The view from the stage can be disheartening. Squinting across shadowy, half full rooms in search of a friendly face feels like an exercise in futility, leading a persistent songstress from Pound, Virginia to question herself: “I just gotta wonder sometimes/If I’m not that special,” she laments. Still, she presses forward. Dim lights can’t obscure Reagan Boggs’ radiance.
That can-do, won’t-quit gumption permeates the dignified compositions on Quicksand, a gritty country album that refuses to shy away from life’s complications. Boggs spins tales of women and men who are bent, but not broken, seemingly forgotten, but unbowed. An equally compelling singer and truth-teller, she mines the emotionally rich terrain of everyday people seeking refuge from the circumstances that weigh them down. Some of their problems are external, others the result of their own actions. All are treated by Boggs with clear-eyed empathy.
Eric Fritsch’s largely contemporary, but never overly slick production fosters Boggs’ ability to connect with her audience. Content to let his artist’s words take center stage, Fritsch surrounds her with a strong mix of industry veterans including Steve Bowman, Park Chisolm, Matt Crouse, David Duffy, Paul Griffith, and Bones Hillman. The musicians’ unhurried, effective playing underscores the depth of Boggs’ lyrics.
Unsurprisingly, Boggs’ pen wields the most power when she turns her focus to home and hearth. Whether detailing the trials of Charlie and Grace, the weary protagonists of “Saving Grace” caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and illness, or the stagnant marriage of the couple in “Seldom Do,” she chronicles domestic life with the type of candor that can be frequently be found on fellow Appalachia native Patty Loveless’ albums. “I’m not happy with who you are/Can’t be happy with who you’re not,” she declares in a quietly devastating moment in “Seldom Do,” one of several that make Quicksand such a potent listening experience.
Even mundane conversations are handled with care. “You Deserve Better,” a frank duet with Dave Coleman of the Coal Men, captures the combustible tension present in a couple’s otherwise tepid union. Deceptively tranquil instrumentation contrasts with the pair’s long-simmering marital crisis. “We are performers without a stage/We know the lines by heart/We’re supposed to say,” Boggs and Coleman acknowledge, cognizant of the fact the couple is just barely maintaining the illusion of making a life together. In a refreshingly even-handed approach, neither party is assigned more fault than the other. While the resolution to the conflict is left open-ended, Boggs and Coleman’s assured performances showcase their strength as singing partners.
Notably, Boggs’ emotional connectivity stretches beyond her own material. Supported by Eric Brace on backing vocals, she offers a harrowing reading of Eddie Vedder’s “Better Man,” giving a first person voice to the physical and emotional abuse suffered by a woman who’s caught between lying to her partner and herself. Even though the narrator seems resigned to a perilous fate, Boggs’ flinty tone gives the audience hope that the victim might escape her bonds.
Even though Boggs’ songs detail people’s struggles, she also celebrates their resilience. Album opener “On A Bad Note” laughingly notes the silver lining to the prospect of a broken heart: “[It] may end on a bad note/but it’s still a good song,” she muses. A cheery ode to Boggs’ beloved “Appalachia” revels in the values and sense of community that keep her grounded. While not always easy, she concludes that “it’s a life worth living.”
Quicksand’s true value lies in Boggs’ willingness to expose and confront her own worries and fears in addition to those of her audience. Her desire to display this level of vulnerability allows listeners to answer her earlier query with certainty: Yes, Reagan Boggs, you are that special.