Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Lost Country

Trisha Yearwood's shallow triumph

By Grant Alden

APRIL 24, 2000:  Country music used to be about hurting and cheating and drinking it away on a bad morning and maybe figuring out what to do after. People used to live like that. Some still do. But don't ask country radio for help making it through the night. Apparently, those who have not been sedated by Prozac and a growth economy are a demographically undesirable bunch. Now, successful singles exist simply to create inoffensive spaces between commercials. Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were long ago supplanted by Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks as the central icons of country music, and consolidated radio has been their smiling accomplice ever since. There is no danger that the contemporary country artist will open a raw wound within the listener, for the genius of a Yearwood or a Brooks -- and it is a form of genius, alas -- is to sing songs written with the depth of a greeting card, and to act as if such shallowness were profound.

Thing is, Yearwood, who seems largely unaffected by megalomania, appears to mean well. And with her new Real Live Woman (MCA) she even seeks to take a few steps beyond the safety net her success has won. This suggestion comes from the liner notes, and from the presence of two supporting players who rarely appear on Music Row projects: Darrell Scott and Kenny Vaughan. Introductions are probably necessary, so forgive the digression.

Once upon a long time ago, Darrell Scott had a solo deal with EMI, though the album never came out. Today he records for Sugar Hill, and he's recently released a collaboration with former Hot Rize virtuoso Tim O'Brien called Real Time on O'Brien's Howdy Skies label. (O'Brien and Scott have, perhaps, attained this artistic freedom in part because their song, "When There's No One Around," appeared on Brooks's Sevens.) Scott regularly collaborates with songwriter Guy Clark, and he most recently toured with Steve Earle.

Kenny Vaughan is the quintessential guitar slinger. He started playing in punk-rock bands in Denver, where he once took lessons from avant-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Today he tours with singers like Kim Richey and Lucinda Williams.

Those are the brief résumés. Here's the point: Vaughan and Scott are stunning, impassioned, and versatile supporting players. Within the short phrases typically given to sidemen they are capable of setting fire to the music without invading the singer's space. Both are extraordinarily sympathetic players, and Vaughan in particular has an uncanny gift for accompanying female vocalists. But you can barely tell they were in the studio for most of Real Live Woman. Everything that makes Vaughan and Scott special -- and much of what makes country music of any generation special -- has been played down, mixed into a background texture, neutered.

There is hope in the beginning. Scott's bouzouki kicks off the Kim Richey/Mary Chapin Carpenter song "Where Are You Now" and Yearwood offers a simple, light-blue reading, forgoing histrionics. She follows the opening refrain ("Where are you now?") to the top of her range, holds the note, then wavers and retreats, having revealed nothing. Once the song gets moving, the bouzouki fades, and Yearwood's dominant partner becomes Greg Morrow's drums. Oh, you can occasionally hear Vaughan's guitar squalling, but it's mixed somewhere behind the cymbals, as a texture, instead of next to Yearwood's voice, where it might enhance -- even propel -- the longing of the lyrics.

Yearwood is in the sweet spot at the peak of her career's arc. She still sings with the glorious, powerful voice that made "She's in Love with the Boy" her first hit, back in 1990. And with the string of successes that has followed, she has the rare clout to take chances with her eighth album: because she's Trisha, radio would be likely to play along.

But Real Live Woman doesn't hurt. Neither does it soar, no matter how many virtuoso swoops and gospel phrases she adorns the songs with. "Try Me Again" is almost operatic in a Barbra Streisand kind of way, but it's all technique and little heart. Not even the title track, Bobby Cryner's cogent working-woman's anthem, sinks its talons deep into one's flesh: "I don't need to be 19 years old/Or starve myself for some weight I'm told/Will turn men's heads, been down that road/And I thank God I finally know just who I am."

It's almost a triumph, almost certainly a hit. Maybe the problem follows the chorus: "I work nine to five and I can't relate/To millionaires who somehow fate/Has smiled upon . . . " If fate has smiled upon anyone, it's Trisha Yearwood, the banker's daughter from Monticello, Georgia.

Perhaps the gilded palace of singers who now adorn the airwaves live in (and come from) such comfort that the hard truths of lives lived without safety nets escape them. Lucky them. But when Yearwood sings gently, accompanied subtly, as on "Some Days," and when she (or her producer, whoever) chooses supporting players of such evident passion, one suspects more is possible. Much more.

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