The first time I saw Kelly Hogan, she was onstage with Neko Case at Bimbo's. As a rabid Neko Case fan, I had already heard the smooth syrup of Hogan's voice doing backup duty on Blacklisted and other recordings. I recognized her when I saw her, and I even knew she had a dirty mind, from scouring the backwater Internet country-music-girl interview archives. But I still wasn't prepared.
In a technical sense, Hogan's voice belongs to a different realm than Case's -- you wouldn't want to compare Exene Cervenka to Jessye Norman. But there they were onstage together, and I couldn't help but notice that Kelly Hogan can sing circles around Neko Case. This is mostly a moot point (see above), but damned if it's not true, and that's saying a lot.
Like most of the Bloodshot Records gang, Hogan got bored with punk sometime in the 1990s and turned to country. She mined its self-destructive, problem-with-authority past for material and ignored contemporary Nashville's crappy hick-pop. On albums like Beneath the Country Underdog and Because It Feel Good, she paid critically acclaimed homage to the likes of Johnny Paycheck and the Statler Brothers.
Something sets her apart from the crowd, though: Country music is a lot like punk in that anyone can play it and most people can sound OK at it after a while. But if you have actual talent, country music gives you a better chance to show it off, and Hogan's instrument, like I said, kicks most other singers' asses -- hard.
Think Patsy Cline, because that's what came to my mind back at Bimbo's. "Holy shit," I thought, "a lady could do anything with a voice like that. Somebody get me Owen Bradley on the line." Cline's producer famously invented a new way to arrange country music just so people could hear her better; this would be entirely appropriate for Hogan. Screw DIY production scruff: Let us hear every breath, every throb, every note, even more.