Michelle Malone's latest fortifies and inspires
Atlanta rocker really is Stronger Than You Think
In January 2014, during a tribute concert at Symphony Hall dedicated to the music of Georgia native and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, Michelle Malone wowed the crowd with a scintillating duet performance, paired with none other than Gregg Allman, of the Ike and Tina Turner classic hit "I've Been Loving You (Too Long)." Despite occasional high-profile appearances and more than a dozen albums under her name, a few readers out there still might not be familiar with one of our city's finest musical talents.
An Atlanta native, Malone is a self-taught singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose Southern roots and gutsy swagger infuse her distinctive vocals and electric, slide, and acoustic guitar shredding with a skillet-load of hot buttered soul. This Saturday, Malone celebrates releasing her latest album, Stronger Than You Think, accompanied by cohorts Phil Skipper on bass, Reno Roberts on guitar, Linda Bolley on drums, and Trish Land on percussion.
Produced by Malone with drummer Gerry Hansen, Stronger Than You Think represents a notable shift in outlook from the introspective, autobiographical theme of her 2012 release, Day 2. "The music was inspired by friends and fans going through challenging times — fighting illnesses, taking care of aging parents, navigating the job market at 45 and older," Malone says. "There's a part of me in all the songs, but I consciously wrote 90 percent of the songs with these people in mind."
A few fun and light-hearted songs appear throughout Stronger Than You Think: "My Favorite T-Shirt" and "Fish Up a Tree." But most of the 13 songs are finely wrought ruminations on resilience, strength, and perseverance in the face of existential and personal struggle. Standouts include "Swan White," "Keep My Head Up," and "I Don't Want to Know," the latter of which was co-written with Malone's pal Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls.
Stronger Than You Think includes vividly rendered portraits of individuals ("Ramona") and joyful revelations of a personal nature ("I've Got an Angel"). Some songs serve as a springboard for rock 'n' roll mayhem and bluesy reflection; others offer quiet refuge within the folk ballad realm; a couple feature backing vocals by Ray and Sugarland's Kristian Bush. All feature Malone's unmistakable, smartly honed alto voice and instrumental support.
One selection on Stronger Than You Think offers a candid assessment of the composer's younger days prior to the redemptive chapters laid out in Day 2. "My mother was a nightclub singer till she found the Lord," sings Malone in "Vivian Vegas." "She and dad made me in the backseat of a Ford/She tried to teach me right from wrong, but we always seemed to disagree./At sweet 16 I ran away and promptly got arrested for mouthing off at the police down at the Greyhound station./I got kicked out of three high schools trying to get my rock 'n' roll degree."
The song's protagonist meets the devil in a limousine, parties with bikers in Cleveland, and bites off a sizable chunk of the hand trying to feed her. All of the episodes reinforce the refrain: "I've always been in trouble and trouble's always been in me."
In or out of trouble, for most of the past four decades, Malone has performed and recorded her own songs her own way, mostly for her own label, Strange Bird Songs. She's made a career out of confounding music industry conventions and kicking tail in an arena where few women have dared to venture. As a bona fide rock 'n' roll role model, it's hard to imagine anyone with a stronger spirit or more colorful, inspiring story to tell.