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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.

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