Shealee can’t contain the music that’s in her heart and soul. Her soaring vocals rush out of her in a musical torrent, flowing over the rough edges of love, loss, and life. Shealee carries us over the sharp corners of our emotions in her instinctive and ingenious power to control her phrasing, to deliver a pop-inflected “oooh” to distract us momentarily and to add a joyous element to a string of depressing reflections or to weave exalted honesty in matter-of-fact vocals. Underlying Shealee’s powerfully delivered vocals is her even more straight-to-the-heart songwriting. Shealee shares her stunning vocals and emotionally fluid lyrics on her debut album Head to the Stone.
Shealee comes to music and songwriting naturally since she grew up in a family of musicians. Even though she fell asleep at nap time as a toddler to her father’s rock and roll band rehearsing in the basement of the family home, it took several years before the Michigan native, who now lives in North Carolina, to start writing songs and to embrace her own desire to sing and make her own music. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to play music for a living,” she says. Although she started playing violin when she was five, she didn’t pick up the guitar or start singing until her late teens. “I started writing songs and, eventually, I decided to play and sing at open mics. I also started playing guitar for myself, and that changed the way I thought about my music and my singing and songwriting.” Shealee met Tracy Horton and they formed a bluegrass and roots music band, Henry River Honey. The band successfully toured regionally for three years, and won the award for Best Bluegrass/Americana Band at the 2016 Carolina Music Awards.
After three years with Henry River Honey, Shealee left to make a solo album. She had never stopped writing, and she had an album’s worth of songs. Packing up her bags and her music, she trekked to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record Head to the Stone, which she self-produced in collaboration with Will McFarlane. The music blends country, folk, soul, with a little jazz and blues thrown in for good measure. Underneath it all flow Shealee’s way with a lyric and her ability to use a phrase or a word to dramatize a feeling or to redirect the emotional flow of a song. On “Constant Lover,” a slow-burning shuffle with a bright guitar line that explores the theme of constancy and loyalty, she delivers a nice little twist on the theme as she sings in the chorus over the cascading notes of a pedal steel guitar: “I loved you even when you know I shouldn’t have/You were my weakness until my dying day.” She captures cannily the can’t-live-with-you-can’t-live-without-you irony of a lifelong love.
Shealee delivers an up-tempo country folk tune on “Gnome in the Garden,” a story that looks at the ways we deal with our shortcomings and disappointments in life. Opening with bright, brisk guitars, the song moves along breathlessly to consider “every fault, every folly, every wrinkle, every story” the singer sees as she stares at her image in the mirror. She knows she can’t wipe them off, as hard as she tries, but she nevertheless finds “beauty in the things that are worn and weathered.” Like the little figurines that adorn many gardens, she can take it all in, look all around her and see the changes that have occurred over time, but she can smile knowingly at all of them, knowing that she remains the same. “I stood there, took it all in/Like the gnome in the garden he’s been there forever/Has a smile on his face no matter what he’s facing/I’ll be there standing strong when the sun comes out.”
“Suzanna” is a poignant tribute to songwriting and the muses writers call upon for their inspiration. While Shealee doesn’t think of herself as prolific writer, she feels like the “Muses are up in the atmosphere and the songs are waiting to be grabbed onto. Sometimes I am driving down the road and an idea or a line will come,” she muses. “I don’t try to force a song. I think about it all day long; sometimes for weeks or months. I have to wait for a song to tell me what it wants to be.” On “Suzanna” she sings of the many “Suzannas” who’ve inspired writers from Leonard Cohen to Stephen Foster to Guy Clark.
Shealee describes the title track as one she “let sit long enough,” and it became a song. The brisk pace of song belies its subject—grave digging and cemeteries. Shealee cannily turns a minor chord musical structure into a galloping, rolling, tune that tells the story of a grave digger who toils in the graveyard to lay a dead one’s “head to the stone” but who nevertheless pauses to pray for the soul of the body he’s burying: “I pray you make it home to Jesus.”
Shealee is a bright presence on the music scene. She tells compelling stories, moving listeners with her melodies and her stories and shining a brilliant light with Head to the Stone.