Variety, Country Style

On two new reissues, a pair of C&W legends refuse to paint by the numbers.

Folks trying to fathom commercial country music in 1997 need to look no further than this summer's presentation in New York City's Central Park by singer-songwriter Garth Brooks. The concert, televised live on HBO, drew a leviathan crowd of corn-fed white people; the park probably hasn't contained so many Caucasians since the turn of the last century. But for all the cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats and silver belt buckles in view, there was precious little country in the allegedly country sounds Brooks enthusiastically hammered out. Despite a few Nashville-friendly instrumental touches, the tunes were pop through and through--and flat pop at that. Brooks tipped his hand on this score with the evening's special guests: C&W geniuses Don McLean and Billy Joel. When Garth joined Billy for a virtually unchanged version of the Joel chestnut "New York State of Mind," he unwittingly revealed why so many of today's country artists have crossed over to the non-country charts: because they don't have very far to go to get there.

By the same token, musical miscegenation of the sort Brooks practices does not deserve all the blame for the qualitative decline in hit country circa the Nineties. Purists may slag any country headliner who doesn't resemble the spiritual grandchild of Hank Williams, but by doing so, they're displaying their ignorance of the genre's roots. Country did not burst fully formed from the brow of Zeus any more than rock and roll or any other musical grouping did. Rather, it evolved out of disparate folk styles, including the blues: Jimmie Rodgers, a vital C&W precursor, built his art on the latter. To demand that it stand still now is to deliver a death blow. Outside influences can help prevent different types of music from stagnating; it's just a matter of finding the right ones.

Two recent reissues--Patsy Cline's Live at the Cimarron Ballroom, on MCA, and Charlie Rich's Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich, on Epic/Legacy--tender a strong argument for this theory. Both of these artists are rightfully regarded as country royalty, and there's nothing on these efforts that will convince any open-eared listener otherwise. To the contrary, the tunes only enhance their reputations. But at the same time, they make it clear that neither of these performers was afraid to venture beyond his or her comfort zone. They did what they wanted to do, and definitions be damned--which is why these platters kick the crap out of the recordings made by most of their country successors.

Cline's origins were as classically country as they come. Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Gore, Virginia, in 1932, she came of age in a family too poor to provide her with many luxuries beyond a radio--but that was enough. Long hours spent hanging on every note of Grand Ole Opry broadcasts convinced her to become a singer, and by her early twenties, she was winning talent contests in her home state and making appearances on radio programs. A recording contract followed, and in 1957 she made her first splash on the national scene with her run-through of "Walkin' After Midnight" on Arthur Godfrey's TV program. According to Barry McCloud, author of the C&W encyclopedia Definitive Country, Cline initially rejected "Midnight," which was written for vocalist Kay Starr, because it was "nothin' but a little ol' pop song!" She was right, of course, but her rendition of the ditty on Cimarron proves that this characteristic alone is not enough to prevent a tune from scaling country heights. Cline's husky voice, which breaks at just the right times, gives the number an earthiness that contrasts nicely with its brassy melody.

In the years between the appearance of "Midnight" and Cline's 1963 death (she perished in a plane crash that also took the lives of her manager, Ramsey Hughes, and fellow stars Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins), she became best known for her deeply felt renderings of mini-melodramas like "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy." The widespread success of these efforts tended to typecast Cline; so, too, did the increasingly creamy production values with which many of her final efforts were saddled. But Cline was a naturally eclectic entertainer, and Cimarron captures her at her relaxed best.

The recording, made on July 29, 1961, at the Cimarron Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is spotty--occasional glitches and dropouts are not hard to find. But Cline, who had suffered a broken wrist, a dislocated hip and assorted abrasions in an automobile accident the previous month, comes through loud and clear. Backed by Leon McAuliffe & His Cimarron Boys, a top-notch Western-swing act, she opens up her throat and lets fly with a cascade of round tones that are as gorgeous as they are unaffected. The result seems effortless, but it was not: After one burst of country soul, she tells the audience, "That's a frog strangler. I'm kinda out of wind."

Such candid moments are sprinkled throughout Cimarron. But what makes the disc memorable is the variety of music Cline transforms. It's no surprise that she masters Williams's "Lovesick Blues" and "I Fall to Pieces," which she warbles twice. But she's just as adept at the boisterous "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home," the old Connie Francis smash "Stupid Cupid" and, most startling of all, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the Charles Calhoun composition that became a signature tune for Big Joe Turner in 1954. On this last rollicker, Cline gives herself over to the rockabilly gods, roughening her delivery like a Wanda Jackson acolyte. It's not the best version of "Shake" that you'll ever hear, but it's a lot more than credible, and it establishes beyond question that Cline wasn't interested in the boundaries that separate music. She was interested in the music itself.

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