Ally Venable – Heart of Fire
Ruf Records – 2021
11 Tracks; 50 minutes
Although still only in her early twenties, Texas’ darling, Ally Venable, (who has won numerous awards in her home state, and has been nominated for Independent Blues Awards), has already completed her fifth release. One might imagine that it would be difficult to follow her last album, Texas Honey, (produced by Mike Zito), Billboard-charting at #2. However, Heart of Fire has certainly met, if not surpassed that high bar. The majority of songs are originals, demonstrating songwriting ability that seems far beyond her years.
And, while there are plenty of songs that clearly identify her blues-rock influence from Stevie Ray Vaughan, (including a beautiful instrumental tribute to Vaughan), some of the best tracks stray from that predictable path. For example, “Played the Game” sheds light on another aspect to her personality with its beautifully quiet guitar work. Additionally, her cover of “Hateful Blues” starts with a sample from Bessie Smith’s 1924 recording, and then cleverly merges into a unique, updated version of the song. The one other cover on this album, Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” strikes just the right balance between offering a new interpretation of this familiar song while not changing the much-loved melody so much that it becomes unrecognizable.
Venable’s vision for the album was to “create a tone of overcoming our struggles and persevering through them,” and she accomplishes that mission through her lyrics. In “Played the Game” she shares “I’ve been hanging on to what is gone—gotta let go, move on—it’s clear!” Later in the album she talks about “not going back to that sad situation.” This theme of triumphing over bad relationships can even be found in “Hateful Blues,” with the line, “My love has been abused…If he can stand to leave me, then I can stand to see him go!”
Venable has some heavy-hitting guest artists on this album too, with drums by Cody Dickinson (of North Mississippi Allstar fame), and with distinctive guitar solos by both Devon Allman and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. “Road to Nowhere,” featuring Allman, has a catchy hook and is likely to become a crowd favorite. And, Venable’s pairing with Shepherd brings a mesmerizing slow blues about a love that will carry a person through hard times. It challenges, “No matter what’s going on, my love won’t change— bring on the pain.”
There is very little to criticize about this album, although it is somewhat disappointing that Devon Allman’s voice is barely audible on “Road to Nowhere,” providing only a few background vocals on the chorus. A true duet between those two could have made for quite an exciting pairing. Additionally, while Venable’s vocals are on-pitch and generally quite strong, she does still have a very youthful sound to her voice, as if she is still searching for the timbre and rich tone that only more years on the planet will bring.
Overall, however, this is an excellent album, on which Venable is successful in more clearly defining her identity as both a musician and a songwriter. Heart of Fire is sure not to disappoint current Venable fans and likely to attract many more new ones. Like Mike Zito once said, Ally Venable appears to clearly be “the future of the blues.”