Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene All Over the Country

By Michael McCall

For the 24,000 or so country music fans who gather in Nashville for Fan Fair this week, the annual event means many things--camaraderie, souvenirs, sunshine, autographs, memories, and, more than anything, music. For five days, there will be more well-known country music performers at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds than fans could ever hope to encounter in any other setting.

In this spirit, we offer a guide to our favorite country albums of the first five-and-a-half months of 1997. We'll concentrate on commercial country music, since that's generally the taste of those who have exhausted so much money and time to be in Nashville this week. At the same time, it has been a particularly good year so far for various offshoots of the country sound, especially for the youthful, rock-oriented fringe. In this regard, those whose tastes venture beyond the safe confines of country radio should be sure to check out recent albums by The Old 97s (Too Far to Care), the Waco Brothers (Cowboy in Flames), Julie Miller (Blue Pony), The Backsliders (Throwin' Rocks at the Moon), Farmer Not So John, The Dead Reckoners (Night of Reckoning), and 5 Chinese Brothers (Let's Kill Saturday Night).

If you ask us, mainstream country music is deluged with unadventurous, generic-sounding performers. But as dedicated fans know, there's still plenty of worthwhile music for those willing to take the time to find it. Besides Joy Lynn White, who is featured in this issue and whose The Lucky Few ranks as our favorite country album of 1997 at the moment, here are a few new collections that we favor:

Bar none Dale Watson, whose latest LPranks as one of the year's best. Photo by Beth Herzhaft
1. Dale Watson, I Hate These Songs (HighTone) More a throwback than a revival, Watson's third album finds the blue-collar singer further honing his personal style. With songs built around hard-nosed reflections of his own experiences, Watson draws on the work of such barroom singers as Merle Haggard and Faron Young. But rather than simply reanimating the sounds of an older era, he's a living, feeling, thinking representative of a lifestyle that country music once represented but left behind long ago. Watson has a laconic voice, a sincere songwriting style, and a working-class world view--and it's clear that he knows and cares about the words he's singing. His tunes carry a dimension of truth rarely heard in today's Music Row-generated hits.

2. Jack Ingram, Livin' or Dyin' (Rising Tide) Like Watson, Ingram took the time to hone his distinctive, entertaining delivery in front of the discriminating crowds in Texas honky-tonks before reaching out to a national audience. Over the last few years, the 26-year-old Dallas resident has developed a colorfully personal style that balances raucous honky-tonk with raw-boned sentiment. He also has a knack for coming up with refreshing songs that wrap true-to-life lyrics in some of the catchiest, most straightforward country music heard in recent times.

3. Pam Tillis, Greatest Hits (Arista) Few singers link the heart of country music with the freshness of adult pop music as capably as Pam Tillis. As her first greatest-hits collection confirms, Tillis ranks among the most mature and most consistently tasteful performers in '90s country. Her new "All the Good Ones Are Gone" carries all the emotional truth and musical richness of such past Tillis gems as "Spilled Perfume," "Let That Pony Run," "In Between Dances," and "Shake the Sugar Tree."

4. Robert Earl Keen, Picnic (Arista Austin) Like Watson and Ingram, Keen is a Texan, and he's a popular beer-hall singer capable of drawing huge crowds in his home state. The gruff-voiced songwriter pens cinematic dramas about outlaws, humorous songs built upon situations and characters rather than upon puns, and realistic songs about the self-conscious struggle for love. Through it all, he captures the complex insecurities shared by loners, lovers, losers, and regular folks.

5. Kim Richey, Bittersweet (Mercury) Kim Richey writes like she sings: clear, unpretentious, focused, and vibrant. There's a crisp lucidity to what she says and how she sounds, and a simple, natural strength reverberates throughout her artistry. Her pop-flavored material carries the elemental joys of the best melodic songcraft, and her lyrics reward those willing to give them a close listen.

6. Kathy Mattea, Love Travels (Mercury) Kathy Mattea has always been an unaffected performer--she's genuine in a way that can't be faked. On this career high point, she delivers generous-hearted songs in spare, unusually textured arrangements that add depth and movement to her warm, liquid alto.

7. Noel Haggard, One Lifetime (Atlantic) This 33-year-old son of Merle possesses a heartfelt, emotionally effective voice that will connect with fans of laid-back country. His calm conviction recalls the music of his father, and his easy assurance calls to mind such past stars as Don Williams, John Conlee, and George Hamilton IV. His songs unfold with determined grace, and the unhurried tempo focuses attention on the singer and his songs. They deserve such consideration.

8. George Strait, Carrying Your Love With Me (MCA) Country music's Mr. Reliable returns with a conservative, consistent set that displays the casual command that has made him the most enduring star of the last two decades. This collection doesn't contain the kind of welcome surprises found on 1996's Blue Clear Sky, but it does display Strait's knack for finding appropriate material and for rubbing a sense of style into the polished surface of modern country music.

9. Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, Feelin' Kinda Lucky (HighTone) Big Sandy unloads finger-snapping tunes with a light heart and a heavy sense of reverence. The Los Angeles-based band glides through hillbilly boogie, jump blues, and small-combo Western swing with an emphasis on good-time energy and breezy dynamism. The quintet's unforced enthusiasm overcomes the shallowness of the lyrics, which serve primarily as a vehicle for the sweet, flexible tones of Big Sandy's voice and for his tight band's jaunty cadences.

10. Big House, Big House (MCA) Here's a rarity: a '90s country band that doesn't rely on blown-dry, synthesized music. While Big House can harmonize and construct catchy choruses, they also go for something more than the excessively groomed sound of most modern-day commercial country bands. By flexing some muscle in slide-driven, harmonica-accented arrangements, and by slipping some soul into their swampy grooves, Big House find a good-time swagger that has more to do with Lee Roy Parnell and Delbert McClinton than with any of the permed competitors in the country-rock category.

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