It’s the stuff movies are made of.
A girl in Star City, Arkansas grows up with loving parents who would flirt and sing in harmony to 1960’s break-up songs by Elvis Presley and Skeeter Davis. Summers were spent with her Mammy and Pappy traveling to bluegrass festivals in their motorhome, the little curly haired girl dancing to the fiddles and banjos, embraced by the tight-knit bluegrass community. Her father’s work takes the family to the bayou of Monroe, Louisiana where the utopia is interrupted when her idyllic home breaks up, rocked by infidelity that nobody saw coming and her world is turned upside down. She retreats to the radio, back to her sad country songs, stories woven around her own pain.
In the aftermath, she is determined to split town to make a life is on her own terms. In a head-turning spin, a month after high school graduation, she wins the America’s Miss T.E.E.N. Beauty Pageant where she is scouted by a talent agent. She puts her college plans on hold, moves to New York and in a few short years, this small-town girl is making her Broadway debut in Julie Taymor’s “The Green Bird.”
As if that wasn’t a ripe enough story for a roller coaster of a country song, fast forward a few years, girl meets boy, girl gets married, has children, spinning on stage after stage until her history catches up to her and she’s playing the part her mother originated, blown sideways by cheating. As a newly single mother in Nashville, Tennessee, she turns back to the country and gospel music from her childhood, writing her way to resilience, through the grief, and toward love.
With her newest album, “I’m Not Broken,” Sarah Jane Nelson adds her own defiantly triumphant voice to the Americana-Country field. Set in a sonic landscape that recalls the era of artists like Wynonna, Kathy Mattea and Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I’m Not Broken” is an honest breath of fresh air, a deliberate throwback to the days when a fiddle, an acoustic guitar and a rich alto voice could celebrate the fullness of a life hard-fought and hard-won.
Pedal steel, fiddle and acoustic guitar opens the record on the title track that lifts to an anthemic chorus that wouldn’t be out of place on commercial country a decade or two ago:
“But I’m not broken, I’m not done
I get up more than I’m knocked down
Put myself back the way I was found”
Moving from ballad to a rocker with a rolling banjo, “Reap What You Sow” is a foot-stomping slap to the woman who steals her man “You can take the laundry, the dishes, the dirty bathroom and the kitchen, oh the grass looks green but there’s something you should know”. She addresses the ghosts of her past with “Sins of the Father” and even gives us a beautiful acoustic version of The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” finding the dark intimacy in the 90’s monster hit.
This is a singer who fits the cliché: “she could sing the phonebook and make it sound good.” In fact, her search for her voice led her from musical theater to Shakespeare to a 2011 acoustic blues-influenced record of standards. But Nashville does a funny thing to artists, makes a singer into a songwriter and by singing their own songs, the songs bring out a truer voice, teaching the artist something maybe they had forgotten. As rich as cane syrup, Nelson’s honeyed voice is both resilient and vulnerable, gliding through the 12 songs with a gentle familiarity, as if we’ve known her all along. It’s clear this once-musical theater actress has deep roots in country music, as every note rings authentic. This is no small task and not many other singers could pull off this hat trick.
Nelson had been toying with her songs for years, writing with babies on her lap, moving from NYC to Oregon to Los Angeles and eventually to Nashville with her first husband, also an actor. But the foundation of her marriage had been crumbling for years and cracked wide open in Nashville. The 12 songs on “I’m Not Broken” are the result of this shift from singing others stories to singing her own. From the title track to the last song, “A Little Bit of Light,” Sarah Jane reveals the universal truths of characters struggling to find hope as the fantasy falls apart.
And in another made-for-television-twist, her producer, musician and songwriter Brian Irwin, who shepherded Nelson’s debut album of original material, became her husband earlier this year. Sarah Jane Nelson is no straightforward theatrical talent, trying on a costume of a genre. These songs come from a decidedly Americana truth: from a single mother hanging onto a dream through unexpected changes, from a singer returning to the land and music of her childhood, from a keenly observant writer telling a universal story born out of her own specifics. And finally, from the twirling little girl in the festival fields to the teenager singing along to vinyl records to the songwriting now-happily married mother of two, “I’m Not Broken” is the record Sarah Jane Nelson was born to make.