Kelly Hogan, bless her heart, describes herself as "a big juicy goober." She's the post-punk version of a Southern good ol' gal, devoid of the pretenses of divahood, the stylistic adornments of the sophisticated chanteuse. Yet the release of Hogan's "Beneath the Country Underdog" blows her unassuming cover. Beyond the self-deprecating persona -- always the buddy, never the vamp -- lies a voice of such soulful depth and interpretive command that it all but demands to be measured for the tiara and elevated to the throne.
In short, "Underdog" is star time -- a triumphant return to the spotlight for a singer who enjoyed indie-rock acclaim a decade ago with Atlanta's Jody Grind, but who has more recently been working behind the scenes, as a publicist for Chicago's scrappy Bloodshot label. Though the album arrives from Bloodshot in the guise of an alternative-country release -- produced by Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers), backed by his Pine Valley Cosmonauts -- it shares more in spirit with Dusty Springfield's classic "Dusty in Memphis," the country-pop crossovers of Patsy Cline or even the languid bluesiness of Billie Holiday than it does with the honky-tonk punk of Hogan's labelmates. Such comparisons suggest just how far Hogan's brand of artistry has fallen from fashion. These days, it's startling to hear a singer who can crawl inside a song rather than climbing on top of it, who treats the material with interpretive respect instead of reducing it to a platform for self-conscious displays of vocal gymnastics. The dynamics of contemporary divahood tend to exhaust artist and listener alike; ears attuned to the screech make it all the harder to hear a whisper.
Yet anyone who happens to hear Hogan caress a lyric will find the seduction difficult to resist. From the shellshocked tenderness she brings to Willie Nelson's "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone" to the luminous surrealism that shimmers through Stephin Merritt's "Papa Was a Rodeo" and the lubricious romp of Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty's "Wild Mountain Berries," Hogan displays the emotional equivalent of perfect pitch. Where so much singing is larger than life, and thus less than true, Hogan's art betrays no artifice: She enhances the material rather than distracts from it, never overselling herself at the expense of the song.
Her defiance of conventional categorization is both an artistic blessing and a commercial curse. Though the Jody Grind attracted a rapturous and growing legion of fans, the band had the misfortune to be a few years ahead of the curve on the swing revival, which could have belatedly provided a context for its cabaret-style homages to the sophistication of George Gershwin and Burt Bacharach. Unfortunately, before that could happen, the band suffered a far greater misfortune: a fatal car crash after a 1992 gig. Hogan stayed behind in a hotel; the bassist and drummer were killed.
After disbanding the Jody Grind in the wake of the tragedy, Hogan retreated from the spotlight into the shadows of indie obscurity, playing guitar instead of singing leads in the Rock-A-Teens and releasing a lo-fi buzz of a 1996 solo album with the typically self-deprecating title, "The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear." When she moved to Chicago the following year and took the job at Bloodshot, she was more concerned with paying her credit-card debts (amassed over years of touring) than with advancing her musical career. Yet it wasn't long before label's roster began coaxing her into their sessions. Her contributions to Langford's Pine Valley Cosmonauts' celebration of Bob Wills, a Knitters tribute and Alejandro Escovedo's Bloodshot studio debut showed that her smoky alto could waltz effortlessly between the uptown cabaret and the country roadhouse.
Characteristically eclectic, "Beneath the Country Underdog" adapts its title from the autobiography of jazz great Charles Mingus and its style from an intimate synthesis of jukebox country, Southern soul and tuneful pop -- finding common ground for sources as diverse as Johnny Paycheck and Percy Sledge. Even the original material evokes a timeless past that transcends categories, as "Gone" (one of three on the album written by Hogan and guitarist Andy Hopkins) offers brief tribute to Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," while the gospel chorus on Langford's "Mystery" suggests a musical cousin of the Band's "The Weight."
The Band's own songbook provides the album's benediction, as Hogan transforms the closing "Whispering Pines" into prayer set to melody, channeling the ethereal strains of the late Richard Manuel and Rick Danko into a refrain of eternal wistfulness. There's a ghostly evanescence in the way the call of Hogan's vocal coaxes response from Langford, whose roles then reverse so that she supplies the echo. When Hogan sings, "The lost are found," she brings fulfillment to the loveliest piece of music we're likely to hear this year.