“One of the best things about country music was that it was adult music,” Erin Enderlin says of the country songs she grew up listening to in Arkansas. “It was real music that dealt with hard issues in life so that people going through those things don’t feel so alone.”
The observation is signature Enderlin: She has a way of turning a song or even just a thought into an outstretched hand to the lonely or ashamed. While she first turned heads as a godsend to those aching for an artist with some golden-era country backbone, Enderlin’s acclaimed 2017 record Whiskeytown Crierfirmly cemented her as something more. She’s a literary songwriter and superb vocal stylist with a knack for sharply drawn––and often sad––characters. Backsliders, avengers, lovers, and victims––they’re all swapping forlorn tales on the collection, which is a fresh take on the concept album set in a small Southern town.
Now, Enderlin is home in Nashville, reflecting on that record and the past couple of years as she enjoys a little downtime after opening a run of shows for Jamey Johnson. 2018 was an especially busy year for the singer-songwriter. She was named a member of the 2018 CMT Next Women of Country, a recipient of the Arkansas Country Music Awards Songwriter and Album of the Year recognitions, and runner-up to Jason Isbell in the Best Singer-Songwriter field in the Nashville Scene’s touchstone Best of Nashville issue. Already a go-to writer for stars having penned mega country hits such as Alan Jackson’s “Monday Morning Church,” Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call,” Luke Bryan’s “You Don’t Know Jack,” and a host of other songs for Randy Travis, Joey+Rory, and more. Enderlin continues to add marquee cuts to her catalog including, “The Bar’s Getting Lower” recorded by Reba for her upcoming album Stronger Than the Truth. Terri Clark also featured five Enderlin-written gems on her Raising the Bar album and Whisperin’ Bill Anderson recorded and released her “Waffle House Christmas,” then featured her in the song’s beloved video. After hearing Enderlin perform on the radio broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry while en route there herself, Jeannie Seely decided to sing the song she heard Enderlin deliver, the gut-punching “I Let Her Talk.” This summer, Enderlin is up for six more Arkansas Country Music Awards.
The flurry of activity and opportunity shared, especially from the classic country giants who are still standing–– thrills Enderlin. “I can’t believe I got that Reba cut––it’s a lifelong dream,” she says. “It’s kind of ridiculous. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Are there more five-year-olds thinking, I want to play the Opry, and I want Reba to sing my songs!’ And then it happens?” She laughs, still high from the win.
If Enderlin is tired after all the creative hustle, she doesn’t let on. Instead, she sounds energized by her latest project, which she describes as sort of “evolution” of Whiskeytown Crier. Enderlin also plans to release four EPs throughout 2019. In a twist that stretches the possibilities of storytelling through song, each three-track collection will be driven by a single character. “I’m obsessed with characters, and the idea of being able to take that to the next level really appeals to me,” she says. “It’s ambitious.” She pauses and laughs again before adding, “But I do think it’s going to be something very cool.”
The first EP, Chapter One: Tonight I Don’t Give a Damn, proves “cool” is an understatement. Three songs follow a woman first introduced on “Broken,” a standout Whiskeytown Crier track. “For me, it was interesting to think about how her situation was going to affect the rest of her life,” Enderlin says. “We may get certain ideas about a character right off the bat, based on a situation they’re in, and then, you’re entrenched. But what made this person that way? What happened to them?”
“Broken” reappears on Chapter One: Tonight I Don’t Give a Damn as the sorrowful anchor. A first-person look at how abuse creates a lifetime of reverberations, the song introduces a woman living with choices made––both her own and that of those around her.
Kicking off with pedal steel, “Till It’s Gone” picks back up with “Broken”’s protagonist, this time as memories haunt her in a seedy motel room. The mourning steel serves as a second narrator, crying between Enderlin’s poignant vignettes. “I don’t think you can have too much pedal steel,” she says. “If someone says you can, you probably need to get rid of that person because you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.”
The EP’s title track finds the woman, who is never named but so intimately known, settling for forbidden companionship and brown liquor in a dive bar. It’s one more example of Enderlin’s stealthy ability to make listeners pity instead of condemn. “I tend to gravitate toward the first person,” she says. “Sometimes there are stories that you can’t do that with, but there is a certain grittiness when you can––when you can take the character on and speak for them.”
The three songs could stand alone as winning modern takes on traditional honky tonk, but together, they create a layered story arc from a woman’s point-of-view that answers some questions even as it leaves listeners asking more. The result is a major accomplishment in musicianship, storytelling, and playing around with art’s established paradigms of delivery.
Enderlin is intrigued by new ways of reaching fans’ ears, and the EPs are just one dimension to her approach. She will also offer E-Clips and E-Covers: the first, social-media-ready snippets of songs made famous by others; the second –complete new versions of some of Enderlin’s favorite songs– released on Spotify, Apple Music, and other digital platforms. “I’m a huge musicphile,” she says. “What better way is there to get to know an artist than to learn what their influences are and what music they love, too?”
In the end, Enderlin is experimenting with country music’s form while honoring its roots––a rare blend that balances her need to challenge and embrace herself alongside an urge to meet people exactly where they are. “We all live hectic lives, which makes getting these little nuggets-–these songs––great,” she says. “You have extra time and attention for each song. It’s like, okay, this can be your baby today. You can really sink your teeth into this song and figure it out.”