For seasoned Americana artist Mary Bragg, her rawest, most personal album to date—Lucky Strike—appeared when she hadn’t even been planning to record a new album. After finding success writing for and with other artists (her co-written song “Easier Than Leaving” appeared on Michaela Anne’s recent release and was featured in Rolling Stone), Bragg had begun to consider devoting herself solely to songwriting.
Then, Lucky Strike co-producer Jim Reilley (of indie stalwarts The New Dylans) heard a few of Bragg’s songs and insisted that they be recorded. She agreed—but only if she could skip the fancy studios (and budgets). “Lucky Strike was recorded in a backyard barn studio, where the microphones are old, not expensive-vintage-old, just old. Where the pop filters have holes in them. Where the vocal booth is unfinished because real walls never got built. It’s where ‘recorded live’ is for real recorded live, and everything is exposed.”
The result is a stunning collection of songs that speaks to our common humanity with uncommon honesty.
Bragg was born and raised in Swainsboro, Georgia, a small town where family and church are primary pastimes. “As the youngest of four children, and with 21 first cousins on one side, there was not a lot of empty sonic space for me to fill. I grew up listening by default which made me a great observer, but it also made me hesitant to ask questions – out loud, at least.” It was in this context that Mary developed the ability to keenly study, describe and interpret her surroundings in ways that awaken powerful emotions.
“It took me a long time to actually give credence to my own ideas,” she explains. “Even in a loving family, you can tend to fall into habits. For me that was watching, listening and doing what I was told.” Bragg needed to step out of her beloved small town and tight-knit community to find her own space to grow, hone her songwriting craft on her own terms and discover the fullness of who she could become.
A trip to New York City would change her life. With their deep southern accents and matching neon t-shirts, her hometown youth group worked in the city’s soup kitchens. “I was fascinated by the chaos of the city, and for the first time, I was hungry to learn and explore. I knew I’d be back some day.”
Against this backdrop, Bragg’s latest record Lucky Strike was born. After college, she headed back to the big city to nourish her dream of launching her music career, but she was quickly dealt a big dose of humility. “There’s this feeling – no matter the dream – this desire to be seen, acknowledged; like you’re just waiting on that one thing that will get you to where you want to be,” Bragg explains about the title track of her latest album. She sings, “I’m counting on a lucky strike to pull me out from the back of the line, make it easier to climb the mountain, and put me up on top.”
“The song ‘Lucky Strike’ is bit of a sarcastic poke at hopefulness,” Bragg says. “Because it might feel like there’s just one thing holding you back, but it’s never that simple is it? And- it might even be your own subconscious hangups standing in the way.”
Themes around coming of age and leaving home for new beginnings run throughout the record. In “Comet,” co-written with Becky Warren, she sings of the intimate journey a young girl and her mother take moving through loss, sadness and uncertainty together. Bragg’s vocals soar while the lyrics probe the small and tender moments that connect us to one another.
“Wildfire,” co-written with Liz Longley, captures the desire to be consumed by an undeniable passion, to tap into the irrepressible need to experience a deep connection to another person. This drive to refuse to settle for less is propelled by an unforgettable chorus that insists, “There’s nothing like a wildfire, feeling you can’t put out, loving that you can’t turn down, I want a wildfire.”
With candor and subtlety, Bragg’s songs probe this common journey to discover our truest selves, outside of our families and communities in which we are raised. That’s how she approaches the craft of songwriting as well. “I truly believe that a good song will make people feel something — even prompt people to ask themselves questions that I ask myself when writing the song. I can tell stories most effectively when I shake off that resistance to honesty, because that’s when the songs best resonate with my audience.”
Since she made Nashville home in 2014, Bragg has become a staple in Music City’s songwriting circles. For Lucky Strike, she wrote with several rising stars in the Americana scene. In addition to Warren and Longley, she worked with Robby Hecht, Stephanie Lambring, Bruce Wallace, Liz Poston, and Vince Constantino.
Bragg brought together her long-time collaborators Rich Hinman (electric guitar, pedal steel) and Jimmy Sullivan (bass) for the new album, along with Bryan Owings (drums), Eric Fritsch (engineer) and Jim Reilley (co-producer).
Her previous studio recordings include Edge of This Town (2015), recorded in a West Oakland, CA studio after winning the Zoo Labs music residency contest, Tattoos & Bruises (2011), recorded in Manhattan in Norah Jones’s home studio and produced by Lee Alexander, and Sugar (2007), recorded in Brooklyn and produced by Darius Jones.
She has been honored in such prestigious songwriting contests as Kerrville New Folk, Telluride Troubadour, Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Wildflower! Festival, and the International Songwriting Competition.