Critically lauded yet commercially neglected, Kim Richey emerged in the early 1990s as similar singer songwriters were perplexing the musical public. Richey’s genre, whose Patient Zero was the 70s fan who found Linda Ronstadt before she teamed with Peter Asher and stuck with her after, would ultimately acquire a name – Americana.
The moniker helped artists like Shawn Colvin and Sheryl Crow become headliners, with record sales to match. Richey forever bubbled under, but based on her body of work, she’s arguably she was the best of the bunch. Bitter Sweet, released in 1996, is a masterpiece, from the Beatlesque twang of “I Know” to the pure gem “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)” – the latter a big hit for Trisha Yearwood.
Five more albums made over the following two decades were equally stellar, featuring production from the likes of XTC’s Hugh Padgham and rock royal Giles Martin. Making a case for her as a musician’s musician, 2013’s Thorn in My Heart included a Jason Isbell co-lead vocal (with her old pal Yearwood on harmony) on the brilliant track, “Breakaway Speed.”
Richey’s latest, Edgeland, is among her best. The title alludes to the confusion that’s dogged her career. “For me, it’s the place or spaces in between where the country kind of meets the city,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Places where I have always been the most comfortable, and where my music lands. No one knows what to do with me. Is it country? Folk? Pop? And I think as a person I am more comfortable in those middle places, too.”
“Your Dear John Letter” is a love song wrapped in a working man’s lament that Bruce Springsteen might have penned had he lived in 1930s. It’s one of new record’s standouts. Another is “Not For Money or Love” – it was written about Richey’s father, who died when she was four.
The song’s evocative opening lines – “I was a young man the day that I drowned, I was married with one on the way” – came to her during a co-writing session with Harry Hoke. “I never wrote about my Dad,” she said. “It just came into my head and I said, ‘well okay, I guess I am writing about this now.’”
She built the song’s story around a newspaper clipping given to her by a cousin. “It was mysterious; they could not figure out what had happened,” she said. “He had been out on a boat with a bunch of other people … one guy decided to swim back to shore, and my dad did the same. One guy made it; my dad never did. Lot of questions about that … once I started, it was just really easy to write.”
Richey grew up in Ohio, and has traveled the world. In a press release for Edgeland, she described having her belongings in storage, her life a “state of constant motion.” During the interview, she was in Vancouver; the week before was spent at an artist colony in Banff. She’s lived in England, California, Nashville, Australia, and other far flung places. But her spirit of wanderlust wasn’t about leaving the Midwest.
“Ohio has never been a place for me to get out of, but I always knew there was more out there,” she said. “I think that came from reading. I was the first person to go to college in my family and of course that opened up a lot of doors. I was a reluctant traveler at first, because I remember when I was a kid, somebody new would come to the school and I always thought that would be the worst thing in the world … go someplace where you didn’t know anyone.”
An accidental trip to Europe was the spark; a group of her friends applied to work in a Swedish summer camp; only she got accepted. When the stint ended a few weeks early, she hung around because she didn’t know how to change her flight reservation. “I had never been on a plane before,” she said. “I ended up hitchhiking around for a month on my own … as scary as that was, I thought, ‘well, I can do just about anything.’ Now, the more places I see, the more I want to see.”
At an upcoming show in Portsmouth, Richey will perform with a trio. “It’s usually me and a guitar player and now we have someone coming along to pay bass,” she said. “He’s a really beautiful singer, so you have three of us singing … I try to play new and old songs.”
When: Sunday, April 15, 7 p.m.
Where: The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $22 at themusichall.org