Barbed Wire (Little Bear)
REVIEWED BY JIM CALIGIURI
A tranquil listen comparable to early Nanci Griffith, the eighth album from Sarah Pierce strikes pay dirt. Songs about her family's heritage thread together subtlety in country trappings about a simpler life. Opener "Small Town" points the way, and she never looks back until proclaiming "I Don't Give My Heart" to just anyone. She and husband/producer/co-writer/drummer Merel Bregante are joined by Willy and Cody Braun on some tracks, but Pierce remains the sharp heart of Barbed Wire.
Barbed Wire (Little Bear Records)
Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln
If you Google "Sarah Pierce," you'll learn about an early American educator who founded a landmark school. Try "Sarah Pierce Texas," and you'll find a lot more related to the singer-songwriter who records out of Austin. There's something to that, as Lone Star sensibilities permeate the songs and values of the cattleman's daughter. This is far from her first rodeo - "Barbed Wire" is her ninth release - but to hear her tell it, this record represents some of the most personal work she's done.
Pierce didn't really come to bellyache - right from the opener "(Small Town") you learn that she loves where she lives, she's got a great man, and the neighbors always check on her. Even when life sends rough patches, Pierce stands defiant. She's honed a gunfighter's spirit. The topics are charming, but this is country/western music that's undergone a sort of twang-dectomy. Sometimes a mandolin or banjo sneaks in, but it's the persistence of the same mid-tempo that wears on the listener. Even the "party" song ("Light It Up") has a restraint, like the rhythm section's riding a brake. Things improve when they highlight Pierce's honeysweet voice - "Find My Way Back to You" is a standout, with a lot of air and sensual delivery. The speedier ode to friendship "Saddle Up" also hits its mark, via bluegrass.
Pierce's lyrics have few curveballs or slick metaphors - you're much more likely to hear plainspoken truths or recollections. There's autobiography at a level not many artists would be game to do. (Pierce practically gives her address at one point.) "I'm the Daughter of a Cowboy's Wife" even takes on a father that left; but a scar or two's fine in this part of the country. One might wonder if she's really as tough and together as she claims. But better to leave the question on the table - who wants to mess with Texas
Sarah Pierce: Love, Light, and Music
When Sarah Pierce began her journey in the music business, she didn’t intend to be a songwriter. The Nashville music establishment was grooming her for success as a performer – she was expected to sing and make hit songs. Her first album, West Texas Wind, included only one of her originals, but the pull of the songwriting muse proved irresistible for the talented country vocalist.
In the ’90s, she moved to Austin, Texas with her husband, veteran drummer Merel Bregante of The Dirt Band. “Moving to Austin inspired me to write songs,” Pierce explains. “There are great songwriters here. And if you’re a girl and you don’t play guitar and write songs, you just don’t get in.”
The first song that came was called “Another Last Chance,” and it was about her experience of falling in love with her husband. “I had just left a bad relationship,” she recalls. “I had been in a lot of them. But, falling in love with Merel really changed my life for the better. I still feel it today.-
“I’ve [also] had mentors like Matthew Cartsonis,” she says, of the talented multi-instrumentalist she met in Phoenix, AZ. “It is writers like [him] who really helped me get started as a writer. He was very frank and helpful.”
Over the 20 years since that move, her songwriting muse still sings to her at her home in the country outside of Austin. It is a place she and her husband call heaven. Pierce has released a string of well-received albums. Her latest, 2011’s Bring It On, demonstrates insightful songwriting and her exceptional voice. The album carries insights about lost and found love, tales of personal redemption, and colorful cowgirls (her father was a cowboy). It’s an album of well-produced and finely crafted songs – the kind that lift the spirits, because she sings about life with a perspective that is full of hope. There is a brightness to her lyrics supported by the undertow of sweet country-rock complete with electric guitars, pedal steel, dobros and fiddle. Her portraits and insights about the ordinary magic of life in the country are full of light and positivity.
