The first time I ever saw Heidi Newfield, she was striding on the tables in a Music Row conference room. This was the winter of 2001, when her trio Trick Pony was being introduced to the media. I was relatively new to reporting on mainstream country music, which was hot and competitive. So Trick Pony left nothing backstage. They conjured an energy from an uncanny valley between a rural road house and an MTV party crib. It was either brilliant or a gimmick or a brilliant gimmick. But Newfield definitely had a feisty, whiskey-toned voice and a skill that was utterly unique for a woman in modern country music. She blew a mean blues harmonica.
Trick Pony enjoyed its three-album ride, landing a half dozen singles in the Top 25. Then Newfield went solo, landing a quick hit with the single “Johnny And June” about the first couple of country music, whom she had befriended at the end of their lives (that story is included in Episode 141 of The String). When her record label followed up with a single that she and her management did not think was the right call, it stalled at radio as they’d predicted, robbing the artist of precious momentum. She found herself in the 2010s with a lot of high-level believers in Nashville, a steady performing schedule, a lot of songwriting, but no clear musical identity for her post-country radio life. The plan to upend and remake everything began in early 2018.
“The concept (was) can I make a big old LP and fill it with really twangy honky tonk, singer-songwriter, blues and soul and capture all my influences in one? I just went to work on it. I just had to do it. I was on a mission,” Newfield said as we started rolling tape for the interview here. The album that emerged after many months is The Barfly Sessions, Vol. 1, which arrives on Friday, Aug. 28. “It is a reconnection to the fans, a reinvention. It’s an evolution,” she says. “I’ve come to a place where I just wanted to cut a great honest record that sounded like 70s radio, where you didn’t know what was coming next. It’s a bit of a risk.”
The putative title track “Barfly” encapsulates well the team and tone of the album. Co-writer Leslie Satcher is a Nashville icon from Texas who’s never sacrificed an iota of country integrity as an artist or song crafter for the stars. A long time friend and collaborator, Satcher is part of most songs on the album. Also in the room were Heidi’s fiancée Matt King, an iconoclastic artist himself, and Jim “Moose” Brown, acclaimed studio musician and member of Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, the album’s producer. The track portrays a brassy woman’s ownership of all late-night situations via a honky tonk churn, big gospel BGVs and distorted harmonica.
It’s one of several tracks that find Newfield totally at home in a genre of roots music most easily thought of as roadhouse blues, a style of R&B with its own Texan swing and soul. The master of the concept is Delbert McClinton, who appears here in a voice and harmonica duet on the song “The Blues Is My Business,” one tune Newfield did not write. “I’ve always loved Delbert’s playing and his phrasing and his choice of notes,” she says. “Delbert’s one of those guys who doesn’t move around a lot on stage but when he pulls that microphone up to that mouth, there is something magical that happens. When that gritty raw raspy powerhouse voice comes out, there’s just this greasiness to it. And his groove, it’s a very specific flavor he serves up.” She’d only met him once, but on that occasion, he’d watched her perform and given her big props, so she sought him out and he joined the track with gusto.
Barfly Sessions also features a number of deeply effective ballads and emotional churners, from the Memphis R&B of “Three Things” to the mournful country of “Whitley’s Tombstone” and the vulnerable “Temporary Fix (For A Permanent Scar),” which Newfield wrote with King and emerging Americana light Waylon Payne. Newfield is already working on the songs for a Vol. 2.