Part Sheryl Crow, part Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Malone has been bringing her Atlanta sound to the country scene for well over two decades. If you’ve ever heard her up North, it’s probably been with one of her many, many collaborators: ZZ Top, Indigo Girls, Jackson Browne, Joan Osborne, Gregg Allman, and John Mayer to name a few. Yet in her 17th release, Stronger Than You Think, it’s just Malone and her guitar.
In songs like “Vivian Vegas” and “My Favorite T-Shirt,” Malone, the seasoned performer, shows that she can produce a catchy country song with her eyes closed. The vibe is rocking Americana, and the lyrics are everything you love about Sheryl Crow’s nonchalant drinking buddy persona. Malone’s getting kicked out of high school, ditching men, and taking back her favorite Stones T-shirt. Only occasionally does she get a little preachy in songs like “Keep My Head Up,” a little faster, tambourine-fueled number. Here, Malone is a “burning flame” that wants us to be, it seems, stronger than we think. Luckily, one can skip ahead to songs like “Ashes” or “Stomping Ground” and ease right back into some light drums behind Malone’s Georgia swooning.
She calmly shines, however, on more Joplin-y tracks like “I Got An Angel” and “Ramona.” The other, jumpier, songs are catchy, but Malone’s soul is much more interesting. Take “I Got An Angel,” which is raw, but smooth and soft like a mournful lullaby—it’s a Sarah McLachlan song you actually want to listen to. Malone’s done this kind of thing before (see her masterful cover of “Wild Horses” on Acoustic Winter), but the difference here is that we’re even more convinced she’s the real thing. She’s not trying to be Mick Jagger, she’s Michelle Malone, effortlessly telling you what’s been nagging at her.
This style continues in “Ramona,” which deals with packing up and starting anew in America. The sentiment—that it’s a hard thing to do—is not unfamiliar to anyone who’s read The Grapes Of Wrath or, you know, moved. But her clean, just-the-right-amount-of-scratch type voice brings an authenticity to lines like, “Ramona, how many husbands did I have?/Tell me, Ramona, why did I ever leave Birmingham?” It’s just what you need—as a musician, as a woman, as a person—when you’re tired of being yourself, of reinventing yourself, of forgetting yourself. The 13 tracks are a decent, easy listen with a few soul-searching standouts.