This hopeful worldview is something she’s taken some flak for from critics in Europe. “An Italian critic remarked to me that he liked a song, ‘Love is the Only Way,’” she says, “but [he thought] it would be much better if I suffered more.”
She laughs, then adds, “The music I’ve been writing lately is a bit darker.”
Her new album, for which she’s raising funds on Pledge Music, is titled Barbed Wire. “It’s about getting older,” she explains. “I hadn’t done an album in a couple of years. I was in a writing rut. I hadn’t written anything for a long time. We had just moved from the city to the country, outside of Austin. We were on our land and I found an old piece of barbwire that was from 1876. I thought, ‘This looks like me.’
“It was really beautiful, even though it was a bit twisted.” She continued. “I cut off an 18 inch collector’s cut and brought it home. It occurred to me [that] this is what life makes of us. From that moment I started writing and the songs for the album were finished in two weeks. The album really spring from that moment.”
Barbed Wire will include a song by Reckless Kelly’s Willie Braun as well as Pierce’s originals. Braun will also duet with her on a song she wrote about her grandparents, called “I’m Sorry.” And there’s also a song about her mother. The song, “Daughter of a Cowboy’s Wife,” is like a bookend to Ian Tyson’s classic romantic cowboy song, “Someday Soon.” The story describes the struggles of a wife of a hard-drinking cowboy and her personal redemption after he leaves her. It’s a stark portrait of the wreckage too often left behind by those we love, while, in this case, the mother and daughter vow never to show their tears. If this song represents quality of production and material on Barbed Wire, we’re in for a treat.
Texas-based singer-songwriter Sarah Pierce, the daughter of a cowboy, was raised in a family of cattlemen in rural West Texas. A genuine real-life cowgirl, she’s been making music most of her life—BARBED WIRE is her ninth album—and she’s toured non-stop across America, Europe and Scandinavia. Recently, Sarah and her musician husband Merel Bregante, moved out into the country some 30 miles from Austin and their new environment has inspired this latest collection of self-penned songs. Encompassing the influences of her heritage, Sarah delivers a transparent, introspective window into her soul with a mature sense of wisdom and confidence in her message and her craft—all mused by new chances on life. She has taken her storyteller-writing style and really captured moments within her life and turned them into meaningful music. The songs contemplate true friendship, the unity of the small town folks and the joys of day-to-day life, western and cowboy themes, our part in the natural world, as well as the treacheries of the heart.
Sarah sounds like she has the quiet bucolic beauty of rural roads and the open plains coursing through her veins. Listening to Small Town makes you feel like you’re ambling down a dusty country road toward something that might not exist anymore. She champions strong women in Wild Ones, which she dedicates to Merle’s Mom (Haggard that is), with some neat Roy Nicholls chicken-pickin’ guitar notes in the background. Her no-holds-barred stance Barbed Wire cuts to the quick within the simplicity and poignant themes across the range of this album seeming juxtaposed to the richness of Sarah’s western heritage and her coffee-house folk traditions. This is one woman who knows who she is and won’t be messed around with by anyone.
Her songs are music as landscape, timeless tales that instantly take root in your mind as though they’ve been there forever. The easy gait of Saddle Up, the picturesque visions that spring out of a Mackerel Sky and the working class passion evoked by Call Us Proud reverberate long after the disc has stopped spinning. With some of Austin’s finest musicians providing the accompaniment it’s as musically accomplished as you would imagine, but it’s Sarah’s relaxed, assured vocals, catchy melodies and wry lyrics that are its greatest strengths
Sarah Pierce on music, medicine and more
By Tara Low -
Sarah Pierce, a singer/songwriter from Texas, has a gift for telling a story through her lyrics and music. Pierce recently released her latest album Barbed Wire on Little Bear Records. It was recorded at the Cribworks Ditigal Audio studio in Liberty Hill, Texas, and produced by her husband/drummer/singer/engineer, Merel Bregante. Barbed Wire is a great mix of thirteen songs that Pierce says was “musically influenced by her family’s heritage in the cattle business” and can be seen as a “follow-up to my autobiographical Cowboy’s Daughter CD.”
