude, contributes to being one of the collection’s best songs. Jimmy Mattingly’s fiddle pairs well with Roberts’ vocal on several songs in particular and “Sad Songs” rates among the best.
It stands out for me because of a few key reasons. One of the biggest reasons, however, is for the way it stands as a pure pop song, in its own way, despite the bluegrass instrumentation. She makes a bid for commercial attention with a grassed-up cover of the Fleetwood Mac/Stevie Nicks classic “Landslide” and her affinity for the song is clear. Her instincts for recognizing the elasticity of songs such as this, though she isn’t the first to do so, clearly places her a cut above many peers and contemporaries.
Her musicianship shouldn’t be underestimated. “The Best of Me” boasts biting yet intensely melodic guitar work that’s well-complemented by supporting musicians such as the aforementioned Mattingly, banjo player Kristin Scott Benson, and bassist/producer Tim Surrett. The singer/songwriter vibe underlying the material is impossible to ignore, but it never cuts against her fidelity to the bluegrass style.
Her take on the style is relaxed enough that it skirts the margins into outright commercial pop. The delicate bluegrass balladry of “Lie to Me” allows Roberts’ an opportunity for exploring the lower end of her register and it’s easy to hear how this song, like the others, is adaptable. Melody, instrumental interplay and structure are far more crucial to why you will like or not like these songs than any label someone slaps on the songs.
“You Can’t Stop Me from Staying” comes late in the album and its uptempo flourish provides Something You Didn’t Count On with a shot of playful energy. Some listeners are going to come away from this release thinking Jaelee leans a little too much on mid-tempo numbers and ballads so this choice, as well, is especially welcome. It’s the ultimate story with Jaelee Roberts’ debut — if you bother listening, there’s something here for everyone.