LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sometimes you can't fully appreciate your home and surroundings until you leave it for a while. Take country/Americana singer-songwriter Kim Richey.
An artist whose songs have helped fuel the careers of numerous country greats (Radney Foster, Dixie Chicks and Patty Loveless among them) and her own indie-minded albums, Richey took an extended break from her Nashville digs in 2009 and moved across the pond to London for three years.
Already well-traveled (she recorded her 2007 album "Chinese Boxes" in London), Richey made friends and discovered different cultures. But the songs she started to write didn't always thrill her.
"A lot of times, I would be writing pop music in London," said Richey. "But these were things I knew I would never put on a record. They were just more songs for the black hole."
So a year ago, Richey came home - to Goodlettsville, Tenn. There she found new living quarters far removed from cosmopolitan life and set about constructing one of the finest albums of her 20-year recording career.
"I love being in big cities, but I think London finally got to me after a time," Richey, 56, said. "Now I'm in a double-wide trailer, which sits out in the middle of nowhere. The first couple of months I was there, I just couldn't believe the space and the quiet. Every time I would drive up to the place, I would think, 'I can't believe I live here.' It's so fantastic."
What emerged this spring was a record called "Thorn in My Heart," a sampler of 12 new tunes that expands the trio format Richey has toured with of late (with bassist, percussionist, producer and longtime songwriting pal Neilson Hubbard, and keyboard and flugelhorn player Dan Mitchell). But the tone of Richey's songs remains intimate and often atmospheric. One work, in particular, could be viewed as a postcard of sorts from Richey's travels.
"There is a song Neilson and I wrote, 'Something More,' that's kind of like a grouping of a lot of different things and a lot of stories that we know about each other and about people that we know. It's like hearing about people moving to Nashville because they want to be a songwriter or a guitar player. These people have a dream, and they pack up everything they have and leave home. And maybe once they got there, what happened was not quite what they pictured playing out. But these people never give up. It's kind of about that. But it's not any one experience, really."
Helping fortify Richey's trio sound is a guest list that includes Americana mainstay Will Kimbrough, Pat Sansone of Wilco and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket. But another guest already had forged an especially solid bond with Richey's music.
In 1995, the year Richey issued her self-titled debut album, Trisha Yearwood turned her song "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)" into a career-defining hit. On "Thorn in My Heart," Yearwood returns the favor by singing harmony with new-generation Americana great Jason Isbell behind Richey on "Breakaway Speed."
"Trish is such a great singer," Richey said. "I finally asked her to sing on a record of mine because I never had guests on one before. As soon as she opened her mouth in the studio, Neilson and I were like, 'What else can we have her sing on now that we've got her here."
Having artists as varied as Yearwood and Isbell backing Richey on the same song also inspires a bigger question. Does her true artistic allegiance fall within the mainstream country camp that helped ignite her career or the indie world that has been her artistic home for many years?
"It's kind of too late at this point, really, to concern myself with that," she replied, laughing. "When I started out, I just wanted to make the best possible record I could of the music I really loved. Also, when I began recording at Mercury Records (which issued Richey's first three albums), I was given complete artistic freedom. I had that from the get-go.
"It's funny, really. As we were making my very first record, nobody from the label came by the studio. We were in there for a couple of weeks. So I called over to the label, even though I didn't really know anybody that well back then, and said, 'You guys know we're in here, right? You know were making a record?' They said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'But nobody's been here.' They said, 'We were waiting for you to invite us over.'
"That's pretty extraordinary, I think."
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