Eras, like individual artists, often get typecast. For instance, ask most fans of real country music (as differentiated from the vacuum-sealed, pre-processed kind) what they think of the acts that came out of the genre circa the late '80s and early '90s and you're apt to hear moans of displeasure, since this was the period that gave rise to Garth Brooks and his over-produced, bombastic, faux-C&W ilk. Contrary to popular belief, however, some good country material did appear during those years -- but because most of it sold like coldcakes, relatively few folks got to hear it. So praise be to Lucky Dog, a subsidiary of Sony, for reissuing a batch of platters under the umbrella title "Pick of the Litter" that deserved to be heard then and are still worth spinning now.
Let There Be Country, Marty Stuart's 1988 major-label debut -- he'd put out a disc six years earlier on the Sugar Hill imprint -- is a prime example. Sales weren't strong enough to convince Columbia to keep him around, thereby affording MCA the opportunity to snap up one of the style's best guitarists. But far from being a mere curio, Country may be Stuart's best disc to date, putting forward a collection of songs that are more than just excuses for fancy pickin' and well-shaped solos. Intelligently chosen covers from the likes of Merle Haggard ("Mirrors Don't Lie") and Bill Monroe ("Get Down on Your Knees and Pray") rub shoulders with fine Stuart originals such as the title cut, in which he persuasively contends that he's more than rhinestones and a fancy hairdo.
Rodney Crowell's Keys to the Kingdom and Life Is Messy, from 1989 and 1992, respectively, are just as strong, but they hail from the opposite side of the fence. A performer who came to prominence following a stint with Emmylou Harris's Hot Band, Crowell is a songwriter extraordinaire with a wide creative range that's heard to mighty rewarding effect on both these discs. From the rockin' good time of "My Past Is Present," on Keys, to the incisive social commentary that infuses Life's "It's Not for Me to Judge," he proves himself to be a helluva lot smarter than the average hat-wearing pretty boy. No wonder he's had such a tough time swimming in the mainstream. His forthcoming album, due early next year, is set to appear on Sugar Hill -- meaning his career is just like Stuart's, except it's going in reverse.
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The other four long-players in this "Litter" aren't as consistent as the aforementioned trio, but they all have their moments. Billy Joe Shaver's Salt of the Earth is rough-hewn country-honk with a keen understanding of heaven and hell: "You Just Can't Beat Jesus Christ" is followed directly by "The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time." The Only Years, featuring ditties by the O'Kanes cut from 1988 to 1990, is spottier, but fans of the wispy, high-lonesome sound subsequently associated with lead songwriter Kieran Kane will likely be pleased. As for Joy Lynn White's Between Midnight & Hindsight, from 1992, it provides a nice setting for White's queen-sized country pipes, while Shelby Lynne's Epic Recordings, canned in the late '80s and early '90s, is an eclectic, all-over-the-map array that catches this current critics' fave during a period when she was trying to get anything and everything to stick to the wall -- and intermittently succeeding.
Taken as a whole, these recordings provide no shortage of satisfaction even as they offer hope for today's embattled country listeners. No matter how much any given scene seems to suck, they argue, someone out there is making decent music. But you'll probably have to dig for it.