Dawn Landes made a deliberate choice about what kind of music she hoped to make when she approached Monument Records founder Fred Foster about producing her new album. Even so, Landes still had to prove her artistic worth to the 86-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member, who had mostly retired from recording 10 years earlier.
“He didn’t even Google me or anything. He never heard of me, so therefore I didn’t really exist,” says the Kentucky native, who relocated from New York to Nashville with her husband during the recording process. “I think I had to convince him I was a writer. At first he thought, ‘I like your voice.’ I came and I sang some songs and I think he thought, ‘OK, we’ll find you some good songs to sing.'”
Landes eventually sold him on her writing with a song called “What Will I Do,” a plaintive, sadness-tinged waltz about uncertainty. Her partnership with Foster confirmed, the two began an intensive period of listening, learning and singing myriad songs, both well-known and obscure (“He called it ‘woodshedding,'” she says) that would inform the choices on her new album Meet Me at the River, out Friday. With contributions from some of Nashville’s A-team studio musicians, the album comes steeped in the lushly orchestrated productions of the classic Nashville Sound era, when Foster was making a mark as producer of Dolly Parton’s early work and Roy Orbison’s classic period.
On her previous albums, Landes explored a wide variety of styles, from approachable indie pop and folk to the French-language album Mal Habilleé, also collaborating with Sufjan Stevens, Will Oldham and Norah Jones. There was always a noticeable country lilt in her bell-clear voice, but occasions where she leaned fully into it were the exception — as with 2008’s Straight Lines, when she cut a lively two-stepping rendition of Peter, Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks” with some veteran bluegrass musicians she met on the street in Austin.
“I thought, ‘I would love to make a whole album with this band. I would love to make a whole album like this,'” she says. That experience in Austin also turned out to be the first time she ever heard Jimmy Driftwood’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” which was perhaps prophetic: Landes recorded the Driftwood songs “My Church” and “What Is the Color of the Soul of Man” for Meet Me at the River.
Along with Driftwood’s relevant-as-ever plea for racial equality, Landes contributes her own timely message about protest in turbulent times with the stirring “Keep on Moving,” paying tribute to those who march in support of a cause. Inspired by activist Peace Pilgrim and her decades-long marches across the United States, the song has numerous parallels to the present.
“I just feel the urgency of the moment to get out there and have your voice be heard,” she says. “Also, I started to think about it, ‘Why do people do that? Why do people get up and walk?’ Because they’re upset about something or they’re moved by something.”
Elsewhere, Landes seizes upon different aspects of classic country songcraft. The title track on Meet Me at the River is a delicate, wistful number about reuniting with an old friend. She follows that with “Traveling,” a jangling anthem about the open road that evokes Car Wheels-era Lucinda Williams.
Also in the classic country tradition, Landes balances humorous, winking gestures like “Why They Name Whiskey After Men” against the sweetness and uncertainty of “How to Say ‘I Love You.'” Later, she yucks it up with Bobby Bare on the album-closing number “I Don’t Dance,” the result of a nerve-wracking visit to Bare’s home to ask about collaborating. “He was like, ‘Welcome to my house, play this song on Shel Silverstein’s guitar,'” she says. “That’s not intimidating or anything.”
Ultimately, it was Foster’s expertise in this area that helped Landes — who’s produced and engineered much of her previous work — choose the right songs and sequence the album. When necessary, he sent her back to the drawing board to find the simple kernel of truth and plainspoken language in those classic country songs.
“I was like, ‘Can you help me streamline this, whatever it is?'” she says. “I think really it was choosing the songs, and he did that. I brought him tons of songs and he said, ‘This one, this one, this one,’ [or] ‘This one doesn’t work.’ A lot of times I got, ‘It’s too poetic. We need conversational.'”
It was a nice reminder from one of country’s architects to stick with the basics — the way she had when she originally won him over.
“Simple is best in a country song,” she says. “Elementally that works with all music, but it’s just so obvious in country music. Say it plainly. Say something tongue-in-cheek. Find a new spin.”