Those artists who find themselves stuck in deep ruts two decades into their careers could learn a thing or two from veteran singer-songwriter Kim Richey. She’s never been afraid to go where the inspiration is, recording each of her first six albums with different collaborators in different locales. For her seventh album, Thorn In My Heart, she decided to do something quite brave for a nomadic soul: continue a tried and true partnership. For the second album in a row, she enlisted her multi-talented, East Nashville-based bandleader Neilson Hubbard as producer.“Normally I would go to someone new,” she says. “But then I thought, ‘Well, let’s just try and see what happens.’ It seemed like a natural extension of touring. Neilson, Dan Mitchell and I have been touring together as a trio for well over a year. We found a way that we could represent the new songs and the old songs for live shows by really concentrating on harmony vocals; they’re both beautiful singers and great musicians. I think maybe we were all surprised at how easy and fun making this album was. Without any rehearsals, we were tracking four songs a day.”
Rounding out the core studio band were a pair of guitarists Richey knew well, Will Kimbrough and Kris Donegan, and a rhythm section that was new to her, drummer Evan Hutchings and bassist Michael Rinne. Likewise, the array of top-tier guests included Wilco’s Pat Sansone and Trisha Yearwood, both of whom she’s known for years, and newer acquaintances like Jason Isbell and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel.
Richey had contributed plenty of songs and vocals to Yearwood’s recordings, but this was the first time the country legend had had the chance to return the favor. When she joined Richey and Isbell on the gentle roots-rocker “Breakaway Speed,” Richey marvels, “the whole thing just elevated.” Chuckling, she adds, “I was really happy that she sang on it, and on the other hand, I was really bummed out: ‘So how many records have I made and not had her sing on them?’ So we made her sing on “Come On”.
Richey’s openness to exploration has enabled her to slip into and out of a variety of different stylistic modes on her albums. And considering this collection marks her return to sumptuously understated roots-country territory, Yearwood’s voice is a fitting addition.
“From the beginning,” Richey says, “I wanted this to be a country record. I think that all started back when I was asked to learn a country cover for a BBC radio show in Glasgow, The Ricky Ross Show. I learned ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ by Kris Kristofferson, then we worked up a version to do at our shows. It got such a strong reaction every time we played it, from people that had vivid memories attached to the song to those who were hearing it for the first time. We started adding other songs to our show that had more of a traditional country feel, and then it took off from there.”
Early on, the Zanesville, Ohio native thrived on the progressive side of mainstream country, her albums (1995’s Kim Richey, 1997’s Bittersweetand 1999’s Glimmer, all on Mercury) showcasing twang-pop sensibilities, a rich, rounded vocal tone and effortlessly sophisticated songwriting that other discerning performers—Yearwood, Radney Foster and Pam Tillis to name a few—coveted for their own recordings.
In the years since, Richey has made her subtly psychedelic album Rise (Lost Highway) with producer Bill Bottrell, flown to London to enlist the help of Giles Martin—whose father helped the Beatles work their studio magic—emerging with the crisply orchestrated Chinese Boxes (Vanguard) and turned to Hubbard to conjure the earthy indie-pop feel of Wreck Your Wheels (Thirty Tigers) as well as to complete Thorn In My Heart, her first album for Yep Roc Records.
Even with familiar collaborators, Richey faced foreign pressures in the creative process this time. At the moment that she agreed to deliver a new album, she had absolutely no idea what she would put on it; writing-wise, she was starting from scratch.
“The first song we wrote that I knew was going on the record was ‘Thorn In My Heart,’” she remembers. “After Neilson and I wrote that, I had a good feeling that the rest would fall into place. We went from me thinking that I’d have to scramble to come up with songs to having more than enough and recording extra tracks. I went back though my songs and found a batch that had never been recorded; they hadn’t fit with whatever record I was making at the time, or were ‘too country,’ or I had just overlooked them. I also started writing with some people I hadn’t written with before: Dave Olney and Thomm Jutz. That was really inspiring and exciting.”
The album’s dozen songs show that Richey is still dreaming up fetching melodies that arc and bend in unexpected ways, and still discovering fresh angles from which to articulate matters of the heart, and with evermore elegant economy to her lyrics. No matter who she wrote with—and Mike Henderson and Mando Saenz were also in her stable of co-writers—she noticed a central theme surfacing in several songs, including “Something More,” “Come On,” “Take Me To the Other Side” and “London Town.”
“I think a lot of this record is about not being able to settle down, and looking for something, or leaving some place,” she reflects. “I have a pretty restless nature, which is funny for someone who never went any place until I was out of college.”
Richey recently wrapped up three years of songcrafting in cosmopolitan London and has gone about as far as she can in the other direction, securing herself a doublewide trailer and plenty of quiet half an hour outside of Nashville.
Surprisingly enough, the reflective ballad “London Town” was a song she’d written before that move to the U.K. “Sometime songs have a way of predicting, as opposed to recording, outcomes and events,” she muses. “I guess all that stuff is floating just under the surface somewhere in our subconscious. Once I’d left London, moved out to my place in the country, and started work on the new record, I could see that maybe I had lost my way there for a bit. It’s probably good to lose your way every now and then, though. How else are going to discover new things about yourself and your surroundings?”
Coming from a seasoned songwriter and sojourner like Richey, that’s well-earned wisdom.
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