Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Backward Glances

Three of country's biggest names look to older styles on recent albums

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  Who says people aren't buying traditional country music? Certainly not country fans, who responded overwhelmingly to recent albums of classic cover songs by LeAnn Rimes and Alan Jackson, making them the two best-selling country albums the week they were released. For the first time in a few years, Rimes climbed past Garth and Shania, as did Jackson. Both artists even managed to surpass the Dixie Chicks on the country charts.

That's an interesting reaction, given that Rimes and Jackson have been slipping slightly in recent years, and it's one Music Row should notice. While nearly every other young Nashville star is squeezing into shiny clothes and trying to look as bubbly as possible, Rimes and Jackson have staged comebacks by returning to jukebox hits from decades past. They're not alone. Dolly Parton recently released her best album in 20 years by pumping her personality and mountain-grown voice into a collection of bluegrass tunes.

All three artists have taken a traditional turn for different reasons: Jackson is taking a break from songwriting to pledge his allegiance to the kind of music Nashville seems hell-bent on leaving behind; Rimes is trying to regain her audience and her momentum by retreating to the torch 'n' twang style that originally made her such a sensation; and Parton has decided to stop trying to fit into a radio formula and has gone back to her roots.

They each go about it differently as well--and with different results. Parton takes on a traditional style but adds a few original songs to her collection. Jackson concentrates on tasteful, low-key renditions of barroom country songs, most of them from the '70s. And Rimes chooses mostly older standards, including several of Patsy Cline's and Hank Williams' most famous songs.

The most bracing, and most surprising, of the three is Parton's The Grass Is Blue. Her long-overdue return to mountain-based country music is so good that it makes one regret that she spent the '80s trying to be a pop star and the '90s trying to join the Nashville pop-country movement. But rather than curse her misguided market calculations of the past, it's better to celebrate what she's accomplishing right now. The Grass Is Blue captures the soaring glory and dark mysteries of Appalachian music as well as the audacious talent behind Parton's Daisy-Mae-in-Hollywood persona.

A collection of bluegrass rave-ups and mountain folk ballads--including outstanding takes on "Cash on the Barrelhead" and "I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open"--the album allows Parton to exploit the willful expressiveness of her sweet, soaring East Tennessee chirp. It also gives her a chance to show how truly brilliant she can be as a conceptualist and an arranger: Transforming songs by Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, and '70s redneck rockers Blackfoot into powerful acoustic tunes, she reveals the innate musical strengths she initially flashed as a young woman.

She and producer Steve Buckingham also benefit from the outstanding supporting cast, which includes stellar bluegrass players Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills, and Barry Bales, as well as guest harmony singers Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent, and Claire Lynch. In all, the album is such a treat that we can only hope this is a new career path for Parton, rather than a one-off detour.

Like Parton, Jackson manages to assert his individuality even while tipping his hat to those who helped shape his tastes and his style. On Under the Influence, he covers those who led him toward his laid-back, thoughtful delivery: There are songs by Merle Haggard, George Jones, Don Williams, Charley Pride, Johnny Paycheck, John Anderson, Gene Watson, and even Jimmy Buffett, all of whom have worked variations on the honky-tonk music that Jackson loves and continues to record.

But Jackson reaches beyond the obvious hits of those performers and instead digs out unexpected gems. Along the way, he reveals the kind of songwriting--earthy, honest, and immensely catchy--that he has dwelled upon throughout his career. As on his previous albums, these covers balance reflective, philosophical tunes with a few lighthearted romps. The best cut is a memorable cover of Hank Williams Jr.'s "The Blues Man," a song about being an entertainer that ranks alongside Haggard's "Footlights" and Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again."

What makes the album such a success, though, is that Jackson gives his own flavor to these songs. "I wear my own kind of hat," he sings in his version of an old Haggard song, and it's true. He may have helped launch the Hat Act movement of the '90s, but he has always maintained a distinctive presence that sets him apart from Music Row's recent procession of sound-alike male singers.

By contrast, Rimes has almost no personality--even when she's delving into some of country music's most memorable moments. The young singer has been roundly criticized for her album of remakes, and rightly so: There's a karaoke quality to the generic musical arrangements, and her strong but emotionless interpretations fail to give listeners much idea of the person behind the voice.

Ostensibly making a comeback move at the ripe age of 17, Rimes nonetheless proves that she sounds her best when singing the kind of old-time country torch songs that originally brought her acclaim four years ago. But instead of covering a little-known tune like her breakthrough hit "Blue," she chooses several of the best-known country songs of all-time, including "I Fall to Pieces," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Lovesick Blues," and "She's Got You."

Her remarkable voice often sounds stunningly good, but she never does anything more than simply mimic the originals. Even the arrangements strain for note-for-note remakes, right down to the signature piano part on Cline's "Crazy" and the fiddle-to-orchestra intro on the late singer's version of "Faded Love."

Granted, many of Rimes' young fans may not have heard these songs before, and, in that light, the album could provide a decent, if superficial, sampler of country standards. But the album tells us nothing about Rimes other than what we already know: that she's a young talent with preternaturally powerful pipes who likes old-time country songs. We don't learn anything else about her character, her emotions, or her heart. Parton and Jackson use their albums to reveal who they are; Rimes only seems to hide behind her.

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