Bette Smith – The Good, The Bad And The Bette
Ruf Records – 2020
10 tracks; 40 minutes
Bette Smith’s previous release Jetlagger (2017) made a strong impression and the Brooklyn native has again ventured to Mississippi to record this follow-up. The Drive-By Truckers rhythm section (Matt Patton, bass, Bronson Tew, drums) provides a solid base and acted as producers of the album, with the intention of drawing out Bette’s rock side whilst retaining the blend of gospel and soul influences that were so apparent on Jetlagger. Musicians involved include no fewer than eight guitarists while multi-instrumentalist Henry Westmoreland plays all the horn parts as well as organ. The material comes from a number of sources, including three written by Bette and Matt Patton but the songs are linked to a theme of finding oneself, from childhood in a rough neighbourhood to understanding how to build solid relationships as an adult. Bette’s raspy, soulful voice delivers the songs well, bringing vintage Tina Turner to mind.
“Fistful Of Dollars” leads off, the title of Lonnie Shields’ song perhaps influencing the album title too. Over jagged guitars and a horn-drenched arrangement Bette sings a song clearly written from the man’s point of view, needing more money to keep up with his partner. The emotional “Whistle Stop” finds Bette singing about her mother’s passing on a quiet, lush ballad before we get two songs written by Vermont songwriter Tyler Dawson: the title “I’m A Sinner” suggests that we may be delving into Bette’s gospel roots but it’s actually a real rocker with pounding piano with Jimbo Matthus featured on guitar; the distorted guitar and ‘freaky’ solo make the short “I Felt It Too” a fairly uncomfortable listen. In complete contrast “Signs And Wonders” has a soulful feel with Luther Dickinson guesting on country-tinged guitar, the song credited to John St Mar Kveen about whom I could find no information at all.
Bette’s “Human” is a centrepiece, a song of gratitude for learning how to love unconditionally, something Bette attributes to her dog who, she says, taught her trust and vulnerability; Jeremiah is also featured on the cover and gets his own ‘thank you’ in the sleevenotes! Played over a wash of wah guitar this one is a rocker with heart and is immediately followed by Bette’s third original, “Song For A Friend”, a gentle song of farewell with fine harmonies. “Pine Belt Blues” is a chugging rocker penned by Elliott McPherson of Alabama rock band The Dexateens which has an anthemic chorus with Bette well supported by the backing vocalists. Eddie Hinton is the source for “Everybody Needs Love” which may well be this reviewer’s favourite track on the album with its catchy tune, uplifting lyrics and powerful choral vocals on which Patterson Hood (another Drive By-Trucker) chips in. The album closes with “Don’t Skip Out On Me”, a song (and also a novel) written by Willy Vlautin, frontman of Richmond Fontaine, Bette accompanied by acoustic guitar and soaring pedal steel before multi-tracked trumpets come in half way through this tale of loneliness and despair.
This is an interesting album with songs that clearly resonate with Bette and bring out strong vocal performances. There is little actual blues here and it is arguably less of a soul album than Jetlagger was, but it is definitely worthy of your attention.