Somewhere in the midst of the horribly written Piggy James storyline, I heard that Mickie James was releasing a Country music album. In fact, some even thought her musical endeavours beyond the WWE were the reason for her being thrown into the storyline.
Wrestling rumours aside, I genuinely hoped the album would do well. Following her recent release from the WWE, however, I began to worry. Women who’ve left wrestling for the music industry don’t generally have a history of massive success. A back-up plan is always desirable. I really wanted to like the Strangers and Angels album, but looking at her former colleagues’ past performances, I feared it would be disappointing. For that reason, I almost didn’t want to listen to the album.
If there’s one thing I can’t lie about, it’s music. I can’t pretend something sounds great when it’s total tripe. I can’t plug an album which doesn’t make the grade just because I like the person behind it. So to review this record I had to divorce myself from who Mickie is and how fond I am of her, considering it solely as a debut album. If not ‘divorce’, at least separate temporarily.
The debut single, Are You With Me, is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. It might as well be a more delicate, female version of Trace Adkins’ Rough & Ready. The Southern clichés are littered throughout like country life checkpoints. The first verse alone mentions Chevy trucks, American manufacturing, cornbread and kicking it out in the sticks. She even rhymes ‘Southern Drawl’ with ‘Hey Y’all’. First singles are difficult to balance though. They’re about making a mark and establishing an identity. In Mickie’s case it was about presenting herself rather than a wrestling character. It was about saying “Hey! Look! I’m a regular country girl just like you!” If nothing else, it’s catchy and swims around your head after just a couple of plays, regardless of whether you want it to or not. Also, first singles aren’t necessarily representative of an entire album; so for me it started at track two – Hollywood Movie Moment.
While the second track was co-written by Mickie and is likely to be more special to her, musically it’s missing something. Maybe it’s my own personal annoyance at the use of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as a lyric which irritated me; the worst ever being in Kelly Rowland’s Stole, the lyrics to which don’t make any sense, by the way. It should be Stolen! I digress. Hollywood Movie Movement is fine but it lacks any real punch. From I Call the Fight onwards though, the album starts to pick-up. Gentler and bristling with background mandolin, the third track feels richer than the first two, as does the title track. Strangers and Angels would not sound out-of-place being sung from the lips of more established country-ballad singers such as Reba McIntyre or Carrie Underwood.
Overall this is a solid record. It has several formulaic and somewhat generic moments, but sticking to popular Country themes is hardly a criticism in reviewing a Country album. It combines traditional slide-guitar heavy tracks in Fallin’ Over Again and When You Come Home Tonight with bouncier offerings in Dumb Bitch, Make Me Feel Like a Woman and I’m No Good at Pretending. The chorus to Freedom Song is so catchy I happened to wake up singing it one morning this week after hearing it just three times.
Vocally Mickie isn’t at all bad, but she isn’t the strongest singer on the circuit either; not when compared to the enormous lung capacity of say Kellie Pickler, Hillary Scott or Jennifer Nettles. This may have been a problem some four or five years ago but Taylor Swift, who has arguably the most recognisable voice in Country music at the moment, doesn’t produce the most powerful vocals either. She trades more on her personality and an overall performing package, which opens the door for others to do the same. Mickie could certainly tap into this.
Musically Mickie has done well and clearly she’s worked with some quality producers and writers. On first listen, by the time I was two-thirds the way through, I actually forgot I was listening to ‘Mickie James: Wrestler’. I found myself listening to it on its merits as a piece of music. My reservation with this album does not lie with its musical content however, but in whether Country radio will back it or shun it completely. Without radio airplay and video airings on CMT and GAC, the novelty will wear off rather swiftly. A quick search for ‘Mickie James’ on both CMT.com and GACTV.com brought back no results.
I came late to Country music. Before maybe ten years ago, I thought it consisted of Dolly Parton’s bosoms, Kenny Rogers’ beard and nothing else. Then a good friend made me a mixtape of some modern Country music. For all the kiddies reading, mixtapes existed before playlists. They were better. That’s all you need to know. Anyway, having fallen deeply in the love with Phil Vassar’s voice I became rather enthralled with contemporary Country music. I have since taken more trips to Nashville than I have fingers. Its passion for music is completely infectious.
What took me a long time to understand about Nashville, were the unwritten rules about musician/artist conduct and image. When I started listening, Shania Twain’s bare midriff was still a bone of contention for some of the more traditional executives on Music Row. Things have obviously progressed significantly since then. To draw back the younger audience is was rapidly losing, Country had to modernise and quickly. But the wholesome, family friendly notion it holds on to so firmly even now might be where Mickie James’ music career stumbles.
Yes, Mickie has a ready-made fan base in wrestling fans, but wrestling fans can sometimes be fickle. There’s no guarantee they’ll be around to buy her second record in such huge numbers. To really make strides in the Country, she’s going to have to answer some awkward questions about her early past. Will Nashville and country radio really accept a woman who has a dubious photoshoot floating around the Internet? A former wrestler? Wrestling may be a Southern obsession, but it doesn’t necessarily translate as a wholesome business to be involved with. Sara Evans never fully recovered after she aired her family’s dirty laundry in public, and she was already an established artist. Personally, if I enjoy someone’s music, I couldn’t care less what they did in their past or what their private life may hold. It doesn’t interest nor bother me. But Mickie has some big and outdated barriers to break through in Nashville, none of which relate to her music. If she succeeds, however, nobody will be more thrilled than I. The very best of luck to her!