Saturday Night Barn Dance #002
aturday Night Barn Dance is a new recurring column on contemporary country music, wherein Stylus aims to survey the landscape of the genre by briefly considering some of its more notable and/or superlative recent releases.
Rantin’ and Ravin’
How Kenny Rogers is not yet in the Country Music Hall of Fame is utterly beyond me. For nearly an entire decade (circa 1976-1984), the man (alongside his pal Dolly Parton, who is in the HOF) was Nashville’s face to the world, the one artist whom even non-country fans knew, and not just in the U.S., either; both “Lucille” and “Coward of the County” were #1 singles in the U.K., for starters. He’s had 20 #1s on Billboard’s country singles chart, stretching from 1977’s “Daytime Friends” to 1999’s “Buy Me a Rose”—and for that matter, he hit the country top 20 as recently as last year with “I Can’t Unlove You.” (When’s the last time you heard of a 68-year-old charting that high as a solo artist?) Kenny’s been nominated for 23 Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, though he’s only received five, notably Male Vocalist and Album of the Year in ’79 (for The Gambler) and Single of the Year for “Lucille” in ’77.
2004’s 42 Ultimate Hits presents another damned good argument for Rogers’ HOF induction: his fairly impeccable catalog. It’s all here, from the First Edition’s late ‘60s hits to the present day (meaning ’04), encompassing all 20 of those #1s along with duets with Dottie West (five country-pop classics), Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes, Ronnie Milsap, and of course Parton. It’s incredible that an artist with 20 #1 singles is absent from the HOF, let alone one with the cultural impact of Rogers, yet he still sits outside its doors year after year. I consider the HOF’s cred fairly impeccable, but this is a disgrace.
Martina McBride – Waking Up Laughing (RCA)
Martina McBride made her fame with songs of social consciousness, empowerment and cheery inspiration, but it’s a thin line between a niche and a prison. The evidence that McBride has painted herself into an artistic corner is all over the new Waking Up Laughing, which features 11 of the most lyrically nondescript songs you can possibly imagine, especially for a genre that so frequently provides such a surplus of detail.
Luckily, McBride’s voice is technically magnificent and emotionally versatile enough that she still puts over a fair amount of this forgettable stuff, like the sweetly devoted "I’ll Still Be Me" and the surprisingly feisty "If I Had Your Name" (more of this pls!). But not even strong singing and well-defined melodies can rescue the homilies of "Cry Cry (Till the Sun Shines)" and "Beautiful Again," and ultimately this is the kind of record that gives country a blithely-lobotomized bad name. Just like any other genre (or any other art form for that matter), the unhappy stuff is usually the best.
Sarah Buxton – Sarah Buxton (Lyric Street)
When I bemoan the dearth of detail in Martina McBride’s dishwater offering, this is the kind of thing I had in mind as an ideal model. Buxton is currently best known for having penned Keith Urban’s melodramatic hit “Stupid Boy,” but she’s actually far more adept at crafting witty, chatty upbeat pop-country that sparkles with lived-in specifics. See, the most generic song in the world might be universally relatable, but enriching your art with distinctive names, places, and things is the way to convince a listener they’re hearing a real human being, which is infinitely more compelling.
Buxton’s overarching themes may be shopworn (growing up, breaking up, the open road, the comforts of home), but in listening to her fascinating and funny lyrics I learned that she loves Kansas Jayhawks basketball, hates metrosexuals, doesn’t mind maxing out her credit cards, and once had a crazy chocolate-fueled dream about making mud pies with Kevin Spacey. At one point she uses the promise of scotch on the rocks to coax out of seclusion a family member who’s still bummed “that Kerry didn’t win.” Eminently entertaining stuff, and the tunes sizzle too (“Love is a Trip” particularly crackles with its Stonesy intro and hi-octane fiddling).
Bucky Covington – Bucky Covington (Lyric Street)
Another day, another halfway decent, thoroughly generic Southern Rock-minded pop-country record. Nashville’s been lousy lately with pretty boys making Molly Hatchet moves, and former American Idol finalist Covington is no exception. Lots of folks have been annoyed by his first single, "A Different World," because Bucky’s griping about how tough his generation had it and he’s only 29, but it’s tough to resist any hit with an opening couplet like "we were born to mothers who smoke and drank / Our cribs were covered in lead-based paint."
On the other hand, "I’ll Walk" dishonorably carries on the tradition of song titles with dual meanings (ex. Chesney’s "There Goes My Life," Jones’ "He Stopped Loving Her Today")—in this case a girl gets in a fight with her prom date and decides to walk home, only she gets hit by a car and now she’s a cripple, making the phrase "I’ll Walk" suddenly become all bravely hopeful and shit. Yes, it’s that bad. I’m officially betting within five years some sad bastard will cut a song called “Breakin’ the Seal” where the first verse is about having to piss while getting bombed in college and the second verse is about turning into a depressing alcoholic and twisting open a bottle of Jack. Mark it down. Hey, at least "I’m Good" inexplicably steals the melody from David Bowie’s "Sound and Vision," so there’s that.
Angela Hacker – The Winner Is… (Warner Bros.)
At 29, Angela Hacker is far from old, but as a country newcomer in a sea of Carrie Underwoods and Taylor Swifts, she’s clearly playing maturity as her trump card. Winner of the most recent Nashville Star TV competition, Hacker goes out of her way to remind you that she’s no prefab teen queen, and as a result she often forces her earthiness and strays too far into the icky blues-mama territory of Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles. This ten-song, cover-heavy collection is obviously a quick-buck turnaround meant to ratchet up interest in Hacker’s forthcoming legitimate debut, and it should be judged accordingly, but we can still get a good idea of her strengths and weaknesses.
