On the heels of her band Nobody’s Girl’s eponymous album release with Lucky Hound Music, BettySoo is releasing a pair of new singles that find her covering two of her favorite songwriting heroes: Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” Both tracks, due out August 13 and September 17 respectively, were recorded live with her full band at Austin’s Congress House Studio in early May. It was BettySoo’s first time playing anywhere in actual person with other musicians in well over a year, after having just finished the Nobody’s Girl album with bandmates Rebecca Loebe and Grace Pettis before quarantine in early 2020.
“After a year of streaming shows from home lockdown, I found myself blasting songs on my stereo that reminded me of the ‘Before Times,’” recalls BettySoo, who dearly missed hanging with her friends at the Continental Club and performing for live audiences at venues all over the country. “I bet the neighbors wondered why I kept blasting the same songs through my thin walls, but I couldn’t help it. I had songs like ‘Ain’t Living Long Like This’ and ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ on repeat to remind me that one day there would be an ‘After Times’ beyond the pandemic. Once I was sure every band member was fully vaccinated, I corralled them all into Congress House to record.”
The Kerrville New Song Contest winner and seasoned veteran of countless recording sessions (both her own and as a guest vocalist on myriad projects for other artists: James McMurtry, Eliza Gilkyson amongst others) admits she went in feeling nearly as nervous as she did going into the studio to record her first album more than 15 years ago. “It’s hard enough not feel intimidated any time you attempt to cover such classic, iconic songs as those two,” she explains. “And it’s especially hard when you haven’t been in the same room to rehearse with your band in over a year! Still, I couldn’t resist the urge, and with Mark Hallman (Carole King, Ani DiFranco) producing, I was in safe hands. Plus, I just really believed that my fans would love cranking these up as much as I did, to celebrate all the live music that’s to come.”
Like Rodney Crowell, BettySoo grew up a “Houston kid,” as well. She can still feel the cold tile floor in front of her parents’ stereo, where she’d spend hours poring over liner notes, reading names like Crowell, Gretchen Peters, and Jimmy Webb in the songwriting credits on other artists’ albums and wondering about who they were and the lives they led. “I can’t remember when I actually first heard Rodney Crowell’s songs as Rodney Crowell’s songs,” she admits, “but I also can’t remember a time songs like ‘Ashes by Now’ and ‘Shame on the Moon’ didn’t exist.”
She would come to feel a particularly profound connection to “Ain’t Living Long Like This” beyond being stuck in her home alone, trapped by the pandemic. While “son of a carhop in some all-night dive” may not describe the origin story of this daughter of Korean immigrants, the big picture of generational abuse, substance abuse, charismatic religious fervor, and dysfunction are themes she relates to intimately. After reading Chinaberry Sidewalks (Crowell’s memoir published in 2011), the echoes of his childhood in the song made it ring with new meaning.
And her draw to Richard and Linda Thompson’s classic “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is equally personal.
“There’s something about the swagger of that song that kills me,” she enthuses. “The narrator is utterly confident about what she wants, and she’s not naïve, innocent, or sorry about asking for it. As someone who’s lived my life apologizing, trying to make everyone happy, and struggling with giving myself permission, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ is the stuff of my dreams. I fantasize about letting go of obligations and expectations this freely, and when I inhabit this persona and sing this song, I get to believe it …at least for a few minutes.”
Beyond even the powerful memories and emotions both songs evoke for her, though, as a discerning and duly lauded songwriter herself, BettySoo can’t help but admire the poetic mastery implicit in every line – and what their importance to her signifies.
“One day, I hope to craft a song as good as either of these – a song that’s tightly trimmed, anthemic, and paints a perfect movie in your mind but still fits comfortably and feels as casual as an old favorite shirt. On top of just loving these songs to death, as a songwriter who has struggled with depression most of my life, I usually try not to think about whether or not my work matters. Most of the time, it feels like a narcissistic or arrogant line of work to be in…but then I think about how much I needed these songs as a listener, and that helps me feel…maybe I am doing good work and leading a worthwhile existence after all.”