Patty Loveless has proclaimed her as a thrilling voice in modern-day country. Trisha Yearwood covered two of her gorgeously sad ballads on 2001’s Inside Out. And yet, Rebecca Lynn Howard failed to follow these two legendary singers and assert herself as an important new voice in the mainstream. Many expected her a breakthrough after her 2002 single, “Forgive,” a convincing ballad of grief and anger that chronicles her confrontation with a cheating spouse. But after a few false starts in the major label system, she slid into oblivion.
Finding Music Row to be a fickle companion, Howard sought the comfort of an indie startup. She signed with Saguaro Road Records, a subsidiary of Time-Life, and her new musical attitude is signified right in the album title. No Rules is a music geek’s dream, daring to drift across genre lines with no need for the square-peg songs that plague her contemporaries. Howard combines country, bluegrass, gospel and blues into an infectious blend that’s stirring and spontaneous. She exerts her variety of influences on a sterling set of emotional intellect that scratches her creative itch.
Howard’s brazen effort is led by an earthshaking voice, a sharp-edged tool blessed with a sweetly soulful texture. Howard owes a considerable debt to the blues, infusing the cover tunes with the rhythms and the spirit of Motown. It’s evident from the opening track, a simmering take on the Temptations hit, “Shakey Ground.” She breaks from the tension on “New Twist on an Old Groove,” a symphony of saxophone and slide guitars, fully commanded by her gutsy growl. On “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” a faithful cover of the Aretha Franklin classic, she blows the doors off the demand for romantic equality. The original versions are still definitive, and Howard can sound overzealous on her remakes, but these riveting numbers show different shades in her capable hands.
In co-writing ten of the fourteen songs, Howard asks more probing questions than ever before. The most intriguing entry is “The Life of a Dollar,” the fiddle-fueled tale of a dollar’s travels and its impact on the lives it reaches. The piano-led “What Dying Feels Like” is a tender bluegrass ballad that finds a disconsolate woman enduring the high drama of a hard breakup. As hope becomes increasingly remote, Howard spills her guts with an understated delivery that never settles into melisma.
Later, she takes a different tack on matters of the heart, flashing her sassy side on “Just Let It Burn,” a funky, slow-churning number that’s smoldering right up until the last note. Ultimately, she preaches the value in a more enduring love. “As One as Two Can Be” is an evocative story of romantic revival, a gospel-tinged revelation that boldly pleas for a lasting partnership.
In three minutes of infectious joy, Howard summarizes her return to record shelves and the free-spirited feel of No Rules. “Sing ‘Cause I Love To,” co-written with Radney Foster, captures the inspiration of a natural-born performer; the uplifting number crystallizes the connection between singer and song. When she’d reached a commercial crisis point, Howard didn’t get dejected, holding onto that undying devotion. She became a mistress of all aspects of music, and No Rules is a skilled reflection of that transformation.