Country Discomforts

If, as the dear departed Frank Sinatra once claimed, L.A. is a lady, then Nashville must be her sleazy sister -- a fickle, powerful, vampiric whore who flits from from one new artist to the next, sucking each dry of all airplay and record sales before casting the pallid corpse aside. Success in the country-music capital isn't rare, but long-time careers are, for men and women, hard-core honky-tonkers and chrome-slick crooners alike. The living legends of country aren't wholly ignored: Some get a plaque hung on the walls of Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame, a few pop up every so often on the Nashville Network, while others hobble off to the memory-lane lounges of Branson. Unlike dusty Seventies rockers such as Foghat, Blue O¬yster Cult, and Bad Company, hardly any of Nashville's old guard fetch much airplay these days, and you can pretty much count on one hand the pioneer artists who have managed to hang on to a major-label contract. (What does it say that Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, two of country music's greatest vocalists, are spending the September of their years on independent labels?)

It's astonishing, then, to consider the careers of George Jones and George Strait. The former is a legitimate country-and-western icon -- arguably the greatest singer of the genre -- who has somehow kept a major-label deal for the better part of the past 40 years despite minimal radio play in the Eighties and Nineties. He left Epic in 1990 after spending almost two decades at the label, and was soon snapped up by MCA, where he's remained since then despite enjoying only modest chart success. If the old George isn't selling 'em like he used to, the Strait one is selling them like practically no one else in country-music history. Since his 1981 debut Strait Country, the publicity-shy Texan has become a contemporary kingpin who has sold more than 42 million copies of his 22 albums. (That includes myriad greatest-hits compendiums as well as the boxed set Strait Out of the Box, the third-most-successful assemblage of its kind.) For those interested in stats and celebrity ranking, that places Strait in the number ten spot among the best-selling artists of our time -- just under Boyz II Men and right above Eric Clapton.

Less astonishing and far more typical is the plight of mid-Eighties neotraditionalist Randy Travis, a seeming heir apparent to Strait who landed 25 singles in the country Top 10 (nineteen of them making it to the top slot, by the way) before floundering in Nashville when Garth Brooks came along and rewrote the crossover manual for country popsters. Travis cut twelve albums for Warner Bros., beginning with 1986's Storms of Life, a brilliant debut that was the home of the ace fidelity ballad "On the Other Hand." The hits kept coming even as Travis's music grew more and more bland. Finally, after two flops -- 1993's Wind in the Wire and the '96 bomb Full Circle -- the label sent him packing. He's found a new home at DreamWorks, which has chosen the washed-up wonder boy to be its maiden entry into country with the recently released You and You Alone.

Typical though Travis's downward-spiraling career might be, it must still come as a surprise to rock-steeped curmudgeons who assume (for the most part correctly) that anything as dull and bland as Travis's postdebut work will always have a place on country radio. Cautious, conservative, and infuriatingly reactionary, country radio programmers are a confounding bunch -- at once reluctant to embrace change but always on the search for someone (which isn't to say something) new. In 1986, when Travis and fellow neotrads such as Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam began to surface, it was Travis, the most radio-ready of the bunch, that stations welcomed. He responded with material that was contrived and corny, wasting that big, booming baritone on trifling novelties ("A Few Old Boys"), mawkishly sentimental goo ("He Walked on Water"), and even songs based on presidential speeches ("Point of Light," a Top 10 country hit in 1991, the year of the Gulf War).

Things haven't changed much judging from You and You Alone, a predictable pastiche of songs about love and marriage, love and family, love and loss, and plain ol' love. Special guests were brought in by co-producer James Stroud, including Vince Gill, Melba Montgomery, Alison Krauss, and fiddle whiz Aubrey Hainey (who darts through "The Hole" and "Out of My Bones" like he is indeed looking for a way out), but no one can save the likes of "One Word Song" (as in, "I sing out your name like a ..."). In the liner notes to the set, Travis -- who has a small part in the recent Patrick Swayze macho-action flick Black Dog -- writes of the impracticality of cutting an album while working in a movie. Hard to imagine he spent more than a weekend on this boring mishmash.

