A Blend of Grit and Grace
Mary Bragg is not a newcomer to folk and Americana music; nor is she a newcomer to writing tight evocative songs, as her latest LP Lucky Strike shows. The Georgia-born and Nashville-based musician has been working on songwriting with other artists — for example, she co-wrote “Easier Than Leaving,” which appeared on the new album from Michaela Anne. However, her latest album shows that Bragg has her own voice and style that can deliver her narratives with impressive, commanding ease and tell in-depth stories with a poetic grace.
From the opening bluesy chords of “Bayou Lullaby,” Bragg sets a southern gothic scene of Sunday mornings, moonless night and hot, humid air. Her voice, however deep and dark, remains light and melodious, a soaring soprano that can lean toward the soulful side of Americana rather than country twang. Guitar solos and spooky harmonies cap off the track, fit for the soundtrack to a “True Blood”-style show.
The album quickly heads in another direction when Bragg launches into the epic “Comet.” It’s one of several tracks on the album with narratives that let the listener dive in and out of a story. With a simple picking pattern, Bragg again lets her voice steal the show as she sings of landscapes and leaving, the trademarks of the kind of brave journey a searching girl is wont to take. As the verses build up, so does a story that is both raw and relatable, and Bragg tells us a story without letting any distraction come in the way.
“Think About Me” and “Wreck and Ruin” are mid-tempo tracks with a little more rock ‘n’ roll edge to them. And Bragg’s voice again fits comfortably in front of a full band. Tracks like these feel more upbeat after “Comet,” but her lyrical prowess is still strong even when working with more typical hooks and choruses.
“Isn’t It Over Yet” is a sadder story than “Comet,” this one about the love that boomerangs back into a life long after it left. Bragg doesn’t shy away from tough emotions and dives into self-awareness: “I still can’t crack it / I’ve played it back / oh I’ve played it back / isn’t it over yet?” A soft, muted drumbeat gives the song a spine and Bragg gives words a rest with light, soaring “ooos” and“ahhs” to break up the verses and refrains.
Title track “Lucky Strike” is another super-sized song, this one with more of a country rock feel to it than the others, which laid more in folk territory. She’s got her bluesy, soulful vibe back from the first track as she sings of the pros and cons of going after dreams: ““I’m counting on a lucky strike to pull me out from the back of the line, make it easier to climb the mountain, and put me up on top.” It’s a testament to the humility one has to have in a field like the music industry, where one’s talent has to drive them to keep pushing no matter how many others are seemingly in front of them getting all the attention. Once again, the strength of Bragg’s songwriting comes from a wellspring of her own experience.
The album winds down with “Done Ain’t Done,” an almost Red Rocks-style folk tale with shaker auxiliary and a tap-your-toe beat, and “Empty Handed,” a beautiful acoustic ballad in which Bragg lets her voice soar high for a final time.
As far as breakout albums go, Bragg’s got everything she needs here in the making: strong songs, a great band, a gorgeous voice and a determined heart. Her words and melodies have a lovely, thoughtful quality, something that feels polished enough for Nashville stars but still real and authentic enough for folk fans looking for a new voice to listen to. While it’s her softer ballads that might steal the most hearts, Lucky Strike has enough sass and grit to stick to your ribs.