Single Review Roundup: Vol. 2, No. 9

This week’s records from Gabe Lee, Tanya Tucker, and Lilli Lewis receive universal praise.


“Even Jesus Got the Blues”

Gabe Lee

Written by Gabe Lee

ZK: Three (soon to be four) albums in, Gabe Lee’s musical melting pot has already shown a sort of versatility that scans as an artist who really can pull it all off, rather than someone still searching for his sound. The connective tissue, to me, has always been a natural, good-natured warmth that shines through in his expressive delivery, lively writing, and always-excellent production. 

In other words, hearing him make a bluegrass-inspired pivot just feels like the logical next step from the rusty roots-rock of last year’s Hometown Kid, and a natural fit for a song as empathetic as this is in not casting judgment on an addict trying to put the pieces back together. 

But for as intentionally bright as it sounds off its impeccable fiddle play, and for as optimistic as this person’s plea for forgiveness and asylum in front of their former congregation comes across, it’s also self-aware enough to know that rooted hypocrisy will work against them – even though “Jesus got the blues” from time to time as well. It’s a ballsy release in this genre, especially when it’s willing to confront that hard truth. But in framing itself as plainly human and adding life and weight to a relatable character, it’s another excellent track from an artist who only gets better. A

KJC: Gabe Lee fully delivers on the promise of his earlier work with “Even Jesus Got the Blues,” a compelling bluegrass-flavored record that embraces the sounds of the American south while also interrogating the Christian values it claims to espouse. 

Many moons ago, Jo Dee Messina recorded a track called “Even God Must Get the Blues” that many of my friends loved but it left me cold because it positioned itself in judgment of those falling short of virtue, failing to see the humanity in the sinners that Jesus chose to hang out with when he walked the earth, according to scripture at least.

Gabe Lee’s “Even Jesus Get the Blues” takes a different tack, suggesting that Jesus would be bummed out about all the people claiming to be his followers who can’t be bothered to act anything like him.  And let’s get real here: has there been any one person in history who has had to deal with more name dropping fake friends than Jesus?  No wonder he hasn’t come back yet.  A

JK: I love how Lee’s thesis is one of moral complexity at a time when American mainline Christianity has polarized between an uncritical toxic positivity on one side and genocidal, theocratic culture warriors on the other. His is a timely and thoughtful message here, delivered with the clarity of purpose and the empathy that he’s been refining over the course of an awfully great career arc.

The arrangement needs just a bit more heft, to my ears, though I do appreciate hearing Lee’s distinctive, ragged wail in a Bluegrass context. I’m not saying he’s the second coming of Chris Stapleton or anything, but imagine this song with the wallop of a Steeldrivers cut. That’s not a criticism per se, merely an observation of how one of the year’s best singles thus far might have been even better. A-



Tanya Tucker

Written by Phil Hanseroth and Tim Hanseroth

KJC: This gorgeous song previews Tucker’s upcoming album, Sweet Western Sound.  

“Come on baby, show some kindness to me” is the refrain, and it’s punctuated by Tucker’s weathered vocal that logs every mile of her long journey.

Perhaps she’s feeling some extra confidence stemming from the warm reception to her previous album. Tucker’s never been short of confidence, but it’s kicked up a few notches here.  She is so fully present on this track, and her conversational delivery creates an intimacy between singer and listener that perseveres through a slightly overdone production.

This comeback has blossomed into a full blown renaissance.  A-

JK: In some of her interviews around the release of While I’m Livin’, Tucker seemed at least a little bit ambivalent about her new sound: She noted that she’s used to recording hits, and that record didn’t sound anything like current mainstream country, or even the late-career records by her contemporaries like Reba McEntire or Trisha Yearwood. 

On “Kindness,” Tucker sounds fully dialed-in to how the more Americana-leaning production by her collaborator, Brandi Carlile, truly works for her. Her performance is lived-in and teeming with warmth: If the production is far more rootsy, her vocal recalls hit singles “Strong Enough to Bend” and “Little Things.” I love that Carlile provides a showcase for that dimension of Tucker’s talents, and this lead single suggests Sweet Western Sound may be an even better testament to the full breadth of what makes Tucker an all-time great. A

ZK: I have to agree with my colleagues: Tucker sounds far more engaged on this record than before. While I’m Livin’ leaned a little too close on a conventional coffeehouse folk styling for my personal taste, but in supplementing the echoes here with soft touches of pedal steel and booming percussion, this feels tempered in a way that can also feel (perhaps paradoxically) urgent. Tucker’s weathered tone stands rightly at the front of the mix, and it fits the sentiment of a song that’s felt the long, rugged miles of a hard life well-lived. It is a bit broad in its overall framing – I definitely wouldn’t have minded hearing Tucker’s own voice and perspective in the writing credits compared to just the Hanseroth twins – but the sentiment still resonates loudly. B+



Lilli Lewis

Written by Albert Hammond, Mike Hazlewood, and Radiohead

JK: It’s their biggest hit, as such things go, but “Creep” has always been one of my least favorite Radiohead songs. What Lilli Lewis has accomplished, then, is an act of miraculous transfiguration: Her cover is truly a matter of hearing a thirty year-old song for the first time. Lewis drills deep into the alienation in the lyrics, looking past the of-its-era cynicism and disaffect to find a narrative of burgeoning empowerment.

Not to mince words: To hear a black woman who operates in the country / Americana space in the year 2023 wail the line, “What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here,” is an extraordinary declaration of agency. 

What’s key is the shift in tone in her delivery of those lines. On the first chorus, Lewis’ voice is barely above a whisper as she questions her outsider status. But the way she belts those same lines in the second chorus lays to rest any doubt that her voice belongs. In fact, Lewis is laying down a gauntlet: She knows she’s “so fucking special” and that few of her contemporaries within the genre could hope to match the masterclass of vocal prowess and intepretation she puts on here. A

ZK: I was never much of a Radiohead fan in general, but there’s always been a lot of weird resonance to be found in this self-deprecating song about acceptance. The muted nature of the original outside of the occasional heavier riffs was always part of the point in how awkward yet paradoxically brave it was trying to be, so Lilli Lewis’ piano ballad version that starts soft only to subtly rise to newer, uncomfortable levels puts it in another league of its own. In all honesty, I probably respect it more than outright love it, but “Creep” is a song about finding acceptance despite every fiber of your being telling you that that’s not OK. And at least here, Lewis’ ability to rise above and find that clarity and transcendence connects. A-

KJC: Let me first echo Jonathan regarding the original Radiohead version, which has always left me cold. I’ve always respected it but never liked it.  In that sense, Lilli Lewis achieves for me what Amythyst Kiah did last year with “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” She makes me understand for the first time why so many listeners connect with a classic record.

This version of “Creep” I could listen to over and over again without ever tiring of it. Her performance brings layers out of the lyric that I didn’t know existed, creating a record that builds to a dramatic climax in stark contrast to the original recording which picked a groove and stuck with it from start to finish.

 It’s revelatory in the same way that Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” was, and that’s about as high of a compliment that you can get out of me. Mark it down now for the year end list.  A

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