On radio the legends of country music might as well be dead and buried. In the recording studio, though, many of that genre's greatest singers are proving that traditional country music is still very much alive. And this is traditional country in the most vital sense of the word: It clearly draws thematic, musical, and spiritual inspiration from the past, but it also suggests a future by changing to meet the thematic, musical, and spiritual needs of the present. In the past two years, albums from George Jones, Ray Price, Porter Wagoner, and Merle Haggard have done just that, eschewing the retro limitations of, say, Buck Owens acolytes the Derailers, for country music that often sounds like Right Now.
Add Loretta Lynn to the list. Still Country proves that Lynn, even from the backside of 60, can still outsing virtually any of the hot new country competition; she could outsing Faith Hill from an iron lung. Often as not producer Randy Scruggs has placed Lynn's voice in settings that, while occasionally fussy and precious, also are strikingly contemporary. “Working Girl,” for example, is like a modern version of Lynn's classic hit “One's on the Way,” except that Raquel Welch and the pill have been replaced by references to Oprah and American Express in a synth-inflected arrangement that would fit right in on country radio. There are more than a few tracks here that could very well top the charts if only their singer had a tummy more tanned and toned than Lynn's likely is.
Still, Lynn's album is steadfastly old school in at least one important respect: It's about loss. Over the past decade, she lost a son, two brothers, her long-time producer Owen Bradley, her duet partner Conway Twitty, friend and peer Tammy Wynette and, most devastatingly, her husband of nearly 50 years. So when Lynn confronts the terror of being “On My Own Again,” she knows of what she sings. Even minus the bio, however, there's no missing the anguish of “I Can't Hear the Music”: “When he said, “I love you, baby,' that was music to my ears,” she sings, her voice literally a sob. Like mortality, country music that rings this true will always be up-to-date.
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