How Erin Enderlin Built a Country Career on Cinematic Storytelling
Erin Enderlin likes to give some credit to Reba McEntire for her decision to pursue a career in songwriting. As a young kid who was obsessed with country music, Enderlin came across an article about the “Fancy” singer in which McEntire’s mother had instructed the performer to start figuring out how to sound like herself and not like Loretta Lynn.
“For some reason in my 10-year-old brain, I thought maybe I should start writing songs because if I write songs and then I have to sing them, no one else would have sung them before. I’d have to figure out how to sing them for myself,” says the Arkansas native who, in addition to her own material, has penned cuts for Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, Luke Bryan, and in a recent full-circle moment, Reba McEntire.
Enderlin’s singing and storytelling is front and center on her new album Faulkner County, which takes its name from the place where Enderlin grew up. The project, which follows the 2017 release Whiskeytown Crier, compiles a four-part series of EPs Enderlin released throughout 2019, then adds in a couple of new songs. Each of those EP releases has its own thematic and narrative arc that builds richly detailed characters in just three songs.
“[You] get to see a little more, a couple different slices of somebody’s journey,” she says. “It makes you think about how a song doesn’t encapsulate their whole life — it’s a moment.”
On Faulkner County, the songs are sequenced differently and re-contextualized, but Enderlin’s knack for literary flourish still makes them appear in full color. “Gene Watson singing ‘Farewell Party,’ single barrel, double shot on ice,” she sings in the first line of “Tonight I Don’t Give a Damn,” immediately setting the scene and offering possibly the only Gene Watson shout-out of this young millennium.
“I like having a first line that hits me, and then going from there and seeing where the story goes,” says Enderlin. “Maybe I don’t have a very long attention span, but I like to be entertained as I’m writing the song too. A lot of times I don’t have a title — I just have those first couple lines. If it keeps me interested, I figure maybe it’ll keep somebody else interested.”
In “The Queen of Marina Del Rey,” Enderlin offers a cinematic tale of a woman with a messy, wayward past, reminiscing fondly about endless days of living hard and brushes with the glitzy, feverish side of Los Angeles. “I was working ’til 4, at the old Troubadour/Pink sunglasses on, like a young Elton John, into cocaine and boys” she sings at one point, the kaleidoscopic chord progression even nodding to Sir Elton’s early years.
“In my mind the woman in that song is a [now] mild-mannered PTA mom and nobody knows that she has this entire other life that she lived,” says Enderlin, laughing.
Enderlin’s material frequently deals with the darker corners of existence, like the country bedrocks of heartbreak and cheating she explores in “Sweet Emmylou,” and “Use Me Again.” But she also covers some new territory in “Broken,” singing a breathtaking, empathetic tale of teenage pregnancy aimed at dispelling some of the shame around the topic.
“I feel a lot of responsibility playing that song because that’s not my story,” she says. “I worked with a group in high school that did peer counseling [for] at-risk kids. There are so many girls, more than you would want to think, that were going through things like that. I had so much respect for them for sharing their story, and how strong they were.”
Outlaw hero Jamey Johnson co-produced the tracks on Faulkner County — which includes the stormy new tunes “Hell Comin’ Down” and “Run Baby Run” — with veteran songwriter/session player Jim “Moose” Brown. Keen-eared listeners will also hear the voices of Vince Gill, Cody Jinks, Dillon Carmichael, Alison Krauss, and Terri Clark singing with Enderlin at various points on the album. It’s not lost on Enderlin that she’s now getting to work with people she obsessed over as a kid.
“The other day, I got to do one of the CMA [Songwriter Series] shows out in Albuquerque, and I was sitting in my dressing room. Terri Clark was texting me a picture of her and Reba and being like, ‘What is my life?'” says Enderlin. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, Terri Clark — you’re texting me in my dressing room and I’m about to go play country music for a living, this is what I get to do. I don’t know what our life is, but I’m glad that we’re in it.'”
After nearly two decades in Nashville, Enderlin has had a couple brushes with the country mainstream. Her “Monday Morning Church” was a 2004 single for Alan Jackson, her co-written “You Don’t Know Jack” was on Luke Bryan’s blockbuster album Tailgates & Tanlines, and she also co-wrote Muscadine Bloodline’s viral hit “WD-40.” But by and large, she’s built a career by sticking with the lesson she learned from Reba McEntire and telling the kinds of stories she tells the best.
“I just love that storytelling, a little dark and twisty, edgier side of country. That’s what I want to do,” says Enderlin. “If I died tomorrow, I’d feel totally happy with the amazing things I’ve gotten to be part of, and also feel happy that as much as I could, I tried to do what spoke to me, what made me happy, what I believed in.”