By David Watts Barton, No Depression, December 31, 1996
It’s a mighty thin line between certain kinds of country and classic rhythm and blues. Look at John Hiatt. Or Bonnie Raitt.
Or Chris Webster. The singer/songwriter from Davis, California, has released a solo album that blends the two styles in a way that has distanced her from the country mainstream but endeared her to fans of soulful singing. Among those fans are Ferron (with whom she has sung backup onstage and on record), The Band (which recorded, but did not release, one of her songs) and Ray Benson (who reportedly asked her to join Asleep at the Wheel). Webster’s is an authoritative voice that manages to make existential angst, romantic confusion and spiritual longing sound uncommonly appealing. Each note she sings conveys a probing, acute sensitivity to the little complications of life and love, with a sexy edge to boot.
Recorded virtually overnight in Nashville, the album features a strong cast of musicians, including Lyle Lovett’s pianist Matt Rollings, guitarist Nina Gerber, legendary lap steel guitar player Al Perkins and even the Memphis Horns, who add punch to her bluesy slow grind, “I’m Driving”. That song is chock-full of sly innuendo and the take-charge feminismo informing the entire album. Webster, 30, is one of the two singers in the popular NorCal septet Mumbo Gumbo, and much of Drive is driven by a desire for independence, both romantic and artistic.
Her own songs, which dominate the album, further that theme. “Candy Bars and Freedom”, underscored by Perkins’ keening lap steel, details the escape of a battered wife; “Run Away to the Circus” neatly fuses themes of artistic and emotional escape. Other songs, especially “Shake On It”, “No More Excuses” and a cover of Van Morrison’s “Ball and Chain”, make no-nonsense offers of affection but clearly outline the singer’s ground rules.
But despite the tough-gal stance of many of the songs, it is the more vulnerable material that really gets under Webster’s skin. Particularly stunning is her version of Randy Newman’s “Real Emotional Girl”, backed only by Rollings’ understated piano. It’s an instant, one-take classic. This short track, on which a great unknown singer meets a great little-known song, is worth the price of the record alone.
Her version of Bay area songwriter Jennifer Berezan’s “The Turning of the Wheel” has a wisdom that the singer knows just how to express. In less skilled hands, the lyric might seem preachy in a New-Agey way, but Webster sounds as though she believes she needs this wisdom as much or more than the listener does. Likewise, the prayerlike closer, “Angel Choir”, finds her taking a straightforward gospel lyric and singing it so simply that she gives it a humble, purely musical transcendence.
Webster is a real find, a great singer who has found her voice but not her niche. It may require retooling her style a bit (but don’t hold your breath for big hair), or it may simply be a matter of finding an audience that doesn’t care about musical boundaries. At that point, there will be little talk of country or soul; there will only be praise for one of the finest voices in any genre.