Pierce and her husband pulled together a great team of musicians for this project which resulted in a mix of raw, emotional folk songs and soulful ballads.
When Pierce isn’t filling her days with working on the farm, writing music, and strumming her guitar, as a graduate of the Emory School of Medicine, she spends her time devoted to her other passion – medicine.
Learn more about this fascinating musician, her music, band, gear, and what inspires her in our in-depth Q&A.
So nice of you to take the time to fill us in on your latest music.
I am honored that you asked me!
Tell us about your newest album Barbed Wire. It was heavily influenced by your upbringing on a cattle farm and the name came to you when you found a piece of rusted barbed wire on the farm. Can you elaborate on the meaning behind the name?
Actually, I was clearing land on the ranch my husband and I own, outside of Liberty Hill, Texas, and came across some old barbed wire. I had been in a song writing slump for two years…could not finish a thing. When I held this old, rusted, hand pounded, barbed wire that had obviously weathered a great deal…and was still doing its job…I thought “this is me”! All of the sudden 16 songs came out of me in about 3 weeks. The barbed wire and the land brought me to a place I was looking for, I just did not know it!
“The beauty of my band and guests…we are family. Extended ~ AND ~ family.”
Tell us about your band and the special guests that contributed to this project and the collaboration for the music and songwriting?
My band is great!
Merel Bregante, my drummer, singer, engineer, and producer…well…Merel is amazing. There is nothing else to say! We just try and keep up with him. He came out of retirement to play with me. He played with Loggins & Messina, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Chris Hillman, Gary Morris, on and on and on. From a Lear jet to a Ford van and a trailer…that is commitment!
Mike Dorrien, my guitar player, is simply great! Mike took the lyrics, chord structure and melody and created the musical hooks along with creating the overall flavor of the CD…surely that which I had heard in my head. I have never had any musician do that on a CD…another amazing player and singer.
Carl Loschiavo played electric and acoustic bass.
Doug Hudson played acoustic guitar and Mandolin, and banjo. Doug has played with me off and on for over ten years. He is a great player and wonderful singer.
John McEuen, founding member of the iconic Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, popped in and played some of his typical world class banjo…as only John does.
Cody Braun, multi-instrumentalist of Reckless Kelly, played all the fiddle and most of the mandolin.
Wiily Braun, writer, lead singer, Reckless Kelly, wrote “I’m Sorry” with me and we sang it as a duet. He is just a GREAT songwriter and singer. Anytime we get the opportunity to tour with Reckless Kelly it is great fun!
David Pearlman took a break from making those amazing Pearlman microphones, which I used for this CD, and played some kick butt lap steel.
Robert Anderson played mandolin on “Daughter of A Cowboy’s Wife.”
Brian Kalenick played co-wrote and played acoustic guitar on “Mackeral Sky.”
I played acoustic guitar, mandolin, and a little Gretsch guitar, too.
The beauty of my band and guests…we are family. Extended ~ AND ~ family.
You really have a knack for telling a story through your songwriting. I was really drawn in to the first single on the album “Small Town.” Where do find your inspiration for songwriting?
Life. As I said earlier, I have to feel it, I am very visceral. I just write about what happens in the day to day and hope to find a little magic in it all. I believe that we are all innately good and when we come together we can do anything. I love the common man/woman. As I have seen it, no matter what country I am in, we all want the same thing…peace, our children to be safe, educated, to have a dream…hope. I think that each of us are working on this in our own way.
Barbed Wire is said to be a follow-up to your autobiographical CD Cowboy’s Daughter. How do you feel your music has progressed over the years?
My guitar playing has grown, though slowly. My writing has improved. Honestly, co-writing in Nashville has made a big difference. I cannot follow the format, but, the re-writing aspect for me has become a bit of a machine and I think that this has yielded better songs.
Cute story I read in your bio about singing to the cattle in the fields after getting kicked out of choir in elementary school. What is your musical background, when did you first learn to play guitar, and how did your family help inspire you?
