On The Record: Wonder Women of Country, plus Thee Sinseers, Matt Blake, Pete Ham, & Eddie Hinton

This column rarely covers EPs – the unending flood of full-length CDs is more than enough to keep a critic busy – but a six-song set called Wonder Women of Country: Willis, Carper, Leighis too good to ignore. The Texas-based trio consists of longtime alt-country artist Kelly Willis; Melissa Carper, whose excellentRamblin’ Soul appeared in 2022; and Brennen Leigh, whose compositions have been recorded by such artists as Rodney Crowell and Lee Ann Womack. Backup musicians on the EP add accordion, drums, dobro, and steel guitar.

Together, Carper, Willis, and Leigh have crafted an instantly engaging debut collection that evokes traditional country and Western swing and will leave you hungry for more. It includes five classic-sounding numbers written by one or more members of the trio, among them the smile-inducing “Fly Ya to Hawaii, and the lilting love songs “Hanging on to You,” which Carper has recorded on her own; “Won’t Be Worried Long,” which quotes Charlie Patton and namechecks Loretta Lynn; the bouncy, organ-spiced “A Thousand Ways”; and the sad, exquisite “Another Broken Heart.” There’s also a poignant cover of John Prine’s “I Have Met My Love Today.” The musicianship is first-rate throughout and the vocal work – which includes lots of terrific three-part harmonizing – oozes personality. 

It’s all over in a mere 18 minutes, but that’s long enough to mark the Wonder Women of Country as wonderful indeed. In fact, this is among the most satisfying and fully realized new music you’re likely to discover this year. Let’s hope we hear more from this trio, and soon.

Also Noteworthy

Thee SinseersSinseerly Yours. You may feel as if you’ve stepped into a time machine when you play this latest CD from Thee Sinseers, which features soulful vocals and emphasizes brass instruments such as trombone and tenor and baritone sax. The nine-member Los Angeles–based group’s music sounds redolent of classic 1960s R&B and soul from acts such as the Impressions, the Jackson 5, Freddie Scott, Billy Stewart, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. 

The songs, however, are all newly created by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Joseph Quinones and his eight bandmates. Anyone who likes Thee Sinseers’ progenitors will surely like them, too; their material is consistently catchy and their vocal work on tracks such as “What’s His Name,” “Can’t Call Me Baby,” and “It’s Such a Shame” is outstanding.

Matt BlakeCheaper to Fly. Matt Blake’s work as a stagehand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium led to jobs with Lucinda Williams, including tour manager. That, in turn, led to the discovery of his musical talents by her guitarist, Doug Pettibone, who overheard him playing one of his own folk/pop songs and encouraged him to play for Williams. She liked the singer’swork so much that she made him an opening act on her tours. 

This ethereal second album – following All the Dirt in Town, which came out way back in 2014 and, like the new one, was expertly produced by Pettibone – makes clear why Williams and her guitarist reacted enthusiastically to Blake’s music. The artist, who cites such motley influences as Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams, wrote and delivered the understated lead vocals on all 10 tracks on the CD, which feature an excellent backup band that includes Pettibone on pedal steel, mandolin, and guitars.

Don’t get so focused on the ear-candy music that you miss the effusive and poetic lyrics. The title cut, for example, begins, “She’s scared to fly, I’m afraid to fall / She has tattoos, I love to draw / I’m drawn to her skin, I hold her again / Against her lips, it’s us against the world / Sometimes on the bus, she starts to cry / She writes in the dust, ‘it’s cheaper to fly.’”

Pete HamGwent Gardens. Welsh power-pop musician Pete Ham scored big as a key member of Badfinger, writing and performing huge hits such as 1970’s “No Matter What” and 1971’s “Day after Day.” He also co-wrote “Without You,” which has been covered by hundreds of artists and gave Harry Nilsson a chart-topper in 1972. Ham’s story came to an end three years later when he joined the 27 Club by committing suicide.

In recent years, however, his work has been receiving fresh attention. Last year, for example, his songwriting talents garnered center stage on Shine On—A Tribute to Pete Ham, a two-CD collection of covers by 35 artists. And now we have the 18-track Gwent Gardens, the latest in a series of releases devoted to Ham’s demos of songs for Badfinger and its predecessor group, the Ivys. Some, such as “I Miss You” and “Take It All,” represent early versions of numbers later released by Badfinger, but other compositions here have not been heard before, and most of these recordings have not previously been released. 

Ham – who, like Badfinger, sounds uncannily reminiscent of Paul McCartney – demonstrates the size of his talent on standouts such as “Little Mary” and “Stop Waiting for the Sun to Shine.” These are early, stripped-down solo efforts, with the artist accompanying himself on piano or guitar, though he double-tracked his vocals and overdubbed more instrumentation on some songs. It’s easy to imagine several of them scoring hits if they’d been polished and fleshed out more by the singer and his bandmates.

On the Bookshelf

Everybody Needs Love: The Life and Music of Eddie Hinton, by Bruce SchurmanSoul singer Eddie Hinton, who died in 1995 at age 51, compiled an impressive resume in his too-short life. He wrote some excellent songs, most notably “Breakfast in Bed,” which is best known via Dusty Springfield’s version; and he served as a session guitarist on a large and varied list of albums—everything from Eric Andersen’s Blue River and Peter Yarrow’s Hard Times to Percy Sledge’s It Tears Me Up, the Box Tops’ The Letter/Neon Rainbow, Wilson Pickett’s Greatest Hits, and Toots & the Maytals’ Toots in Memphis

But perhaps Hinton’s great achievements were his performances on his own few records, especially 1978’s largely self-pennedVery Extremely DangerousMy review of that album, which is quoted in the new book Everybody Needs Love: The Life and Music of Eddie Hinton, noted that “he puts his heart and soul into every song and the result leaves little doubt that he could become just as unforgettable as the similarly styled Otis Redding.” Alas, that sort of fame eluded Hinton, ostensibly because his life was as troubled as he was talented.

The book does a good job of chronicling that life as well as the artist’s musical ups and downs. It includes an extensive discography and a bibliography and draws on the author’s interviews with more than three dozen people who shared their memories of Hinton. 

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains five decades’ worth of music reviews, interviews, and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and EncountersLennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.