The rockier numbers are where Hacker slathers it on with thick, faux-soul gracelessness, but she shines remarkably well with quieter fare. "Strawberry Wine" arguably improves on Deana Carter’s original by locating a deeper sense of loss, and while most of the originals are fairly generic, "Total Loss" is a downright stunner, Hacker comparing a breakup to a car wreck and finding that, while she may be "slightly damaged," at least now she can control the remote, get hot water in her shower, and not have to deal with her ex’s "meddling mother."
Alan Jackson, George Strait, Jimmy Buffet - Live at Texas Stadium (MCA Nashville)
It’s not bad, certainly, but if you think it sounds like something’s dragging this down, you’re right—and it’s Buffet. Each superstar gets five songs here; Jackson and Strait each do a song with each other and another with Buffet, while Buffet does a song with each of his co-headliners and another pair with both of ‘em. To be fair, for the album’s obvious selections (a pandering “Five O’Clock Somewhere,” a can-it-be-anything-but-pandering? “Margaritaville,” and a “Murder on Music Row” not even as good as George Jones and Dierks Bentley’s recent cover), there are some gems, such as Strait covering Kokomo Arnold’s 1930s blues classic “Milk Cow Blues,” and Jackson’s bluegrass-y take on the oft-covered “Seven Bridges Road” (most will know the Eagles’ version; being a finer singer than any of the Eagles, his version tops theirs with ease).
Considering this mega-concert’s location, each artist does his own Texas song, too—Strait’s is his classic “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” Buffet’s is “North East Texas Woman,” and Jackson covers Hank, Jr.’s “Texas Woman” to fine effect. Buffet, however, is no comedian (though he thinks he is) and is even less of a singer (ditto), so his presence is a sad anchor on what could’ve been a buoyant live document.
Cody McCarver – Peace, Love & Coondawgs (Aspirion/PLC)
Any country album which opens with a cover of Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” (made famous as the theme to The Sopranos) is not your typical country album. McCarver, the former guitarist for Confederate Railroad, has fashioned a country-rock record akin to Steve Earle’s early catalog and Shooter Jennings’ current one—kinda like a more sensitive take on Skynyrd territory. (The midtempo “Sunset Boulevard,” for instance, may open with “I wish that the Enquirer would spread a rumor that I was gay,” but it’s really a mournful song about a lost love.)
There’s a lot of potential here. A number of these numbers, however—“Red Flag,” “Country Bad Ass,” and “Redneck Love,” specifically—seem a bit derivative in the wake of Toby Keith and his musical spawn (Jason Aldean, Jack Ingram, etc.); this ground’s been mined already, and if you can’t improve upon what’s come before, you shouldn’t bother. McCarver’s strength, surprisingly, is on his more sentimental fare, which is reminiscent of Trent Willmon’s better work (cf. “Should’ve Been Me” and the piano-driven “Hard to Be Honest”). Pick this one up in the hopes that success will give McCarver the opportunity to make a second, better record that plays more to his strong points.
Pam Tillis – Rhinestoned (Stellar Cat)
Like many of her ‘80s and ‘90s kindred, Mel Tillis’ daughter, who claimed 13 top 10 singles on the country chart during the ‘90s, has been absent from the charts for a while, and has gone the independent route for her latest album. It’s her first new studio album in five years, one into which a great amount of effort and love clearly went. This is a warm, rich record, built around Tillis’ lovely, clear voice and a set of mostly great songs. The cautionary “Train Without a Whistle” (it’s a man) and the Lee Ann Womack-would-kill-for-this showstopper “Someone Somewhere Tonight” are but two highlights; what makes this so fine is that Tillis knows what to do with what she’s got—i.e., “Someone” could nearly be an overblown Broadway number, but Tillis deliberately underplays it, increasing the lyric’s effectiveness.
There’s a down-home-y charm to much of Rhinestoned as well, on perfect display in “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around,” a duet with Mr. Tradition, John Anderson—hearing these two trade lines is pure country joy, as they sing about their days driving around listening to Eat a Peach and “doin’ all the things we don’t want our kids to do.” It’s a cliché, yes, but Tillis’ voice can break your heart if she wants it to; it’s good enough that sometimes you’ll be happy to let her, especially on a batch of songs as solid as these.
John Anderson – “A Woman Knows” (Raybaw/WBR Nashville)
Don’t call it a comeback, but Anderson’s first new album since 2000, Easy Money, is due shortly, led by this single co-written by MuzikMafia members John Rich and Vicki McGhee, along with Julie Roberts. The song’s subject is a man’s infidelity, and how a woman, natch, always knows—but in this case, is willing to overlook her husband’s indiscretions for the sake of her family. In lesser hands this could be run-of-the-mill or worse, but when sung by Anderson, this “Woman” hits where it hurts. Anderson’s voice has always been packed with emotion, and it serves him well here, as does the song’s contemporary countrypolitan production (also courtesy of Rich). Taken together with last year’s teaser single, a cover of Aaron Tippin’s “If Her Lovin’ Don’t Kill Me,” it’s enough to make hardcore country fans nearly faint from anticipation for a full-length.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2007-05-04