Wonky Tonk: Lessons & Lovers (Grace and Grit Records) Album Review
Reviewed by Mae Hunt
Listening to Lessons & Lovers in full is a journey – Wonky Tonk captures the realities of life and love in eleven short songs. The ups, the downs, the good, the bad, and everything in between. Listeners of all ages can relate to these visceral moments of desire, anger, confidence, and longing all captured in a folk album that I can imagine jamming out to in my car, windows down, on a hot summer day.
Before getting into specific songs, I have to say: man, can this woman sing! Her voice ranges from melancholy croons, like in Cryin’ Shame, to bellowing howls, like in Everyone’s Got a Brian. Her voice, paired with moments of overwhelming instrumentals, truly makes the album feel like a journey.
At closer listen, it is clear that there’s much more to the album than impressive vocals and instrumentals. Wonky Tonk’s lyrics share words of wisdom, grief, even comedy. Actually, Wonky Tonk’s persistent sense of humor struck me throughout the album. In Everyone’s Got a Brian, she curses out a helpless man named Brian, telling him: “Don’t be a dick, it’s easy.” She finds comedic relief in the stereotype that men can easily anger women and all I have to say is…well, I wouldn’t want to be Brian. The whimsical undertone comes full fledged in Suitors when she laughs about having too many suitors in her small town. It’s fun and goofy, which counteracts the desolate, longing tones in other tracks.
Somehow, Wonky Tonk makes moments of anxiety, depression, confusion, and loss palpable to listeners. In Cryin’ Shame, Wonky Tonk’s crooning mimics someone with a broken heart crying into the night over a lost lover. In Never Trust a Doctor, her soft and soothing voice juxtaposes the grief-stricken words of a recent heartbreak. She takes the traditional tropes of romance and throws them into a contemporary context, adding her own flare and uniqueness. In Stock Market, for example, Wonky Tonk asks the undying question: “Why does love bring me so much pleasure and so much goddamn pain?” Well, by the end of the album, it seems she has found the answer.
The album wraps up with Lessons which perfectly ties together the raw emotions of the other tracks with binds of learned wisdom. Considering the profound insight and reflection in these lyrics, I think Wonky Tonk must have aged a decade between writing Everyone’s Got a Brian and Lessons …. She seems to answer her own question posed in Stock Market, why does love bring me so much pleasure and so much goddamn pain? All the ups and the downs described on previous tracks have led her to the realization that difficult times make her stronger. With empowering vocals, she declares: “I’ve got all the love I need.” Rather than seeking love from others she has found it within herself.
I have all the respect in the world for Wonky Tonk for the cultivation of such a layered album. A strong, feminist country artist who speaks openly about personal experience with depression and anxiety? That’s what I like to see! More importantly, though, I admire Wonky Tonk’s depiction of her journey to self-love and acceptance, a destination that ends an uphill journey for many.