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Hunting for real country (it ain’t on the radio)

Aspen Times writer
Tony Baker photo.
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As country music has been hijacked in recent years by slickly processed acts, the backlash from those defending the honor of real country music seems to have grown as big as the lash itself. Denver singer-bandleader Halden Wofford, who leads his Western swing band the Hi-Beams to a gig on Sunday, Aug. 15, at Basalt River Days, is the latest to register his complaint: “It all sounds like Celine Dion to me,” said Wofford of the come-and-go singers who dominate country radio. “It’s disturbing what they’re talking about,” he continued, referring to a recent front-page feature in the Denver Post on the latest crop of country hitmakers, including Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson. “How they’re television-friendly, how they had cosmetic surgery on their teeth. And that’s not us.”Following are reviews of recent albums that are probably closer to Wofford’s ideal of country music.Old Crow Medicine Show, “O.C.M.S”produced by David Rawlings (Nettwerk America)With the enthusiasm of someone discovering gold, the 20-somethings who comprise Old Crow Medicine Show take old-timey fiddle tunes, blues and rags and drag them, a-screamin’ and a-yellin,’ into the 21st century. Not that it hasn’t been done before, but Old Crow Medicine Show gets points for sounding like a genuine 1930s string quintet transported into a modern recording studio. Even the Vietnam lament “Big Time in the Jungle,” one of a handful of original tunes here, takes an old-timey point of view, telling the story of a young Southerner plucked from his rural existence and dropped in a war he doesn’t understand. Elsewhere, the Old Crows cover the blues standard “CC Rider” and the cocaine rag “Tell It to Me,” give life to the obscure Dylan tune “Wagon Wheel,” and whip up originals like the breakneck fiddle tune “Hard to Tell.”Old Crow Medicine Show plays the Wheeler Opera House on Sept. 2, opening for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Rawlings not only produced “O.C.M.S.,” but also regularly joins in as the “sixth Crow” on stage.

“The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family”produced by John Carter Cash (Dualtone)This tribute to the Carter Family, the first family of country music, plays it safe and close to home. The album was produced by family member John Carter Cash, and includes tracks from the stalwarts of roots country – including the late Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and Rosanne Cash, as well as George Jones, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. Most of the tracks are played on acoustic instruments, sung in the manner of the Carter Family, and recorded with no frills. There’s no sense of risk-taking; with an actual member of the Family overseeing things, there seems to be too much respect paid to the Carters. If John Carter Cash had really wanted to see how the songs stand up to time – the central point of his essay in the liner notes – he should have brought in at least a few singers from outside the ring, and encouraged more experimentation. “The Unbroken Circle” is reverent, not revelatory.”Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck”produced by Robbie Fulks (Sugar Hill)”The Unbroken Circle” should have taken a cue from “Touch My Heart.” The tribute to the late Johnny Paycheck rounds up some straight-country legends (Paycheck’s old boss George Jones, Buck Owens) but also brings in alt-country types (Jim Lauderdale, Hank Williams III, producer Robbie Fulks), rockabilly singers (Marshall Crenshaw), and rockers (Dave Alvin, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy) who match Paycheck more in spirit than style.

The result is a more diverse and adventurous tribute. Mavis Staples gives a full-on soul feel to “Touch My Heart”; Hank Williams combines old and new on a chilly take of “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised”; and Dave Alvin’s version of “11 Months and 29 Days” is inventive, big-beat rockabilly. Best of all, the album gets most daring on Paycheck’s signature tune, “Take This Job and Shove It.” The version here combines the voices of oldsters Bobby Bare, Radney Foster and Buck Owens with Jeff Tweedy, for a rollicking, defiant romp.Burrito Deluxe, “The Whole Enchilada”produced by Garth Hudson, Carlton Moody and Burrito Deluxe (Luna Chica)One of the distinct shades of country music is California country. The subgenre traces its roots to Buck Owens’ Bakersfield sound and through the country-rock of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Gram Parsons-era Byrds. Burrito Deluxe has direct connections to this history: Sneaky Pete Kleinow – who plays the pedal steel guitar, an essential building block of this sound – was a founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Kleinow is surrounded by some top roots talent, including Garth Hudson of The Band and drummer Jeff “Stick” Davis of the Amazing Rhythm Aces.Burrito Deluxe explores many country corners on their second album, always with a look back at the roots of the music. There’s Band-style country boogie on the love ballad “Everywhere I Go”; Western swing on “You Got Gold”; and the hard luck, Merl Haggard-esque “All I Had Left (Left with You),” led by Hudson’s tinkling piano. Burrito Deluxe also covers actual Haggard with a take on “Way Back in the Mountains,” and throws in a worthwhile version of “The Letter.” Giving all the material an unforced twang is singer Carlton Moody, whose father Dwight was a fiddler with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.”The Whole Enchilada” ends with “Rex Bob Lowenstein,” about an old-school, music-loving DJ who “will play String Cheese, U2 and Little Feat/And … the band from the college down the street.” Rex Bob loses his job when a new, marketing-driven playlist is instituted. It’s a fine satire on how commercial radio has sold its soul.

Junior Brown, “Down Home Chrome”produced by Brown (Telarc)Junior Brown may have some cutting-edge equipment: his dual-pronged guitsteel is a double-necked instrument that combines electric six-string and steel guitar. But Brown’s heart is in country’s past, with a vocal delivery that shows much respect for Ernest Tubb. On “Down Home Chrome,” Brown is more of a traditionalist than ever. Most of the time, anyway. On past albums, he has shown Hendrix-like flashes on his axe. Here, he actually does a Hendrix cover, “Foxy Lady,” with full psychedelic treatment. And “Monkey Wrench Blues” is a jammed-out blues marathon. But Brown saves these two as the album’s final tracks. Prior to that, he plays it fairly straight, crooning “Jimmy Jones” and swinging through “Two Rons Don’t Make a Right.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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