Variety, Country Style

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

So, too, was Rich, who died on July 25, 1995, from a blood clot in his lung, at age 62. He's most closely associated with moderately treacly Seventies hits such as "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl," but to focus only on this aspect of his canon is to slight his remarkable range. In fact, when Rich began making music in his home state of Arkansas during the early Fifties, he offered up not country, but jazz and blues. He was a scat singer with an early combo, and most of the session performances he did for Judd Records were in the jazz field. It was not until 1958, when he was hired by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, that he began to branch out. "Lonely Weekends," the 1960 track that kicks off the first of Feel Like Going Home's two discs, is a rocker at heart, and Rich's tenor has an unmistakable Elvis feel to it. But the song also includes call-and-response backing vocals that are rooted in the gospel tradition. Even at this early stage, Rich was unable to dumb his music down. He couldn't help being himself.

Prior to Rich's 1967 move to Epic Records, where he came under the sway of country producer Billy Sherrill, his songs were dauntingly diverse, and Home does a good job of conveying his restlessness. "Who Will the Next Fool Be," a 1961 single, is comparable to the music made by Ray Charles prior to his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music long-player; it's pure jazz, R&B and gospel. Elsewhere, "There's Another Place I Can't Go," from 1962, sports lyrics that mention honky-tonks, but its slinky bass line and insinuating organ suggest a jaunty theme to a spy movie.

Even after Sherrill, who gave George Jones some of his biggest hits by pouring on the strings, remade him as a romantic balladeer, Rich still managed to make his personality felt. The 1967 turn "I Miss You So" is a showstopper that would have made Mel Torme's mouth water; "I Almost Lost My Mind," from 1969, sneaks in some unexpectedly jazzy chords; and 1974's "Don't Put No Headstone on My Grave" is a down-and-dirty bit of rhythm and blues. Finally, the title cut, culled from Rich's criminally overlooked 1992 album Pictures and Paintings, finds the Silver Fox merging all of his various techniques into a moving whole. The individual colors blend to make a new hue--one that's uncommonly Rich.

None of these achievements would have been possible had Rich and Cline played by the rules. Hence, it's hypocritical for us to complain about Garth Brooks looking beyond the country camp for inspiration. What counts is not the way an artist works, but the fruit of his labors. In other words, Brooks isn't lousy because he borrows from pop music, but because he does it so unimaginatively. If only Patsy and Charlie were still around to help him understand.

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