This is no time for faint hearts. The pandemic might have silenced the music scene, shuttered the live circuit and divided artists from their fans. But with Heart Of Fire, Texas’s favourite new gunslinger Ally Venable is coming off the ropes swinging. Defying dark times and rolling up the amps, this fourth release from the acclaimed singer-songwriter is a record to rattle your speakers and signpost better times ahead. “My vision was to really spread a positive message of love,” says Venable. “The world needs that right now.”
If Heart Of Fire finds Venable giving the globe some much-needed love, then the feeling is entirely mutual. Still in her early twenties, the guitarist’s breakneck two decades have moved as fast as her fingers, her path winding from childhood church choirs to the teenage influence of local heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miranda Lambert. Early releases No Glass Shoes (2016) and Puppet Show (2018) earned her international fans, Top 10 chart placings and ETX Awards, but it was 2019’s #2 Billboard-charting Texas Honey and house-rocking sets on that year’s Blues Caravan tour that sent her stratospheric. Now, with Venable’s fanbase snaking further around the block every time she blows into town, Texas roots icon and Texas Honey producer Mike Zito is in no doubt: “Ally is the future of blues and the crossover music of American roots-rock.”
Not even a global pandemic could derail her momentum. Working at the Bessie Blue Studio in Stantonville, Tennessee last February with world-renowned producer Jim Gaines, Heart Of Fire finds Venable laser-focused on her songcraft, challenging herself to write with unguarded honesty, even if it hurts. “On this album, I really wanted to create a tone of overcoming your struggles and persevering through them,” she explains.
Like any battle, this record gets loud. Anyone who has left an Ally Venable show with ringing ears will come expecting rip-it-up guitar work, and Heart Of Fire is a lovely way to burn. In a world of electronic pop, this old-soul gunslinger riffs up a storm on the Led Zeppelin-worthy sting of Hard Change and Do It In Heels, revs up the slinky hook of Sad Situation and drives the title track’s intro with a heavy-booted wah lick. “That song is about being in a state of sadness,” she explains, “and someone comes along and brings you out of it, and then nobody is able to take out your flame.”
The only player who could follow her fretwork is special guest Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who tears up Bring On The Pain. As Venable says: “That song is about loving someone, staying true to yourself during the bad times and saying, ‘No matter what’s going on, my love won't change’. Kenny is one of my heroes, so I’m very honoured he said yes to be a part of the song.”
While nobody is better at squeezing fresh juice from the blues-rock genre, Venable’s songwriting frequently forks into leftfield. There’s the chain-gang stomp of Hateful Blues, its lyric cursing a cruel lover (‘Oh, my love has been abused/and that’s why I’ve got these hateful blues’). There’s the pace-changing cover of Bill Withers’ classic Use Me, reborn here with congas, rubberband bass and a grooving lick. And don’t miss the impossibly wistful Road To Nowhere, with Southern rock great Devon Allman dovetailing with Venable on the chorus harmonies. “Devon jumped right into the song, elevated it and brought it to life,” she remembers. “His vision for the song aligned perfectly with mine, and I’m so happy with how it turned out.”
The same could be said for Heart Of Fire. Defiant, passionate, honest and raw, this is the record these times demand, from an artist who refuses to wait for the storm to pass, but prefers to dance in the rain. “My goal for this album was to give an outlet for people,” Venable considers. “That’s really where the core of these songs comes from…”