It's easy to think of country music these days as a homogeneous piece of product used primarily as the soundtrack for the Tennessee Nashville Network. TNN is a blisteringly bad but wildly popular cable channel that serves as a kind of MTV for wearers of cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans. A gathering place for the luminaries of modern country, TNN is heavy on airy music and chat shows hosted by beaming, spit-slick bubbleheads such as Lorainne Crook and Charlie Chase, whose Music City Tonight redefines the smarm-and-charm aesthetic of talk television. You'll also see some truly wretched music videos, which cast their subjects in any number of cornball settings. (There is one from a few years back in which the Statler Brothers or the Oak Ridge Boys -- does it matter? -- each take turns courting a white-dressed Southern belle swaying blithely on a porch swing.) The quintessence of TNN, however, comes in their variety of line-dance programs, wherein a saloon full of stiff white people do stiff white dances to stiff white hits. They make Lawrence Welk Show reruns look like hoodoo rhythm parties broadcast from the back alleys of Bourbon Street.
Really, though, it's country radio that should take the the bulk of the blame for the music's sorry condition. Predictably programmed and lacking almost any sense of history, the format is arguably the most irresponsible of any on the airwaves. Although you'll occasionally hear some fiddles and steel guitars in a hit single, most songs have boiled down the legacy of Hank Williams into a thick, gooey soup in which novelty lyrics and sappy romantic sentiments are the main ingredients. Icons from the music's past are cast aside in favor of bland newcomers a la Bryan White and Ty England, while such mediocre talents as Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson are hailed as the queenpins and kingpins of the genre.
Occasionally, some good stuff crawls from the muck to tweak the ears of fans and station programmers. David Ball made country radio fun for a while last year with his debut hit "Thinkin' Problem," while neotraditionalist standard-bearer Marty Stuart usually gets a single or two on the air. Mostly, though, country radio has become a creative bone yard -- the place where innovative ideas go to die.
And it's been that way since the Sixties, when Nashville snubbed the rough-and-tumble likes of honky-tonkers Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, who responded by saying to hell with the city and created their own country hotbed in Bakersfield, California. When their songs became hits in the face of Nashville's ambivalence, the industry fathers came a'courtin', eager to bring these upstart money makers into the fold. Once there, Stewart lost his focus, while Owens became the pickin'-and-grinnin' co-host of Hee Haw, the forefather of TNN. Only Haggard, an iconoclast who eschewed country trends, managed to sustain an interesting career through the 1980s, despite Nashville's increasing indifference to his highly personal vision.
The new visions now beaming from the outskirts of Nashville will no doubt receive similar treatment, although their collective rebel spirit has stronger ties to the music's history than anything currently slopping around the country charts. This upstart music is made by an eclectic conglomeration of neotraditional songwriters and punk-rock communists, backward-glancing classicists, and roadhouse warriors. Few will ever take a seat across from Crook and Chase, and some aren't half as good as their underground supporters have claimed. Even when the music doesn't work, it at least provides relief from the incessant clatter of Nashville's hit-making machine.
The oddball artist in this hodgepodge of talent is Jim Lauderdale, a Southern California songwriter who's crafted hits for megastars such as George Strait, Vince Gill, and Patty Loveless. He's an oddball because, despite his successful track record, he can't get his own voice on the radio. Of course, it doesn't help that his voice recalls the thick-drawled delivery of country pioneers Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell, which makes him an outcast among today's tepid crooners. His evocative songwriting puts a unique spin on the barroom-and-bedroom themes of traditional honky-tonk, setting him apart from the novelty-crazed tunesmiths who are better suited to write catch phrases for bumper stickers and baseball hats.
Lauderdale's first two albums -- 1991's Planet of Love and last year's Pretty Close to the Truth -- were neotrad gems full of crafty real-life parables and down-and-out laments, all set to the rhythm of a choogling hillbilly freight train. But while his songs were attracting Nashville royalty and drawing approval from rock and country critics, radio folks avoided the albums like a fresh pile of cow poop. Both are no doubt beckoning from a cut-out bin near you.
The exasperation of seeing two great albums die is tangible in "Don't Build Your World Around It," from Every Second Counts (Atlantic), Lauderdale's latest album and the most ambitious musical statement of his brief career. Actually the song offers words of caution to the lovesick, but it moonlights as a comment on Lauderdale's frustrating lack of success: "Sometimes we just can't find the clues," he sings over some rave-up instrumental backing. "We're in the same boat that's getting tossed / Part of the crowd that's gettin' lost."
A bold, often innovative set, Every Second Counts is where Lauderdale fuses the honky-tonk swing of his previous work with the wallop of Southern soul, the swagger of Memphis rockabilly, and the emotional fire of vintage blues. It's a diverse assemblage: "Always on the Outside," written with pure-pop guru Nick Lowe, features a blurting horn arrangement lifted from Stax/Volt classics of the 1960s; "It's Time When It's Time" comes perilously close to rock turf; and "Bluebell" is a pleading, tormented blues. On both the wailers and the weepers, Lauderdale sings with the passion and freedom of a man who has given up on finding a place in Nashville for his unique country-rock hybrid, a man content to follow his instincts and intuition.
A good part of Lauderdale's sound has always centered around the piercing guitar work of Buddy Miller, a studio and road veteran who's played everything from bluegrass to freeform psychedelic rock. His solo debut, Your Love and Other Lies, released on the independent HighTone label, covers the same creative terrain as Lauderdale's latest, while showcasing Miller's burly, wildcat vocals and a flair for songwriting that eludes the cookie-cutter craftsmen of Nashville.
As the album title implies, Miller has taken a beating in the romance ring. "Hold on My Love," a gorgeous duet with Emmylou Harris, follows a couple as they try, most likely in vain, to keep their relationship alive amid emotional chaos, while "That's How I Got to Memphis," written by Tom T. Hall, shows the lengths to which people will go when love comes knocking. Both "You Wrecked Up My Heart" and "I Don't Mean Maybe" are perfect country rockers, but the showstopper is "I Can't Slow Down," a greasy slice of swamp blues that is one of two vocal collaborations here with Memphis soulman Dan Penn.
Jesse Dayton is a Houston, Texas, hotshot who shares Lauderdale's and Miller's desire to expand the artistic borders of Nashville in the Nineties. His flashy guitar calisthenics and barrelhouse vocals have attracted such Lone Star luminaries as Flaco Jimenez, Doug Sahm, and Johnny Gimble, all of whom back Dayton on Raisin' Cain (Justice), his intermittently interesting debut album.
As a songwriter, Dayton drags his boots along the line between insightful storytelling and cliche-peddling inanity. For every Cain-raisin' anthem such as "Blood Bucket Blues," there's a stilted piece of Mellencampian drama such as "Time to Go," a predictable homage to a guy who loses his job. On the title cut, he wallows in his redneck ways in the shameless fashion of Hank Williams, Jr., as if we really need to know that his truck is his "pride and joy." Despite these lapses, Dayton has greatness in him, provided his songwriting can rise to the level of his vocal and guitar abilities.
Austin, Texas, has long played sympathetic host to some of country's greatest square-peg artists -- most of them songwriters -- including Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. It's also been the place where mediocre talents such as Lyle Lovett are hailed as quirky geniuses and where pretentious wordsmiths with rusty pipes become roadhouse legends (e.g., Townes Van Zandt). Austin Country Nights, a compilation on Watermelon Records, rounds up a typical batch of sounds from this hit-and-miss country mecca, featuring both new voices and a few staples of the city's nightclub circuit.
Like most compilations, it's a mixed bag. Dale Watson has an impressive album on HighTone, but his cut here, "Girl, I Hope You're Having Fun," is a yawning trifle. Ted Roddy's "Honky-Tonk Hell" is a great song in the classic George Jones vein, but the guy sounds like a bad Elvis impersonator, and flat-voiced Don Walser A a 61-year-old local hero who performs at punk bars and country joints A is a talent best experienced in person. There's good stuff here, though. Libbi Bosworth, a vocalist with a sly sense of phrasing, deserves her own album. Her contribution here, "Baby, Maybe Then I'll Love You," quietly steals the set from worthy contenders such as the Cornell Hurd Band, who check in with the wonderfully titled "I Cry, Then I Drink, Then I Cry."
The glaring flaw on the Austin set is that most of the songs merely reiterate the sentiments expressed in countless classics from "Honky Tonkin'" to "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me." Songwriting may already be a lost art in Nashville, but retreating to the safety of the past isn't going to help. But don't bother telling that to Wayne Hancock, yet another Texan, whose debut album Thunderstorms and Neon Signs (Dejadisc) comes with a back-cover endorsement from Joe Ely.
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Hancock "sings true as a well-balanced truck wheel," Ely writes. Sadly, that's the best writing you'll find anywhere on this contrived blend of rockabilly boogie and Western swing. Hancock is a purist whose music smacks of the same wrongheaded nostalgia as that of Sha Na Na, the Stray Cats, and countless other groups who've tried to roll the calendar back to 1955. Sure, he's got a tight band that conjures images of Hank Williams's Drifting Cowboys. Sure, his voice is pulled from the pages of country history. Still, his obsession with the past comes at the expense of any contemporary relevance, making Thunderstorms an archaic, if listenable, throwback to an era that will never be re-created.
Hancock's retro mentality will no doubt please a good portion of alienated honky-tonkers, but the ragtag artists on Bloodshot Records have found a better way to revive the legacy of Hank Williams. "We come to exhume Hank, not to canonize him," reads the mission statement on the cover of Hell-Bent, the Chicago label's second collection of what they call insurgent country. "Unbury him not from the ground . . . but from beneath the mounds of gutless swill which pass for his legacy, the suffocating spew of the Nashville hit factories." In the process, the Bloodshot stable shatters the conventions of the city by exploring the music's darkest corners; Hell-Bent wallows in the seedy side of country, from the trailer-park casualty in the Starkweathers' "Little White Trash Boy" to Robby Fulks's "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)."
Free of any mainstream constraints and concessions, the Bloodshot artists shy away from country's tried-and-true sounds and stories. Instead they offer doom-laden folk dirges such as Richard Buckner's "22" and the string-band racket of Moonshine Willy. It's a brilliant, daring collection, but even better is the Bloodshot release of . . . To the Last Dead Cowboy, the debut album by the Waco Brothers. Comprising members of the Bottle Rockets, indie-rock noisemakers Wreck, and punk survivors the Mekons, the Wacos are supreme pessimists who open the album with a toast to the Devil and his cockroaches ("Too Sweet to Die"), swim in the cesspool of American history ("Bad Times Are Comin' Round Again"), and spin yarns about losers who can't seem to change their miserable lives ("Harm's Way").
With Jon Langford's thick Northern England accent and a ramshackle delivery that harks back to the primitive sound of late-Seventies postpunk, the Waco Brothers will most surely never find a spot on TNN, nor will the transformers of country radio bounce the band's tunes from signal to signal. And they would probably rough up the ears of Jim Lauderdale's handful of listeners. But they and the other members of the Bloodshot posse draw inspiration from the same deep well, where seemingly disparate ideas are linked by a determination to blast the foundation of country's complacent musical capital. Nashville, of course, will never crumble; it has reigned victorious through countless attacks by dissidents. The rebellion, however, struggles on.