Stompin' Ground

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Everyone loves a Southern gal, right? Even if you don’t buy into the whole “demure by day, naughty by night” stereotype that’s dogged our fair belles since plantation days, there’s always going to be a certain mystique about these creatures with earthy twangs and veiled sensibilities. Once in a while the music biz falls under their spell, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch on Arista Records’ part, back in the early ’90s, when they attempted to groom Georgia singer-songwriter Michelle Malone as a kind of Southern Melissa Etheridge.

The gritty-voiced Malone, who’d come up through the ranks of the Atlanta roots-folk scene as a friend and contemporary of The Indigo Girls, played the game at first, tirelessly touring with her band Drag The River, but she quickly tired of serenading suits and glad-handing goons and fled the major-label whirl. (Fiercely independent streaks can be counted among Southern women’s traits too.) If she’d played that game she might be as big as Sheryl Crow now, so it’s doubly gratifying that her latest, ninth, studio album is a jaw-dropper.

Adopting the bandleader moniker “Moanin’ Malone” and backed by a floating musical collective called the Low-Down Georgia Revue, Malone serves up a set of well-seasoned tuneage deeply marinated in Beggars Banquet, Copperhead Road, Long Player (Faces), Motel Shot (Delaney & Bonnie) and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (Black Crowes). Right off the bat, with the greased-up “Lafayette,” Malone serves notice that she’s here to kick up some dust, wielding her slide guitar like a whip and singing with the conviction of a young Bonnie Raitt.

The album as a whole is well-sequenced for maximum effect, deftly balancing good-timey numbers (among them, the R&B flavored, Hammond B3-textured “Cypress Inn”) alongside dynamic roadhouse rockers. One standout track is “2 Horns and 2 Wings,” a rousing, harmonica-fueled Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley shuffle that sizzles with boozy, unrestrained randiness (“I got a girl in Georgia/ She hollers and she growls at me/ She scratches and she bites/ God knows that I can’t get no sleep/ She keeps me up all night/ That pretty l’il blue-eyed angel/ She knows how to keep me in line”). And the anthemic talkin’ blues “Flagpole” is a lucid, well-aimed indictment of the Bush-era status quo sung from the perspective of anyone — Southern, female, poor, gay, etc. — who’s ever been marginalized: “Questions in the air/ Confuse the pulpit with the prayer/ Religious right with the government/ Who gets the vote but don’t represent/ Me.” Malone fairly spits out the word “me,” her lips no doubt curling into a Dylanesque sneer that makes her outrage palpable.

Stompin’ Ground is one of the year’s best Americana releases and the fact that it’s steeped in Southern style makes this particular writer, who was born and raised below the Mason-Dixon line, extremely proud. I can’t tell you if she’s demure or naughty, but I’ll be first in line to open the car door for her — or pour her some tequila shots.

E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].

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