She released her most recent album with a folk-leaning sound, Traveling Mercies, in 2019 and it’s one of the best I’ve heard in terms of storytelling in a long time. It’s so good in fact, that it even made Whiskey Riff’s Top 40 albums list from that year.
She has plans to release another studio album this year, and I can’t wait to hear what she’s come up with since the last one. Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, she has a distinctively southern twang to her songwriting and singing that I find so endearing and relatable.
One of my favorite’s from her is a song called “Magnolia Queen,” the title track to her debut 2016 album.
She told the story of how she came up with the song on her 2017 EP Live in Birmingham, and it’s a good one:
“I was in high school, I was looking for ways to help pay for college, and so I entered what was called ‘a scholarship competition for young women.'”
If you’ve never been down south before, I’m gonna help you out. “Scholarship competition” is usually code for something else:
“And it turned out that it was actually a beauty pageant.
And yes, my girls from the south are laughing, ’cause they’re like, ‘Yeah, that sounds about right!’ It’s actually probably still alive and well in Alabama, it’s called ‘Junior Miss.'”
That’s right, it’s a beauty pageant. Think along the lines of Kacey Musgraves’ “Pageant Material.” Seriously…
“So I showed up somewhat unprepared for this experience, and then kind of blacked out the whole day because it was so traumatizing. But I mean it wasn’t that bad, I kind of sound bitter… I was a runner-up, but that’s just not really my scene.”
And as someone who has personal trauma from cotillion (they’re similar enough) back in the day, I get it.
She wanted the song to explore what life is like after all of that ends. It gets to the heart of what so many southern women face, I think maybe more than anywhere in the country, in terms of societal standards and expectations of what the “right” way to live is.
The chorus sums it up so well:
“‘Cause I had babies, he went to work, We raised the kids up in the church, Sundays I pray and sing, Mondays are for Junior League, Thought I wanted all those things”
Sure, it’s a pretty cynical take and not necessarily everyone’s experience, but it’s a very real thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love the south more than any other place. I’m from here, and I also believe it might be one of the most misunderstood places in the world, too.
It’s just different. Beyond what you may have seen in the movies or read in books about the stereotypes, it’s a complex place to figure out and really get a grasp of.
And I include myself in that group, because I’ve lived my entire life here and often find myself wondering where a lot of these ideas and rules came from and what the point is. I also find myself abiding by a lot of them, too. Like I said, it’s complicated…
I guess most people never truly figure it out, but Emily has a pretty good start: