For much of the twentieth century, no American popular music held tradition more dearly than country. Often this tendency seemed to argue against change, but that was a caricature of the argument: Any genre that includes Hank, Elvis, Patsy, Buck, Waylon, Garth and the Dixie Chicks is clearly not all that interested in staying put. What binds these artists together as part of a living, evolving tradition, though, is that they all see themselves as chapters in a greater story, a story with a past that forged the present -- and can still offer advice to the future. Shania Twain rankles many country traditionalists not simply because she doesn't sound like her elders, but because it's thought that she doesn't respect them enough to believe they have anything to tell her.
Larry Cordle has a more sophisticated understanding of tradition in country music. A successful songwriter who has provided singles for everyone from Ricky Skaggs to Garth Brooks, Cordle heads Lonesome Standard Time, a top-notch contemporary bluegrass outfit that borrows what it needs from Bill Monroe but doesn't always sound much like him. The band's latest is in constant conversation with the past. It cherishes the good ("Jimmy Steele showed me the G-run I'm still using today," Cordle sings in "Black Diamond Strings"); it bids good riddance to the bad (the hard, short lives of "Old Kentucky Miners," for example); and on the title track, it wishes country radio would strike a similar balance. "The almighty dollar slowly killed tradition," Cordle sings, "and for that someone should hang." It's the most thrilling moment on one of '99's finest bluegrass efforts -- and one that looks to resonate into 2000. Alan Jackson and George Strait have reportedly just cut a duet of the song, due to be released to radio this spring. We'll see then if anyone's really serious about getting up a lynch mob.