By Rod Peck
I had had Feb. 21 circled on my calendar for some time as the date when Muscatine’s own Monica Austin was going to open the show for country legend Wynonna at The Rust Belt in East Moline.
Then, Terri and I decided to take a fairly major trip only two days later, which would require some serious preparation, and so we decided to have dinner at our favorite local pizza place, Salvatores Ristorante by Papà Reno on E. 2nd Street; then I took her home and headed off to the Quad Cities, this time all alone.
I had been equal parts excited and fearful about this show, as I’m always hoping that up-and-coming artists will do well, but there is also the small worry in the back of my mind that “I sure hope they don’t suck” heh heh.
Fortunately, in this case my fears were groundless, as I found in Ms. Austin a potential country star, living right here in Muscatine! Since Wynonna needs no review or introduction, I’ll keep my focus here solely on our local star……Monica Austin!
Upon her stage entrance, Ms. Austin launched right into a song I knew; it just took me a moment to recognize it as Elle King’s breakthrough hit from 2014, “Ex’s & Oh’s.” I liked this selection right off, and as I began to gain understanding of Ms. Austin’s style, it really seemed perfect for her stage persona as a strong-willed woman.
From there she went to one of her original numbers, “Chicago,” and despite having never heard the song before, it really stirred an emotional response from me on first listening. From this point, Ms. Austin’s set blended well-chosen covers that showed off her vocal abilities and the musicality of her band with originals that highlighted her songwriting talents. Among her covers were a terrific version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s In Love With The Boy.”
Ms. Austin credits Wynonna as the performer who first inspired her as a young girl, and the opportunity to open a show for her was a major step in her career. “That night was one of those you hope and pray for, and then when it happened, it actually exceeded my expectations,” Ms. Austin told me, adding that “It wasn’t the biggest show I’d done in terms of audience (about 700), but having the opportunity to open a show for Wynonna was a truly special experience.”
Ms. Austin, 36, grew up mainly in the small Illinois towns of Silvis and Sherrard, and formed her first band in 2012. She has a four-song EP out now which I’ve listened to extensively since the show, coming to know and appreciate songs I heard for the first time at The Rust Belt.
As one of the more insightful moments from last year’s “Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns” was Marty Stuart’s comment that songwriting is the most abstract and even mysterious part of the music business, Ms. Austin’s abilities in this area take her to another level.
To sing a song is one thing; to write one, especially a good one, is quite another. She writes in an intimate, slice-of-life style and has a positive knack for the type of powerful hook lines on which Country classics are built. “Semper Fi” comes from her experience living in a military town and takes the United States Marine Corps motto, combined with her own catch-phrase, “I’m a woman who gave you my man,” into a song that I can easily hear becoming an anthem for all the wives of American soldiers who are overseas.
My favorite of Ms. Austin’s songs is “Chicago,” a song about a dedicated single mother taking an opportunity for a small bit of romance in her life that builds into a striking emotional crescendo with its chorus of “Chicago. . .it ain’t that far” in a wistful, yearning expression of the human condition.
One other pleasing aspect of Ms. Austin’s EP is how it demonstrates her versatility as a writer. The third track, “Mamas Don’t Leave” takes the emotional baggage Ms. Austin carries from a childhood of having a drug-addicted mother and being separated from her younger brother at an early age, then juxtaposes that with her own adult desire to be the best mom she can be. The final tune, “The Thomas Davis Show” celebrates the life of a party-loving friend who unfortunately died too young.
Ms. Austin recorded these songs with her band at Joy Avenue Media in Bettendorf and has plans to take these along with others she has written for a complete album to be released later this year. Having seen her perform and listened to her EP, I feel fairly certain Ms. Austin could be successful in her endeavor to become a Country star, providing she gets the right breaks.
I’ve been thinking back to the trip to Nashville that Terri and I took a few years ago and how there are talented bands playing the honky-tonks and bars on Broadway in the middle of the afternoon there, and I understand the challenge Ms. Austin faces in bucking the odds.
However, having talked with her just a bit, I know she has the determined attitude it takes to be undaunted by those odds, and I’m ready to support her all the way to Music City. Look for “Monica Austin Music” on facebook or go to monicaaustinmusic.com to find out more!