There’s an almost otherworldly quality to Angela Easterling’s sophomore disc, a largely self-written Americana affair produced by singer/songwriter/sideman extraordinaire Will Kimbrough. BlackTop Road is soaked in an intelligence and far-reaching historical sense that makes you suspect its origins couldn’t be entirely human, or at least that all of these songs and performances couldn’t have emanated from one young woman. Easterling, whose voice comes with nary a hint of twang, offers one possible explanation in the eerie “A.P. Carter’s Blues”:
I’ve been haunted by a spirit I can’t seem to lose
Since I got that old Clinch Mountain dust upon my shoes
I stood up at his grave and I thanked him for his song
But when I walked back down that hill, I didn’t walk alone
Infected by the spirit of A.P., the album is at its most historical with timeless-sounding originals like “Field of Sorrow,” a beautiful message from beyond the grave that would fit right in with the Carter Family catalog, and “Stars Over the Prairie,” Easterling’s reworking of lyrics originally composed by her great grandfather.
Even when the sound is more contemporary, the interests are often deeply historical. “The Picture” grapples with legacies of racism, as the narrator discovers a picture of a black man’s hanging amid her deceased father’s personal effects and wonders what role he played in the event. The worst part is the uncertainty of not knowing the whole story (“Cause I always knew you as a good man, standing righteous, strong and tall/But here’s the chance I never knew you at all”), though by the end she seems to have settled on him having been at least complicit if not actually personally responsible, with repetitions of “Daddy, why?” conveying her hurt and confusion. Meanwhile, “American I.D.” finds her battling her own biases on the way toward embracing the differences that built a nation:
I get so angry at my neighbor, on so much we disagree
I decided to surround myself with those who think like me
But all these colors that divide us, all these differences we spite
Maybe form our true foundation, and in the end will seem so slight
Easterling and Kimbrough wisely balance some of the record’s historical interests with real immediacy by including a few deeply-felt love songs set wholly in the present, the best of which is “Better.” In a gorgeous performance that radiates self-aware strength and vulnerability, Easterling lets a lover in on that most tender of all confessions: “I sleep better in your bed than I do in mine/I look better in your eyes than I do in mine.” “One Microphone” (reprised in French at the end of the record) discovers a unique stage-based metaphor for love, while “Just Like Flying” is at least slightly more compelling than any song likening being in love to flying has a right to be, though not so good as to keep it from being one of the album’s weaker songs.
The finest moment comes with the convergence of the historical and the personal. Easterling tears her way through the album’s title track with such indignant energy that you’d presume the song’s basis in reality even without knowing the whole back story: The state cut a road through the South Carolina farm that has been in Easterling’s family for more than 200 years, destroying the house built by her great grandfather… then, in an apparently well-intentioned slap in the face, marked the road with the family’s name. The whole situation has Easterling understandably pissed off, so her biting delivery on “Blacktop Road” must have come naturally. Thankfully, she matches the attitude with an eminently well-crafted lyric that artfully invites listeners into the story, such that they’ll be able to get pissed off right along with her. Music as a shared experience.
I’m usually pretty picky about keeping the singer separate from the song, but the clarity and consistency of the narrative voice on BlackTop Road make it difficult to not feel like you’re learning quite a bit about Angela Easterling as a person during the 49 minutes spent under her spell. Above all else, the thing you’ll learn is that, regardless of what may come her way, she’ll be fine. There’s no stopping a talent of this magnitude.