Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Bashing Nashville

By Bill Friskics-Warren

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  With Robbie Fulks railing "Fuck This Town" and the Waco Brothers proclaiming "The Death of Country Music," 1997 was a banner year for Nashville bashers. And the past 12 months gave the industry's detractors plenty to gripe about. Still in the grip of radio-enforced conformity, Music Row execs continued to sign cookie-cutter acts and to bankroll soulless records loaded mostly with by-the-numbers material. That was to be expected, but the spectacles that Garth Brooks and LeAnn Rimes made of their once respectable careers embarrassed even country's staunchest supporters.

Nevertheless, "Nashville is a real easy target for smart, cool people to kick around," Fulks confessed in an interview this summer. Defending the city's rich musical legacy, he expressed respect for such contemporary "left-wing" songwriters as Bill Lloyd, Al Anderson, and Jim Lauderdale. But Fulks could just as easily have been stumping for some of country's best-selling female artists. In 1997, Matraca Berg, Deana Carter, Martina McBride, Kim Richey, and Pam Tillis all released undeniable singles and/or albums, most of them comprised of material that they wrote or cowrote. Patty Loveless and Trisha Yearwood did the same with well-chosen outside songs, while Joy Lynn White and Kathy Mattea made the gutsiest and best records of their careers. So did Julie Miller, but she's too independent for this group of mostly Music Row insiders.

These women may not sell as many concert tickets or CDs as Garth, Alan, or Vince, but they consistently say more about life's little (and not so little) ups and downs--and they say it with more style and attitude. As for the men in country music, the year's only standouts were albums by Mark Chesnutt, John Anderson, and, to a lesser extent, Jack Ingram, Delbert McClinton, Dean Miller, and Lee Roy Parnell. George Strait and Clint Black also made decent LPs, but both have sounded more committed on previous efforts. And while Buddy Miller and Dale Watson made two of 1997's strongest records, their music is so country that it barely registers on the radars of this town's pop- and rock-oriented majors.

The emergence of such commercially viable traditionalists as Sara Evans and Lee Ann Womack was, nevertheless, encouraging. Yet much as I would like to think that Music Row sees stone-country music in its future, these visually appealing young singers rarely convey the depth of the genre's older, less marketable performers.

Meanwhile, alternative country has become a male-dominated landfill for everything too loud and unruly for the commercial market. But the music's outsider cred doesn't make it all worth hearing. Too many alt-country records sound like pastiches of hillbilly textures and rock attitude--lap steel and fiddle Velcroed to whiskey-steeped vocals feigning a condescending "appreciation" of rural culture. But even if alt-country accounts for as much forgettable music as Music Row, at least it does so with attitude and without wasting nearly as much money.

Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub, Steve Earle, Robbie Fulks, Wayne Hancock, and The Waco Brothers were the shining alt-country/Americana exceptions of 1997. The Bottle Rockets, Whiskeytown, and Lonesome Bob are also worth a mention, although I included them in last week's pop-oriented column because they draw their primary inspiration from rock 'n' roll. I'd have done the same with local wonder Lambchop, if the band didn't ring such beguiling changes on the lush, string-laden Nashville Sound of the 1960s. Categories and musical approaches notwithstanding, all of these rock-bred upstarts, to paraphrase the indomitable Wacos, picked meat off the bones of what they perceived to be country's rotting carcass; the result was inspired and, at times, deeply personal music.

Country/Americana top 10

  1. Buddy Miller, Poison Love (HighTone) Mythmakers no less than Steve Earle have observed that country records as undeniable as Miller's debut, Your Love and Other Lies, only come along once a decade. Poison Love isn't quite up to that standard, but it comes close. Miller's secret is that he approaches country as soul music. Internalizing the rhythmic first principle that drives all down-home idioms, he's easily the most groove-oriented performer working in country music today.

  2. Joy Lynn White, The Lucky Few (Little Dog) When WSIX-FM previewed this album's first single, "Why Do I Love You," listeners panned it outright. Doubtless, White's preternaturally soulful voice shocked their systems: Country radio hasn't heard a woman convey this depth of emotion since Connie Smith and Tammy Wynette were burning up the charts in the late-1960s.

