REBECCA LYNN HOWARD
No Rules says it all.
As the title of Rebecca Lynn Howard’s debut album handpicked to launch the new Saguaro Road Records label, these two words sum up this songwriter’s approach to music in general but most specifically on this extraordinary release … extraordinary but not surprising, for fans have come to expect the unexpected from the young woman who has accomplished so much so soon.
Established in Nashville as a writer whose catalog has been mined by Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, John Michael Montgomery, Trisha Yearwood and other headliners, and in demand as a guest vocalist on sessions with the likes of Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, Howard has above all been celebrated as an artist in her own right since hitting the country music Top 5 with her album Forgive in 2002.
From the start, Howard has taken inspiration from throughout the broad vista of American music. True, she was raised in Appalachia, but there was more music around her in eastern Kentucky than the bluegrass and country with which she has been associated. Gospel flowed through that world as well, in more than one stream. And Howard drew nourishment from it all.
“My family’s sister church was an all-black, full-gospel church,” she remembers. “So I grew up singing that kind of music too. But even though I was bursting at the seams, wanting to bring out this soulful aspect of what I do, I never really touched on it in my albums – until now.”
Work on the project began several years ago, when Howard began feeling the urge to explore. From its earliest moments, the album embraced the idea of letting the music set its own direction, without category or preconception – with no rules. And the more freedom she allowed herself in her writing, the more this side of her creativity began to emerge.
“My approach to No Rules differed from what I was doing a few years ago because I consciously stepped back from the recording aspect and dove into pure songwriting,” Howard says. “Once I did that, my writing started to change. And as my writing changed, my way of singing and interpreting songs became completely different. It’s almost like I’ve been given a new voice, with a little more freedom and a lot more soul.”
The feeling in her music was evolving, reaching back to untapped parts of her past to invigorate her established sound. Howard rode this current from the writing stage to the recording studio too. It meant taking a few risks – but with no rules at play, these were risks worth taking.
Howard wound up heading out of Nashville to record in the remote neighborhood of Muscle Shoals, AL, whose place in R&B history mirrored the directions she was mapping out for No Rules. With producer Michael Curtis, a fixture on staff at the legendary Fame Music Company, she assembled a band that knew how to enhance great songs with a backup that’s both raw and tight. Then, over the band’s steamy grooves, she laid down the most emotional performances she’s ever committed to disc.
“I didn’t want anything overproduced,” she says. “I wanted an album whose tracks let the songs speak. Each song says exactly what I wanted it to say, so I didn’t want anything getting in their way. And that’s what we achieved.”
In fact, the spirit of No Rules was so irresistible that Howard upped the ante even more, by mixing a few R&B classics in with her new material. “It’s hard to take a song you didn’t write and make it your own,” she admits. “Of course covering something that, say, Aretha Franklin sang was more than intimidating, because nobody can sing like Aretha. But then Michael told me, ‘Look, nobody expects you to sing like her. They want you to sing it like you.’ And I really did want to pay homage to Muscle Shoals … so I sucked it up and went for it, all the way.
“Besides,” she adds, with a laugh, “it was fun to pretend to be Aretha, even just for a few minutes.”
No Rules, then, offers the familiar with the new, in the songs themselves and in Howard’s infusion of her country roots with a gospel passion. Even she admits to being surprised at the results of her work. “I heard that in particular on ‘What Dying Feels Like,’” she says, referring to the stunning ballad she wrote late one night in Georgia with her friend Rachel Thibodeau. “That song really speaks to me in a personal way. In fact, that’s the track vocal on the album; it was so live and real on first take that we had to keep it. The same is true of ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’: I was so moved, as I sang it, that it felt almost like I was back in church again – although it’s not a gospel song at all!”
It’s not easy for an artist to know what any new album signifies in the context of his or her career, but Howard already has a pretty good notion of what No Rules means for her. “I do think that No Rules shows how I’ve bridged the gaps I’d sometimes felt in my own music,” she muses. “I’ve always had touches of bluegrass, traditional country, pop and maybe a little bit of soul in my music. But I’ve always written and sung the truth. It’s not something I have to sell, because I only sing the truth. If it doesn’t move me, I won’t sing it. And for me, this album is as true as it can be.”
That, in the end, is the only rule that matters.