In a genre whose most famous characters are outlaws, country singer-songwriter Summer Dean is a different kind of renegade; she's unafraid to tackle everyday life and make it catchy as hell, too. Displaying the familiar self-possessed candor and honky-tonk stylings of her first LP, Bad Romantic, Dean's second full-length album, The Biggest Life (out June 16), slows down to revel in life's smallest moments, both joyful and sad.
"With Bad Romantic, I felt I had more to prove and I had my fist in the air," she says. "[The Biggest Life], it's honest and it's real and complex and simple at the same time."
Recorded completely analog at country singer and producer Bruce Robison's studio outside Austin, The Biggest Life thrives on the clarity and creativity created by stripping away digital recording's infinite possibilities. In a set of 13 forthright, vulnerable songs Dean puts her velvety alto through its paces as she ruminate on the highs, lows and humor in life as a self-assured single woman at an age where society expects her to be married with kids.
"I listen to a lot of songs and so many of them to me are all the same; and she had what I felt was a point of view that was poking out through this body of work," Robison says. "She'll talk about some things that seems like other people edit out and I think that's what's special about her is a real courage."
Deftly creating a 3-D picture of relatable emotions, Dean packs single woman's empowerment next to heartache, jealousy for the other woman alongside the catharsis of leaving a toxic ex, and humor about her requirements for a partner in with the profound loneliness of being single, even if it's the right choice.
"As an independent woman, I'm proud of that, and I'm proud of my capabilities. I'm capable of way more than I ever thought I could be. But at the same time, I also get sad about that," Dean says.
Before Unladylike, her 2016 debut EP, Dean taught third grade math. And in her second career, she applies mathematical precision to songwriting, cranking out one song a week in a songwriting accountability group.
It's the same work ethic that scored her Ameripolitan Awards' 2023 Honky Tonk Female (on her 43rd birthday no less), a hit duet with Canadian country singer Colter Wall, and opening gigs for the likes of Charley Crockett, Marty Stuart and Mike and the Moonpies.
"You don't have to know how to do something, or how it's going to turn out when you start it, you just have to have the guts to start it," Dean says.
With guts and wry wit, Dean kicks off The Biggest Life pickin' guitar on her front porch watching unsatisfactory little cars and single-saddle men on horseback pass by as she waits for the man she wants to pick her up in his "Big Ol' Truck."
Women singing about the complexities of womanhood have been an indelible part of country music since its inception. To that canon, Dean adds the nuances of her own story. As she leans into the complexities of her lived experience, she invites the listener to celebrate women who don't conform, rather than pity them. In between, she slots in her first foray into talkin' blues on "Bailing Wire," a cheeky track all about the ranch staple's merits, and an ode to her married friends ("Other Woman"), whose lives she sometimes envies just as they in turn yearn for the freedom her single life affords.
"Women my age made country music," she points out. "Now in my 40s, I have something to say. I have a feeling and I've had experiences which people can relate to and I can fly the flags because I've lived through it."
At the center of the album, its title track, "The Biggest Life Worth Living is the Small" extolls the virtues of appreciating whatever's right in front of you. Dean drew inspiration from the scene in Lonesome Dove in which Gus, her favorite fictional character ("sometimes I forget he's fiction"), puts his hand on Lori's cheek and tells her that if she wants to be happy, she needs to learn to love the little things in life. To remind herself and others to do just that, Dean penned an anthem devoted to the simple, good things she holds dear: hot coffee, friendly faces, sunshine, perfectly fluffy biscuits, evening light and good wine.
"Country music historically had a lot of just ridiculous vulnerability that you just don't know why that this music makes you feel better, it should make you feel worse, but it doesn't," Robison says. "And Summer had that vulnerability that she was not afraid to show, which I just found really refreshing and really kind of bracing and wild in a way."
Coming full circle to the album's opening track, Dean ties off The Biggest Life with "Lonely Girl's Lament," a meditation on the moments when being single doesn't feel free and fun; "Oh my god I can't believe you're 41 / you'd think you'd be divorced by now and done," she sings in the song's chorus. Dean lingers on mundane but lonely moments like waking up alone in king-sized bed and ordering chicken fried steak, knowing she can't finish a whole one by herself.
The album's melancholy close is Dean's love note to other women. "There's always room for a positive message and a high five and an 'atta a girl' and 'get yourself up,'" she says. "But sometimes when a song or a friend or loved one will get down there with you and be like, 'yeah, man, I know'... that's really empowering."
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