Saturday Night Barn Dance #001
oday, Thomas Inskeep and I inaugurate a new recurring column on contemporary country music, wherein we aim to survey the landscape of the genre by briefly considering some of its more notable and/or superlative recent releases.
Now, had we devoted this column to covering Afrobeat or spoken word hip-hop or pigfuck noise, a simple introductory statement of purpose would have likely sufficed, there being no real need to justify the mere fact of writing about these scenes and sounds in a place like Stylus. Country, however, is a little different.
We're aware of the numerous and deeply-entrenched obstacles that make it difficult for much of our readership to give country, especially the chart-topping variety, a fair shake. In the broadest sense, there's a political, cultural, and social bias against the perceived values and concerns of major-league country that makes genuine engagement a near impossibility for many. Whether it's the unabashed right-wing stumping of certain stars, or simply an aversion to music likely to be adored by your dentist, bank teller, or the guy who slammed you into a locker in junior high, there's a whole mess of extracurricular baggage one brings to country's well-stocked buffet table.
So what are you missing? Well, how about songs that are actually about stuff, with lyrics that refreshingly steer clear of the refrigerator-magnet poetry that so frequently obfuscates indie-rock? Sure, some of the "stuff" is Bible-reading grandmas and the Daytona 500, but much of it is also about relationships between couples, co-workers, family, and friends, and about being dissatisfied with jobs and money, and about the longings of faith and doubt. Shit, Sufjan Stevens ain't got nothin' on Alan Jackson's "Monday Morning Church."
And that's before we even get to how it sounds. If your thing is Mogwai or Steve Reich then maybe you won't find succor here, but if you enjoy tight, well-played music that genuinely rocks, you can do a whole lot worse than checking out CMT. While the majority of indie bands don't even try to swing and couldn't find a groove if it was at the bottom of a PBR, country's full of crackerjack outfits and world-class session players who make music that moves and provides inexhaustible physical thrills. If you ask me, practically nothing from the recent indie ranks can compete with the Stones-y strut of Brooks and Dunn's "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl."
All we're asking is that you approach this stuff with an open mind. Listening to country isn't going to turn you into a soccer mom or a corporate lackey or a Bible-thumping Neanderthal, and you might even find yourself relating to a song or two—assuming you've ever a) been in love, b) hated your boss, or c) gotten drunk and done something dumb. I'm guessing that doesn't leave too many of y'all out.
Patty Griffin – Children Running Through (ATO Records)
The commonplace covering of alt-country artists by their chart-topping counterparts is a double-edged sword for fans of the former. Sure, it lets them exult in the superiority of "their" music and writhe in horror at its commercialized co-opting, but the cross-pollination also throws into relief the fact that alt and pop aren't really that far apart. Nickelback covering Ted Leo or Lil Wayne appropriating El-P just wouldn't make narrative or ideological sense, but when the Dixie Chicks or Faith Hill mine the works of Patty Griffin or Lori McKenna, such cognitive dissonance rarely surfaces. In other words, there's no real need to judge the genres by separate scales.
Griffin at times displays a near-peerless lyrical mastery here, suggesting like a great short story author on "Trapeze" or sketching an evocative outline like a skilled poet on "Someone Else's Tomorrow." When her words aren't hitting their marks, however, you start to notice the frequent tepidity of Griffin's tunes, and may even begin to ask yourself, "How is this all that different from Norah Jones again?"
Vince Gill - These Days (MCA Nashville)
I’m apt to occasionally use this column for a little housecleaning, catching up on releases that I never got around to reviewing for one reason or another; this is a prime example. Vince Gill’s career apparently died for Brad Paisley’s sins—both are hotshot, seriously good guitarists (Gill was once asked to join Dire Straits, circa 1980) who are also good songwriters and possess incredibly affable, aw-shucks personas, publicly if not privately.
It’s a damned shame that this four-disc opus (just because) has failed to light the charts afire, since Gill’s voice is still as silky as ever (and his high end should be considered one of the modern wonders of the world), his songwriting is strong as ever, and his pickin’ is fairly unparalleled this side of Chet Atkins. Loosely based around a quartet of “themes”-cum-“moods” (“rockin’”/“groovy”/“country & western”/“acoustic”), this is really just 43 mostly rich tracks of Gill and friends (ranging from Diana Krall and Bonnie Raitt to John Anderson and Gretchen Wilson) doing what they do best. It’s plenty to sink your teeth into, and it proves nutritious and tasty.
Various Artists - Songs of the Year (Vector/Cracker Barrel)
No, your eyes aren’t foolin’ you; the down-home American restaurant chain Cracker Barrel has decided to follow Starbucks’ lead and move into producing original albums. Fortunately all around, they’ve started with a, pardon the joke, cracker of a record. Songs of the Year is a fine set of new covers of songs which won either Song of the Year from the Country Music Association, or Best Country Song from the Grammys (or, in three cases, both)—a good concept executed well.
Trisha Yearwood breathes new life into John Denver’s “Back Home Again” (a song I’ve never cared for until now); Trace Adkins makes another case that only deep-voiced singers should take on the Cash catalog, with an excellent version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”; new traditionalist Dierks Bentley joins very old traditionalist George Jones on “Murder on Music Row” (originally cut by George Strait and Alan Jackson); and no fewer than three Vince Gill songs get turns here. Vince is a tricky singer to cover, thanks to his upper register, strong yet delicate. (Covering songs he’s written is easier, as he’s got few peers in Nashville scribe circles.)
Jo Dee Messina does herself proud on a tender “When I Call Your Name,” while Deana Carter and Heart—yes, the Wilson sisters—make beautiful harmonies on “Go Rest High on that Mountain” in a richly rootsy version. Not every song here clicks, but those that do, do it so well that you really need this album, which also makes a handy primer of some country history.
Beverley Mitchell – Beverley Mitchell (Word Entertainment)
The name is likely unfamiliar, which is a shame. Mitchell ought to be reckoned as this generation's Tina Yothers, at least in terms of being a relatively overlooked middle child on a TV program famous for the conservative blather spouted by its main character(s)—only “7th Heaven” was lacking the requisite punchlines. While the show's breakout star Jessica Biel rode her prodigious backside to fame and Jeter-fucking, Mitchell is instead striving for a second life in song, though one gets the impression she's doing country mostly because it's the genre that best aligns with her fuzzy, family-values image without carrying all the audience-splintering stigmas of contemporary Christian.
Mitchell's voice is rather poor for the music she's singing (or else it wasn't sufficiently pitch-corrected in the studio), and ultimately this is largely a forgettable, safe-as-milk collection. "Rolling Down Sonora Avenue" cleverly inverts country's Tennessee-trumps-California paradigm, but Mitchell's struggles with "You Didn't Kiss Me" are emblematic. Gretchen Wilson would have murdered this track, but Mitchell can't decide if she wants to be a schoolgirl or a grown-ass woman.
Sunny Sweeney – Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame (Big Machine Records)
We may argue over the merits of Billboard's current country favorites, but even the biggest Carrie Underwood basher will probably rhapsodize the likes of Loretta and Cash and Hag. Sunny Sweeney makes a quite legitimate and enjoyable substitute then for those who think country as a whole jumped the shark sometime around 1968. Personally I think she's perhaps a bit too beholden to honky-tonk's past, and her girlish twangy vocals sometimes push her material towards chintzy novelty, but there's no denying the self-deprecating humor of "Next Big Nothing" or the familial sweetness of "Mama's Opry."
Sweeney only penned two of these songs solely herself, but they're two of the best, the cleverly hokey title track and the hauntingly mannered "Slow Swinging Western Tunes," which sounds like a lost Caitlin Cary tune from Whiskeytown's heyday. Surely the more Sweeney writes the sooner she'll emerge as more than just another revivalist.
George Jones & Merle Haggard - Kickin’ Out the Footlights… Again (Bandit)
The idea for this album is a great one: for their second collaborative album (the first was 1982’s A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine), Haggard and Jones each sing five of each other’s songs, along with four duets. They sure do sing good, and they picked some fine songs, such as Jones’s “The Race Is On” and “She Thinks I Still Care,” Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” and even the standard “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (which they sing together superbly). Traditionalist Keith Stegall is the perfect producer for an album like this, and he doesn’t disappoint. Problem is, there’s no excitement here—Footlights is a very good album, but never makes that leap to great because there’s no spark. It’s sure as hell enjoyable, though—a good Sunday afternoon record.
Jason Michael Carroll – Waitin' in the Country (Arista)
Carroll's initial draw is his long straight hair; since the outlaw days of Waylon and Willie and the boys there haven't been too many excessively-coiffed country stars who achieved their look without the aid of a mullet or man-perm. A "hat act" he may never be, but Carroll is a promising talent, making good use of his thick, Randy Travis-like baritone to deliver a frequently impressive though ultimately uneven debut.
"Lookin' At You" is the kind of likeable heartland pop-rocker that used to be the province of Tom Petty, while Carroll's duet with Jewel, "No Good in Goodbye," far exceeds expectations, the much-maligned Alaskan folk-poet going a long way towards reminding me why her backwoods elfin tones once made me melt. On the other hand, the rockier numbers are mostly generic (look for an upcoming disquisition on the narrative rigidity of male pop-country compared to the near-limitless freedom the ladies enjoy), and the child-abuse weeper "Alyssa Lies" (which according to Wikipedia took Carroll over a year to write) is treacly and melodramatic beyond belief. The sooner Carroll can shake off some of the hoarier tropes of his genre, the quicker his quite obvious talents will be fully realized.
Gary Allan - Greatest Hits (MCA Nashville)
13 honest-to-goodness hits plus 2 newbies from a Californian who’s quietly become one of our most sturdy, assured artisans. He still tends towards occasional hit-promising corn (“The One”), but more often these days is putting his stamp on songs of incredible heartbreak (“Best I Ever Had”) and might yet blossom in much the same way that Dwight Yoakam’s done in the past decade-plus, following nothing but his own muse. Solid as a rock.
By: Saturday Night Barn Dance Staff
Published on: 2007-04-03