The title West can be seen as identifying both the geographic realm where her talents were born and developed, and the stylistic sweet spot among country, pop and rock where the Austin, TX-based artist’s musical talents reside. Yet it’s in fact a tribute to her paternal grandmother, Juanita West, one of the original sources of power that gives Reese’s music its strength.
The album launches with the assertive and ironically-titled track “Fear,” an electric-guitar- fueled rocker that spotlights one of her wise rules for living and thriving: “You’ll learn how to live with it like the rest of us, my dear/Nobody sees clear… through fear.” The album’s first single, “Dozen Roses,” released in late 2018, flips the romantic gesture of its title into an assertive anthem of independence. Heralded as “magic” (Stereo Stickman) with “lyrics [that] cut right to the bone” (Skope) from “one of country’s premier young vocalists [and] a stunning songwriter as well” (Music Existence), the song inspired sky-high predictions. “Her ascent through the hierarchy of mainstream country music will be inevitable, and possibly unstoppable, once it gets started.” Or as Celeb Mix notes, “she has the vocal chops and songwriting ability to go all the way.”
The rest of the album bears out such praise with a winning display of Reese’s musical diversity. “Wild” is a fiery invitation to revelry followed by the swirling and mesmeric contemporary country of “Straight Fall,” which well expresses the yin/yang of tumbling into love (“You might be the one who changes my mind/Or you might just be the latest in a long line”). “Real Men” beckons males to do their duty with dramatic authority. Then Rachel amps up the rocking as she asks a lover “What You Gonna Do For Me” and ruminates on why “Good Girls” go for bad men. The sparkling melodies of “Bitter End” close the collection’s exploration of the ins and outs and ups and downs of love, with Reese seamlessly covering the emotional gamut from sweet, feminine vulnerability to the tough yet tender girl power of a thoroughly modern woman.
West was produced and arranged by Jesse LaFave, whose sharp work on a variety of six-string instruments form the musical spine of the album. The process began in early 2018 on the same weekend that Reese and LaFave learned that they would be welcoming a baby girl into their family in October of that year. It was recorded at Austin’s famed Cedar Creek Recording where such iconic albums as the six-million-selling, four-Grammy-winning Home by the Dixie Chicks and Uncle Tupelo’s breakthrough Anodyne were made. Special guests include steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines and such singers as Abra Moore (who co-wrote “Bitter End”), Grace Pettis and Christine Albert and Chris Gage on background vocals (which were arranged by Reese).
Throughout, Reese draws her womanly wisdom from growing up in a setting that could be from the lyrics of a country song: On a dirt road in the small Oklahoma city of Enid with her grandparents next door and great-grandfather down the road. She started singing at an age when most toddlers were still learning to talk. “My Mom said every time she’d play a song for me, I’d just soak it up and sing it back,” she recalls. That soon led to singing in church, school, talent shows, county fairs… basically wherever she could take a stage. “It was just something I did naturally.”
After finishing high school and a stint in college at Oklahoma State, Rachel’s musical dreams prompted her to stuff everything she owned into her car and head to Nashville – where songwriting is not just a major industry but suffuses the local culture – in order to sharpen her skills. “It’s the place where the craft of songwriting is still something that people take really seriously,” Reese notes. “The fact that the city’s many great writers could really turn a phrase and do the things that they do and had worked hard to become great at it was something that became a huge part of who I am as an artist.” On her very first night in town, Reese felicitously wound up on the stage at the legendary Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge just across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium.
She later moved west to San Francisco to study audio engineering, and while there fronted a band that played the Bay Area. A return to Nashville eventually resulted in Reese’s first EP, 2015’s Dark Horse, during which she also befriended a fellow musical talent, Jesse LaFave – nephew of the late acclaimed folk-rocker Jimmy LaFave – who grew up 50 miles away from her in Oklahoma. Their friendship eventually blossomed into a romantic and creative life partnership.
In 2014, LaFave was offered the opportunity to move to Austin to work with his uncle and eventually manage Cedar Creek Recording. For Reese it offered a new community where superior songwriting also pervades its culture. The Austin American-Statesman’s Blackstock heralded her second EP, 2017’s Siren, as “auspicious. Do512 noted how she “weaves songs that combine Midwestern sincerity with pop sensibility, and delivers them with a soulful voice that moves between strength and vulnerability with confidence and went on to say “Rachel takes her place among the rich landscape of Texas singer-songwriters with a voice and a vision that’s all her own.”
For Reese, the secret to musical success boils down to one prime directive. “You’re either telling the truth or you’re not telling the truth,” she insists. “I’m doing this for the long haul. I’m playing the long game.”
And the smart money is on Rachel making her indelible mark on music, “She’s got the sort of dynamic talent that country music was built upon, [and] she could do some really big things for the genre,” concludes The Indie Source. “There have been a lot of critics who have suggested country needs to grow up a little more if it has any hopes of surviving into the 2020s, and for my money, someone like Rachel Reese is exactly the type of artist we should be charging with such a task.”