George Strait has been in the movies too, and if his 1992 film Pure Country wasn't exactly Tender Mercies or Nashville, its soundtrack became a massive hit -- Strait's most popular album to date. Trouble is, that album is indistinguishable from the ones that came before it and the ones he's cranked out after it. With the exception of titles and cover art, Strait has pretty much been making the same album for the past seventeen years -- a something-for-everyone hodgepodge of honky-tonk two-steppers and ballads, all of them loaded with cute phrases and clever wordplay (e.g., "Let's Fall to Pieces Together," "All My Ex's Live in Texas"). Compared to most country hitmakers of the past twenty years, Strait has a fairly winsome formula -- but make no mistake, it's a formula, from the taut but tame Western swing of his band to the earnest drawl that's made him an Everyman superstar.

You can add the new One Step at a Time to Strait's ever-expanding canon of sure-fire sellers, and throughout the set he plays it like his name. He jerks tears with "You Haven't Left Me Yet," he begs for love on "Why Not Now," he throws up his hands with "That's the Breaks," he loses love amid the bright lights of "Neon Row," and on the slightly rustic title cut he reminds you that he was the guy who ushered in the neotraditionalist movement a good five years before the twang-laden debuts of Travis, Earle, Yoakam, et al. What this music sadly lacks is the lyrical kick and musical innovation of artists working the other side of the Nashville tracks, people like Jim Lauderdale, Mike Henderson, and Buddy Miller. Of course those guys never make it on to the radio unless a big shot covers one of their tunes (as Strait does on One Step with Lauderdale's "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This"). Which should tell you two things: Strait at least knows a good song when he's offered one, and he knows you don't fix that which is not broken.

And I'll bet at this minute some Music City hack is probably writing a song called "If It Ain't Broke (Don't Fix It)," and if Strait doesn't want it you can bet George Jones will be all over it. He's had a soft spot for goofball novelties as far back as 1955, when he cut the magnificently corny "Eskimo Pie" for Starday Records. Over the past 40-some years he's turned silliness into a thing of honky-tonk beauty on autobiographical hokum such as "No Show Jones" and "I Am What I Am," as well as on hell-raising stompers from "Rock It" and "The Race Is On" to "White Lightning" and "Love Bug." Jones's specialty, however, has always been the exploration of the dark side of the human soul, including the murderous "Open Pit Mine" and the bleak, heart-broken anthems "The Window Up Above," "Color of the Blues," "Tender Years," and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," with his whiskey-warm voice pulling every shred of pathos and despair from the lyrics.

The voice is still there, a bit deeper certainly, but only slightly less dazzling than it was in the Sixties and early Seventies. It's been years, though, since he had a song worthy of his instrument. But even the most bathetic barrel-scrapings foisted on him in the Eighties by producer Billy Sherrill can't compare to the dreck he's recorded during his seven-year association with MCA, which was kicked off with the not-bad And Along Came Jones. Since then he's done the obligatory duets set (The Bradley Barn Sessions), hit new lows with the dumb-ass High-Tech Redneck, reunited with ex-wife Tammy Wynette on the mediocre One, and come closer to genius than you'd expect on I Lived to Tell It All (1996).

It Don't Get Any Better Than This, his latest disc for MCA, comes nowhere near genius. Truth be told, it's a listless, lackluster mess, from the cliched war-vet anthem "Wild Irish Rose" to "Small Y'all," a throwaway that makes "Eskimo Pie" sound like Otis Redding's "The Dock of the Bay." Songwriting legend Hank Cochran turns in "Don't Touch Me," a nice weeper that Jones gives the thoughtful, evocative reading it deserves, but everything else here is hack work. "When Did You Stop Lovin' Me" is as imaginative as its title, "I Can Live Forever" is a gooey religious confection, and "Got to Get to Louisiana" is so dull Jones turns most of it over to guest vocalist T. Graham Brown, a forgotten hitmaker from the Eighties. Jones is in better company on the ready-made title cut, which features cameos from honky-tonk survivors Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Bobby Bare. Too bad the song is an outright lie: Believe me, George, you can do much better than this.

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