  3. Dale Watson, I Hate These Songs (HighTone) If Watson's lean, hard-driving honky-tonk sounds a little too close to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, that's only because the music runs deep in his blood. As a boy, Watson accompanied his truck-driving father when he played the bars and cafes of Alabama and West Tennessee. The themes of liquor, heartache, and hard wages might be clichs in the hands of lesser performers, but he renders them with detail and passion enough to convince even the most skeptical listener.

  4. Patty Loveless, Long Stretch of Lonesome (Epic) Longing, doubt, a thirst for living--the emotions that Loveless lays bare on this record are sexier than any Shania or Mindy will likely ever reveal. Added bonus: "You Don't Seem to Miss Me," a duet with George Jones that proves Loveless the equal of Melba and Tammy--at least for one song, anyway.

  5. Julie Miller, Blue Pony (HighTone) In an interview last fall, Miller referred to herself as a punk-rocker; she was only half-joking. Given the faith and intensity she brings to this enchanting, unclassifiable record, who's to second-guess her? When Miller declares herself a Christian, it's every bit as radical as when Johnny Rotten claimed to be the Antichrist.

  6. Paul Burch, Pan-American Flash (Dixie Frog) This record, as well as its just-released follow up, Wire to Wire, proves Burch to be the best kind of revivalist. With none of the irony or reverence that mars the roots moves of other performers, he renders blues, classic honky-tonk, and Western swing with vision and humor, and with little, if any, emotional distance. It also helps that he has something to say.

  7. Kathy Mattea, Love Travels (Mercury) Few people have the strength of conviction to follow their calling. Mattea has fought for the right--and privilege--to do so, and Love Travels is a luminous expression of that triumph. It has too much Hallmark sentimentality for my tastes, but if anyone making music today conveys Mattea's sense of wonder, I'd like to hear about it.

  8. Kim Richey, Bitter Sweet (Mercury) If this record had come out during the mid-'80s neo-traditionalist movement, country radio would have played such songs as "I Know" and "I'm Alright" alongside hits by Foster & Lloyd and Rosanne Cash. Today, Mercury is marketing Bitter Sweet as Americana--in other words, as a record destined to fall between the Triple A and mainstream country cracks. Too bad: The songwriting and performances on Richey's latest have an intelligence, depth, and honesty that both formats generally lack.

  9. Steve Earle, El Corazon (E-Squared/Warner Bros.) Emma Goldman and Woody Guthrie, my ass. Earle's no folkie anarchist. By day, he's a Time-Warner shop boss who doesn't ask questions about the multinational conglomerate that issues his checks. When he sings, "Here I am," though, I sit up and listen, largely because Earle's greatest subject is himself. Recognizing as much doesn't detract from the virtues of this intimate and, at times, visionary record; it just places those virtues in their rightful context.

  10. Robbie Fulks, South Mouth (Bloodshot) Unlike neo-honky-tonkers who merely ape the music of a bygone era, Fulks is an original, an artist. Like the wryly humorous traditional country singers he admires, Fulks can't help projecting his iconoclastic spirit onto his material.

    The Next 10

  11. Mark Chesnutt, Thank God for Believers (Decca)
  12. The Waco Brothers, Cowboy in Flames (Bloodshot)
  13. Lambchop, Thriller (Merge)
  14. Guy Clark, Keepers (Sugar Hill)
  15. Matraca Berg, Sunday Morning to Saturday Night (Rising Tide)
  16. Wayne Hancock, That's What Daddy Likes (Ark 21)
  17. John Anderson, Takin' the Country Back (Mercury)
  18. Jack Ingram, Livin' or Dyin' (Rising Tide)
  19. Dean Miller (Capitol)
  20. Sara Evans, Three Chords and the Truth (RCA)

Greatest Hits Albums

  1. Pam Tillis, Greatest Hits (Arista)
  2. Trisha Yearwood, (Songbook) A collection of hits (MCA)

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Music: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Nashville Scene . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch