One might think of “the ingenue”—the innocent and cute young woman just arriving in town—as an artifact of the obsolete. No one is an ingenue for long, and if you're Scarlett Johansson or that sylph from Bridgerton, you only get one season as the girl in the pearl earring. After that, though you're still pretty, you've probably had sex.
Another apparently obsolete chunk of the 20th century is the EP (extended play) record, four to six cuts or so, which was devised as a vinyl stop-gap between the 12-inch single and the 10-cut LP. (My candidate for the greatest EP of the rock era is the Pretenders' appropriately-titled Extended Play, from 1981). I’m not exactly sure why “EP” is still a format. Do people “buy” EPs? And yet when you browse country new releases on iTunes, there are a million of them.
They go together now, EPs and ingenues. I think record companies, which still exist, look at an extended play as a tryout. A 12-cut LP (much less the 24- and 36-cut downloads now in fashion) takes a lot of time and, if it's going to sound professional and finished, a substantial investment of resources. A mere single from someone nobody ever heard of barely makes a ripple. It doesn't establish a sound or a persona. The strategy: designate a single and release an EP. If it does okay, expand it next year into a deluxe long-player.
Every Friday brings a new crop of young female country singers and their extended plays. It gets hard to distinguish among them: they come quick, might have similar names, and are almost all pretty and blonde (though maybe a country singer now should look more like Sunny War). These white-girl talents have a bit of a “cannon-fodder” quality: I bet the moment of signing the contract is a moment of ecstasy where she's sure she's made it. But then only one in 20 turns out to be Lainey Wilson or Ingrid Andress and the rest sink without a trace, or are still playing VFW halls in Dillsburg.
This can be a real shame. I keep falling for ingenues and then never hear from them again. There've been 10 or more excellent and intriguing EPs along these lines this year, but it gets hard to remember which ones to return to. Taylor Edwards, Meghan Patrick, Karley Scott Collins, Lauren Watkins, Jordana Bryant, Jenna Paulette, Belles, Leah Marie Mason, Mackenzie Carpenter, Alana Springsteen, Meg McRee, Mae Estes, Jessi Wilson, Kaitlin Butts, and Emily Nenni are among the recent extended players. A number of them ought soon to be famous country singers, their songs of innocence registering more and more experience, their voices taking on a certain patina as they age. Few will be. But I'll pick out a few that should be cherished, on the sad supposition that they are likely to disappear. (I did at least give a sentence or two to the rockin' Mackenzie Carpenter and Belles back in February.)
If "country ingenue EP" is a genre, it's impossible to imagine a more ingenuous title for an EP than Introducing Lauren Watkins. For a country singer, true innocence is compatible with the first run of experience. "I'm a dive bar downward spiral shitshow lately," Watkins claims on "Sleeping in My Makeup," though it's a little hard to see it. As with a number of these young women, it seems like Miranda Lambert is the primary influence: they're traditionalists, and also party girls, and also people that you really shouldn't fuck around on. But you get the feeling that Lauren's bad hangover is one of her first. Meanwhile, she sings beautifully and intensely and amusingly on seven good songs here.
If I had to pick one of these people to promote immediately to star, it would be Karley Scott Collins. She definitely looks the ingenue part: Barbie made a record! Which is often my first thought on encountering another ingenue EP. But that voice isn’t what I was expecting to come out of that body. It's low. It's sexy and knowing. It grabs you where you live and squeezes. But mostly it's very distinctive and compelling and I want it coming out of my radio right now. This is a tasteful and well-crafted selection of songs too, Hands on the Wheel, with a poppy yet bluesy sensibility.
I like the "cover" of Leah Marie Mason's Honeydew and Hennessy, which features Mason dressed all in innocent white (admittedly, it's corset, peignoir, and garters), standing in a field and sipping on a pint. This captures a certain mood: half “what the hell are you doing?” and half “fuck yeah!” Also she's one of a number of stars and potential stars who've emerged from the Belmont University country music program in Nashville. Her song Red Ruby Boots ("I'm a different kind of woman when I've got my red ruby boots on") seems to summarize the whole EP-ingenue sensibility, or what it's like to be a young woman now.
If we're looking for ingenues with the staying power to end up as veterans, Mae Estes is definitely promotable. "I stopped smoking that stuff you're rolling a long long time ago," she tells one hapless chump at the bar, and in general a country ingenue—unlike many other kinds of ingenue—will tell you, and then you will have been told. A country ingenue, like many other kinds of ingenue, is pretty, but unlike many other kinds of ingenue, she’s also liable to be pretty heavily-armed, pretty tequila-oriented, and just about to kick your sorry ass to the curb. On the other hand, there can be no more traditional song than Thinkin Bout Cheating. But that Mae is only, so far, thinking, and kind of feels bad about it, registers the ingenuous.
I hope it goes extremely well for these four, at least, and one way we'll be able to tell is if these EPs expand into LPs later in the year. They all ought to, but I'm demanding Karley Scott Colins on next year's ACM awards.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell