Mark Brooks

Time was the average American citizen equated country music with beer-swillin', belly-achin' and cinchin' hefty belt buckles too tight. To "refined" ears, the music and the aesthetic of the genre represented a particular form of pathos with a limited demographic appeal. And though some of that twangy whining, moaning and reddening of one's neck has given way to a more radio-friendly sound that meets commercial pop in the middle of the same, dull road, country -- real country -- refuses to lie down and die like an old hound dog. One need only compare the alt-, neo-, post-, whatever-you-wanna-call-it country offerings of labels like Bloodshot Records with the prime-time dreck on the Nashville Network to see that American country music has about as much variety in style and quality as a used-car lot. As a quick look at ten very different new releases (or re-releases, as is the case with the "American Milestones" series) reveals, the contemporary country landscape has room for all kinds of artists: the traditional Williamsisms of Wayne Hancock, the interpretative lushness of Sally Timms, the sometimes goofy Robbie Fulks. So round 'em up, cowpoke, and consider giving some of these little dogies your ear. -- Laura Bond

Johnny Cash
At Folsom Prison

Willie Nelson

Marty Robbins
Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs

Merle Haggard
Big City

Tammy Wynette
Stand By Your Man
(Epic Legacy)

Today it's pretty much a given that the most interesting and individualistic country music is being made by artists on independent labels, while the acts inked to majors mainly spew out formulaic hash. But as demonstrated by these five recent reissues, put out jointly under the apt banner "American Milestones" and featuring remastered sound, first-rate packaging and a handful of bonus tracks, it wasn't always that way.

If At Folsom Prison, cut in early 1968, isn't Cash's finest album (and it might very well be), it's the one that best captures all the facets of his musical personality. Witness "Dark as a Dungeon," a pitch-black tune whose tossed-off quality gives it a ballsy grit that no doubt made it ring even truer to the literally captive audience that heard it live. (Afterward, in a comical aside, Cash says to the crowd, "I wanted to tell you, this show is being recorded for an album release on Columbia Records, so you can't say 'hell' or 'shit' or anything like that.") The material is by turns nasty ("Cocaine Blues"), doomy ("Long Black Veil"), sentimental ("Send a Picture of Mother") and ironic (the previously unreleased "Joe Bean," in which an inmate is slated to die for a murder he couldn't have committed because he was robbing a train at the time), and Cash doesn't soften one bit of it. No punk rocker has ever been tougher.

Haggard, an ex-con himself, uses a lighter touch on Big City, a mature effort from 1981. The lyrics of the title song could have been treated in celebratory fashion, but Haggard gives them a wistful spin that brings out the melancholy in the blue-collar-rebel persona he trots out in efforts such as the glad-you're-gone ditty "I Think I'm Gonna Live Forever" and the open-hearted ballad "This Song Is Mine." Likewise, "Good Old American Guest," an otherwise untroubled ode to riding the rails, implies that the world is changing for the worse, and "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)" punctuates a recitation about the withering of the American dream with the memorable image "Are we rolling downhill like a snowball headed for Hell?" Haggard says yes, and if his solutions seem more than a bit trite (he suggests that we "stand up for the flag" and make a Ford and a Chevy "that'll still last ten years like they should"), they brim with genuine emotion, not the simulated kind.

Robbins, by contrast, uses theatricality to lend drama to his songs, and the landscape he creates on Gunfighter Ballads, cut in 1959, is as vivid as anything in the John Ford canon. His vocal approach is both stirringly smooth and subtly foreboding -- he always makes it seem as if something terrible is about to happen -- and the rich atmosphere created by producer Don Law keeps the listener on edge throughout narratives like "Utah Carol," in which a simple red blanket becomes a funeral shroud, and the Western noir classic "El Paso," presented in its familiar version as well as the full-length original from which it was trimmed. When Robbins sings, "My love is stronger than my fear of death," it's clear that the character he's personifying is a dead man walking. But what a way to go.

Nelson's Stardust, from 1978, is just as stylized as Robbins's work, and the passage of decades makes its achievements clearer than ever. Doubters initially derided Nelson's decision to cover a series of pop standards as a cynical attempt to cross over to the mainstream audience -- a charge that seems especially laughable in the days of Garth "Chris Gaines" Brooks and Shania Twain, Revlon spokes-model. But the concept works because Nelson, with the help of producer Booker T. Jones, seems not the least bit self-conscious about tackling "Stardust [286K aiff]," "Blue Skies [223K aiff]," "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Someone to Watch Over Me [261K aiff]." He exudes quiet conviction throughout, and his personality is so strong that these familiar compositions wind up sounding like tunes he might have penned had he been able to find the time.  

Wynette's gifts were similar. She wasn't renowned as a songwriter; as producer Billy Sherrill reveals in his liner notes to Stand By Your Man, issued in 1968, her co-writing credit on the song that gave the album its name [220K aiff] was doled out because she helped him tinker with the last verse. But Wynette's soaring voice, which had a habit of throbbing and quailing at precisely the right moments, was as distinctive as a fingerprint; once she touched a track, it was hers. Many of the tunes assembled here are pedestrian, but even when she's saddled with something as run-of-the-mill as the previously unreleased " There's Quite a Difference [265K aiff]," she wrings every drop of pathos she can from it. By today's standards, Wynette's work is overdone, just as Cash's is too raw, Haggard's is too reactionary, Robbins's is too deliberately paced and Nelson's is too quirky. But in a country-music environment where blandness rules, they come as welcome anomalies. Too bad they're so few and far between. -- Michael Roberts

Hank Williams Jr.
(Curb Records)

When it comes to penning redneck anthems, Hank Williams Jr. is the Steinbeck of the genre, having written numerous jeans-and-flannel credos for country's working class. And long before most of today's alt-country rebels could find Nashville on a map, Hank Sr.'s boy was pissing off the suits in Music City. Stormy shows that he's still at it, though even he'll admit he may be losing a little steam. "They All Want to Go Wild (And I Want to Go Home)" is a timely lament for baby booming bar-dwellers, an answer to his many longnecked odes from the past. "I can't party all night like I used to," Williams moans, voicing a workingman's fear of the first order. Not that he's lost his edge entirely: Williams continues his hell-raisin' ways with "I'd Love to Knock the Hell Out of You," a hilarious honky-tonker with a sing-along chorus that will thrill jukebox junkies but will never reach the airwaves. There's more blue-collar bliss in "Naked Women and Beer" (a diatribe to the twisted mores of the small town) and "Hank Hill Is the King," a tribute sure to please faithful fans of that animated everyman. No, it ain't high art. But like the cartooned Hank, Bocephus doesn't care about all that; rather, he gladly accepts the fact that "a hick is a hick." The revelry continues with "Where Would We Be Without Yankees" (among others things, Williams reveals, we'd have no Three Stooges and no NFL). The gridiron theme reappears on a nostalgic glory-days ditty titled "Sometimes I Feel Like Joe Montana." Odd stuff, to be sure, but it's damn charming in its straight-faced proletarian approach. Unfortunately, when Williams plays it straight, Stormy loses some fury. The Western lore of "Gibbonsville Gold" fails to pan out, and the loving sentiments of "All Jokes Aside" seem a tad out of place on this made-for-partying platter. But if you're a closet good ol' boy or girl in search of a soundtrack, this is perfect dirt-under-the-nails music. Give 'em hell, Bocephus. -- Marty Jones

Wayne Hancock
Wild, Free & Reckless
(ARK21 Records)

Ever lie in bed and wonder where Hank Williams would be if God had given him a second chance? He'd be doing just what Wayne Hancock does -- playing unadulterated country in some modest venue, toiling away on the far edge of the mainstream. On his nights off, he'd sit in those same smoky joints and listen to young Wayne, his bony face split by an ear-to-ear grin over how well his legacy has been maintained.

Hancock's brilliant new disc -- full of wonder cuts, mixed and mastered in under a week's time -- delivers fifteen tracks of the pure Williams-style country-and-Western. Wayne "the Train" and his mates rock and bop with the same tight-in-the-reins joy of Hancock's idol, but they infuse it all with freshness and a personal stamp. Hillbilly boppers such as "Flatland Boogie," "It's Saturday Night" and "Gone Gone Gone" are vintage "Move It On Over" gems, set free by tasty fills from steel-guitar ace Jeremy Wakefield. Wakefield's playing is the perfect complement to Hancock's braying schoolyard drawl. "Kansas City Blues," "Smell That Bread" and the title track fulfill the two-step quotient with the band swinging neat and clean, free from the hyper motions of more popular but less rustic neo-swing stuff. All of these pleasures mean Hancock is still the staunch General Patton of insurgent country, but it doesn't mean he's afraid to trade his bulldog ex-Marine stance for something more sensitive. On "That's Why I Ride" and "You Don't Have to Cry," Hancock cools his boot heels in a pair of late-night crooners that bring on the sweat and goosebumps. These moments leave the listener pondering the magnolia scent on the breeze, the steamy pleasures of a midnight summer stroll or a hand-holding session in the parlor. If more humans could communicate love and faith and optimism as honestly as Hancock does here, the divorce rate would plummet. Flaws? Some may tire of Hancock's frequent call-outs for solos à la Bob Wills, and neo-country cats may simply have trouble handling so much damned authenticity. But you can't fault Hancock for his sense of responsibility. Besides, like the Flat Duo Jets's Dexter Romweber, few artists can so succinctly capture the sense of restless ache and wanting in forty-year-old chord structures. -- Jones  

Asleep at the Wheel
Ride With Bob: A Tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys
(SKG Music)

Somewhere in Texas, there's a honky-tonk where the twangy electric guitars have a liquid sound, like the magic fluid inside a Lone Star longneck. Where stately fiddles rule, where Dwight Yoakam channels the ghost of a country gentleman singing through one of those big chrome microphones, and the swingin' big band is anything but asleep. Where there's a passel of blondes out in the audience that looks like the Dixie Chicks and a redhead who's just gotta be Reba McEntire. Where the lonesome plaint "I ain't got nobody" simply means everybody dance now, and the boys on stage take solos that run the pants off those gimcrack jazz players up north. Where Merle Haggard wanders around menacingly, crying with Clint Black and Tim McGraw before happily remembering that he never had no use for women with store-bought blonde hair anyway. It's an innocent place where "stay all night, stay a little longer" simply means "dance all night, dance a little longer," but nobody can be responsible for whatever might happen in the hot, black humidity out behind the shed. Where a couple of young'uns like Shawn Colvin and Lyle Lovett sing a duet called "Faded Love," which everyone knows, and the folks out in the glittery darkness slow dance reverently in a circle around the worn-down, sawdust-covered planks of the dance floor -- their arms are around their honey-pies, but their minds are on that silky, excited "Ah ha," the one that made this music bigger than their whole damn state. They know it don't matter if the Squirrel Nut Zippers or Manhattan Transfer are in Texas. Bob Wills is still the king. -- C.J. Janovy

Sally Timms
Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments...For Lost Buckaroos

If Twilight Laments were judged strictly in terms of authenticity, it would deserve a slagging. You see, Timms, the "Cowboy Sally" of the title above, has made the majority of her career hay as a vocalist for the Mekons, a merrily uncategorizable punk/art band formed in Leeds, a city in Great Britain not exactly renowned as the Nashville of Europe. Moreover, the cover shot suggests a level of self-consciousness that can be fatal in a style that lives and dies on sincerity. But while Timms has no objection to tinkering with the rudiments of the genre, she'd never dream of sneering at them -- and that makes all the difference.

"The Sad Milkman" is an early test; its cryptic lyrics (by Rennie Sparks) about a young man eager to jump off a roof into the arms of the moon seem to invite a loopy, superficial interpretation. Instead, Timms and her fellows (including her husband, fellow Mekon Jon Langford) take the tune at a mournful pace, and her rich, full-bodied vocals, swathed in plenty of atmospheric studio echo, drift over the melody like a wisp of smoke. She also shines on "Dark Sun," a Timms-Langford composition that mates snappy imagery ("When the first one falls/We'll be crawling up walls") with an appropriately arid arrangement, and her transformation of y'allternative icon Robbie Fulks's "In Bristol Town One Bright Day" into English folk lament suggests that the distance between American C&W and the musical traditions of merry old England isn't as far as it might seem. Likewise, the Carter Family affectations heard throughout "Snowbird" and the south-of-the-border balladry of "Canción Para Mi Padre" seem like a loving and logical merger of musical influences, not the cheeky affectations of people whose fondness for John Wayne movies is rooted in irony.  

To put it another way, Timms doesn't seem to be winking as she sings these songs, and while the closer, "Rock Me to Sleep" (penned by onetime Denverite Jill Sobule and ex-Bongos frontman Richard Barone), isn't really a country song at all, Timms's caressing delivery makes the point moot. The saddest thing about Twilight Laments is that it isn't longer. -- Roberts

Robbie Fulks
The Very Best of Robbie Fulks

As he mentions in his disc's liner notes, Robbie Fulks's new The Very Best of Robbie Fulks is "the cream of the last ten years of my exciting and multi-dimensional recording career, or at least that portion we could get licensing on." This winking admission gives the lucky listener who purchases this disc (it's available only through Fulks's Web site, at an idea of what the singer's career has been like. After earning cult-hero alt-country status in Chicago, Fulks took a stab at Nashville and the big leagues of mainstream country. As he points out in "Fuck This Town," from his killer previous disc, South Mouth, the experience proved pointless: "I shook a lot of hands, ate a lot of lunch, wrote a lot of dumbass songs." The truth is, though, that Fulks couldn't write a dumb song to save his life, as the depth of the outtakes and one-offs here quickly prove. "Jean Arthur" is irresistible twang -- sunny and tender in the lyrics, steel guitars, and hooks as big as the Sears Tower. But while Fulks inks heartfelt numbers as well as anyone, it's when he sharpens his pen that he really shines. "Roots Rock Weirdoes" is a scathing stab at the vintage-obsessed whose aesthetic requirements include fishnet stockings on every woman, unfiltered Camels rolled under every sleeve and "for every man a tattoo, a Chevy and a dumb nickname." Ouch! "Love Ain't Nothin'" is just as sharp, a typical Fulks composition that wraps conventional Western swing arrangements around brand-new lyrical terrain. In the snide vignette, perpetually glum couples dream of new lovers, and Music City boys use romance to sell records to the "bubbas" who want to appear sensitive. "There's nothing wrong with humpin', but look before you jump in," Fulks sings while a tasty combo stately vamps behind him. Fulks's straight-razor wit also sharpens his weepers. "Parallel Bars" recounts how the singer and his ex now kill time in separate drinking universes, washing down the ugly truth. "I Just Want to Meet the Man" is a tearjerker of a different sort: The singer stands on the driveway of his former lover's home and begs to be introduced to the man who pampers his children "and left his poison inside of you." If all of this weren't enough value for your entertainment dollar, "Very Best" includes kooky anthems that stretch from a tribute to Susanna Hoffs ("That Bangle Girl") to a tale of insect love ("Wedding of the Bugs"). There are more word-rich country standards, too, like "Sleepin' on the Job of Love" and "You Break It -- You Pay," the ultimate don't-play-with-my-emotions number. Alt-country, indeed. -- Jones

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