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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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.