My family was not musical. I learned to play piano as a kid and did not really play guitar until I was in my early 20s. Then I fell on love with my guitars and am so grateful for the songs they bring me. I loved to sing; I did sing to the cattle. I was kicked out of the 5th grade choir for singing too low. I hid from that point on, never letting anyone hear me. Unbeknown to me, my step father was listening through my bedroom door. He was a bass player in a country band. One night he asked me to sing. I thought he was crazy! I went to the gig. Sang “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” When I started to sing the room stopped, everyone starred at me, all I could think was “Oh my God I am so bad that they are scared to death!” After the song they all clapped and yelled. I did not believe it…and…I kept going from there…I had no choice.
“What makes me a good musician…I work hard and I do my job.”
Who were your early musical inspirations that helped mold you into the musician you are today?
The people who made me want to sing….Karen Carpenter, Patsy Cline, Emmy Lou. It is funny when you say “the musician you are today” I think of depth of heart…Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline. When I think it is hard…can you imagine those women and how big those hurdles were? What makes me a good musician…I work hard and I do my job.
“I do not like to pull the ‘girl card’ so I don’t.”
I actually saw you perform at MEOWCon several years ago. It was a great conference for women in music and I find it promising to see so many organizations available today that inspire and motivate women interested in the music industry. Have you faced in challenges in pursuing your career, and if so, how did you overcome them?
I do not like to pull the ‘girl card’ so I don’t. Having said that, it seems that in many…maybe most…careers we have to work so much harder than the guys to get our feet in the door. Texas has been tough. More so than L.A. or Nashville for me. Competing with the Red Dirt guys is never ending, climbing with bloody fingernails is what I always say…I guess that’s gross and, for me, it’s pretty accurate. Please note, I am not complaining as to women being in this predicament, I believe that we simply have to work harder and be OK with it! Also please note…I am not a male hater. I love some of the Red Dirt guys. Reckless Kelly is my favorite. They are amazingly talented and good people. They work hard and deserve everything they get.
From your experience, what’s the best piece of advice you would offer to an aspiring artist?
As a female be sure you can hold your own, practice, practice, practice. As soon as you can, stop chasing the dream, and live it. Be OK with what you are and love it! That is when your fans start to really identify with you and become those beautiful ‘die-hards’ that you are so honored to have.
Not only a musician, you also attended Emory School of Medicine. Do you still find time for work in the medical field and how do you balance your time between music, medicine and family?
When I am not on the road I do practice family medicine. I love my patients and I am blessed to have the opportunity to be part of their lives. They are also some of my most devoted fans. Luckily for me the doctors I work with…Paul Keinarth, MD and Steve Margolin, MD, have believed in my music since we first met. They have never held me back and are great fans. My family, well, I am the luckiest girl in the world. My husband is my drummer, Merel. My kids are all fuzzy…2 horses, three dogs and a cat, and, I have a great babysitter which allows us to tour.
Top 3 songs on my playlist are:
Etta James, At Last.
Phoebe Snow, New York Rock and Soul Review…all of it!
Emmylou Harris, Ballad of a Runaway Horse
One album I cannot live without is:
Patsy Cline, The Collection
I would love to collaborate with:
I wish I could sit down with Maybelle Carter. Hear her stories and write a song.
One thing people don’t know about me is:
I am a fly fisherman, catch and release of course. My ‘meditation guide’ is a trout in the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, AZ.
In one word, music to me is:
Sarah Pierce’s Gear:
Alvarez Yairi. Signed and numbered by master luthier Kazuo Yairi…all the songs on Barbed Wire came from my Yairi A Collings D1 acoustic guitar, a Gretsch Nashville, Tonebone acoustic guitar/mandolin preamp, Michael Kelley mandolin, Fender Deluxe Reverb, Vox AC4, handmade Mogame Platinum cables with Neutrix jacks, Fishman Spectrum, saltine crackers, and a song list with a cheat sheet so I am sure of all the lyrics and I know where I am on any given night in the road.