Review: Shaela Miller, “Big Hair Small City”

Shaela Miller - Big Hair Small City

I feel that I should preface this article with a disclaimer that while I don’t really care for the modern-day interpretation of country music – the mainstream radio Nashville pop that dominates the airwaves – I fondly appreciate fresh country music that has a bit of attitude and old-school flair.  You know, the variety of country that your parents may have frowned upon back in the day, and the type most likely to have the ‘alt’ tag attached here today – this country music is a different animal altogether.

Not to stray off-topic this early, but I got so excited back at the end of June when stumbling upon a mint used copy of Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.” (on vinyl no less) at a local store, and promptly secured it before anybody else started sniffing around the ‘recent arrivals’ bin.  What’s not to love about vintage 1980s rebellious country, with Yoakam offering plenty of rockabilly, guitarist Pete Anderson’s low-end Telecaster twang, and too much fun to handle all at once?  Now that’s my kind of country.  So, imagine my delight when I received an advance copy of “Big Hair Small City,” the latest album from Lethbridge, AB alt-country artist Shaela Miller.  If, like me, that earlier Dwight Yoakam brand of rebel country is to your taste, believe me, you’re going to love Shaela’s firecracker of an album that drops today.

Having spent over a decade performing her lively brand of country music across Alberta, Shaela Miller is undoubtedly one of the Canadian prairie underground’s most respected indie artists.  But be forewarned, if you’re expecting to find bubblegum pop country in her repertoire, you really have come to the wrong place.  Instead, you’ll find an artist who prefers to play the game by her own rules, rather than conform to the expectations laid down by mainstream country music radio.  And if I am to be brutally honest, who really wants the rehashed, forgettable, radio-friendly rinse and repeat variety when you can have something much more exciting?  Type her name into a popular internet search engine and you’ll find references comparing her musical vibe to rocker Joan Jett, and her songwriting to Americana legend Lucinda Williams.  For me, go ahead and add Ginger St. James, Mariel Buckley, and Tami Neilson to that list if you are truly looking to define Shaela’s musical identity – not bad company to be named amongst, given that these stunning Canadian alt-country queens are probably her closest contemporaries.

Recorded at Leeroy Stagger’s Rebeltone Ranch in Lethbridge, “Big Hair Small City” is a natural, organic successor to Shaela’s 2018 “Bad Ideas” album, content to follow the same successful formula, but with a duly notable expansion in instrumentation and sound.  Ever confident with her guitar and lead vocal duties, Shaela surrounds herself with a stellar ensemble in the studio, joined by Evan Uschencko (guitars), Paul Holden (bass) and Tyler Bird (drums/harmonies) at the core, alongside Skinny Dyck (pedal steel), Brennan Cameron (organ), Jackson Miller-Mannion (baritone guitar) and VISSIA (harmonies).  Engineered and mixed by Scott Franchuk (Corb Lund, Del Barber), with additional mastering by Philip Shaw Bova (Ben Caplan, Feist), “Big Hair Small City” is brought to life by, to quote the press release: classic Brill Building harmonies [which] add a piece of the city to the churchy vibes of vintage organ tones painting her arrangements, a neon-sign-handing-in-a-stained-glass-window feel.

The album commences with “I’m Gonna Fall,” which wastes no time showcasing Shaela’s ability to sonically paint a picture, her voice displaying traces of both weariness and disillusion as she delivers her opening lines: “Roll up the carpet / Bang it out on the porch / Hanging the clothes on the line to / Dry in the sun / Just trying to keep my mind off of you / I painted the wall of my bathroom blue / I’m gonna fall in love with you I swear.”  The gradual arrival of the instrumentation whisks my mind away to some rural honky-tonk bar, where lonely hearts are perched at the bar ever hopeful, while couples share drinks seated at high tops, their attention caught perhaps by a couple of dancers on a tiny floor as the band play above the noise, seeking just a smidgen of that attention and appreciation in return.  The burst of pedal steel from Skinny snaps me out of my daydream, earning my full attention as I marvel at such a beautiful, timeless sound – a world without pedal steel would be a very lonely place indeed.

Progressing immediately into the album title track, the tried and tested guitar riffs have a definite 1950s Johnny Cash “Get Rhythm” feel about them.  “Big hair small city / With one neon light that burns / I’m dressing up real pretty / For all the boys and the girls / And how the dance floor shuffles / Into the sleepless nights / Big hair small city / You fit right into my life.”  The classic instrumentation contrasts beautifully against the vocal delivery offered by Miller. “I will twirl and I will dance / My way through the streets / And if you’re calling after me / The wind has carried your voice away / When I lay myself down to rest / My hair is the pillow beneath my head.”  Modern-day empowerment against a backdrop of yesteryear is a simply fabulous combination here.

There are plenty more gems tucked away, awaiting your discovery as you progress through the album.  For those whose curiosity was piqued at the mention of Joan Jett earlier, “700” proves to be a great roots-rocker that satisfies with plenty of dirty guitar and thumping bass.  If you prefer a little country-blues, skip to “Crying Blues,” which will have your foot tapping as you appreciate just how much fun the band are having during this one.  The simple acoustic guitar strums that open “I Don’t Want Your Love” are executed to perfection, accompanying Shaela’s vocal walking pace: “Two fingers of gin / Bartender make it dirty / She throws her arms around the jukebox / Tries to stay there ‘til morning / She will dance / She will sway / She will cry / And over and over she will sing.”  I personally love the hint of 60s doo wop found in the harmonies, joined once more by some incredible pedal steel down the stretch – this is pure vintage country at its finest.

For mainstream country music fans who I may have alienated earlier, never fear, you may find refuge in a pair of radio-friendly tracks here.  With “Much More Than This,” Shaela adopts a little Patty Loveless in her tone and questioning lyrics: “I put my hand on my chest just to see if my heart still beats / I’ve been rolling down the hill and the grass stains are covering me / When I finally reach the bottom am I gonna hit a rock / With my head.”   I am also momentarily reminded of the “When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar” line from George Strait’s “Heartland” when I hear the rhythm of the introduction to “The Devil In You,” the progressions and timing are so similar. “I made my lips the same colour that I paint the town / I jacked my hair so high it’s sitting like a crown / Don’t you call out my name cause I will make you feel blue / Cause I’m crying out to the devil in you / Crying out to the devil in you.

Never underestimate the effort that artists make in configuring their track placement on an album.  Shaela clearly gave this a lot of consideration, the end result mixing styles and tempos flawlessly across the album, before saving what I consider to be her finest moment for the finale.  “Cause I’m a good woman / Good woman gone insane / And I’m so tired / Of playing this game.”  With both a great tone and pace, “Good Woman” is a phenomenal closing piece for the album.  I’ll double-down on that statement – with the intensity of Shaela’s powerful vocal range on full display, I’m betting that this would make a pretty incredible live show encore moment too.  “So, take back your things / You ain’t worth a good god damn / You’re just a boy / And I need me a man / I hope you find someone / And never break her heart / And if you ain’t looking now / Well it’s time you start.”  For the recipient of her demands here, it’s time to put up or shut up, because this one sure isn’t playing your games any more.

There ain’t no glamour in this tinseled land of lost and wasted lives / And painful scars are all that’s left of me / Oh but thank you girl for teaching me brand new ways to be cruel / If I can find my mind now, I guess I’ll just leave.”  If you are scrambling to locate which song these lines belong to on “Big Hair Small City,” I’ll save you some time, you will not find them!  But go ahead and read them again, because they sure could, right?  These lines were actually penned 36 years ago by Dwight Yoakam, making up the second verse of his popular breakthrough hit, “Guitars, Cadillacs,” as found on my recent vinyl find; a tune that sounds just as fresh when dusted off and spun again today. 

For this particular listener, this is why the alt-country music scene is so appealing to me.  Artists like Dwight Yoakam retain a timeless charm; an artist I first encountered in the mid 1990s, and a go-to whenever I crave some neo-traditional country tunes.  And with the next generation of artists such as Tami Neilson and Shaela Miller keeping this passion alive through their own interpretations of the genre, us listeners are most definitely in good hands.  The alt-country torch continues to be passed, and with this release here today, Shaela proves as authentic as they come, paying homage to those original pioneers whilst having a ton of fun in the process.  “Big Hair Small City” drops today – one that is well worth your attention if you crave that vintage country sound with a little edge, and need a brief moment of pure escapism.  Independent musicians need our support – please, go grab a copy for your collection if you can.

Visit Shaela Miller’s website.

Photo Credit: Bleu Baker

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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