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Loretta teams up with Jack White on new CD

Stewart Oksenhorn

It’s a countryful Fourth of July weekend, what with Michael Martin Murphey bringing his Westfest to the Roaring Fork Valley for the first time. Headliners include Crystal Gale, Suzy Boggus and Murphey himself.Following are reviews of recent country-flavored CDs.Loretta Lynn, “Van Lear Rose”produced by Jack White (Interscope)Throwing Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter, into a room with Jack White, half of the contemporary blues-rock duo the White Stripes, isn’t an odd idea at all. Athorough appreciation of roots music is easily heard in the White Stripes’ sound, and last year’s wonderful, old-timey soundtrack to “Cold Mountain” featured an acoustic, countryish White.Listen to “Van Lear Rose” and you see how ideal this match is. With Lynn writing all the material, and White playing guitar and rounding up a band – the Do Whaters – that splits the difference between traditional country and sharp rock, the album is a beauty. Both sides equally keep up their ends of the deal. Lynn’s songs are aching and genuine, tales of drinking (the outstanding “Portland, Oregon,” a duet with White), hard-as-nails romantic entanglements (“Family Tree”) and love so strong it hurts (“Have Mercy”). White, while providing a fuzz-toned country-rock texture, never takes Lynn’s voice away from its country essence, but prods her toward something unique, like the hushed, spoken voice she adopts on “Little Red Shoes.”

Jim Lauderdale, “Headed for the Hills”produced by Lauderdale and Tim Coats (Dualtone)Singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale has existed just below the public’s radar, though he is profoundly respected in bluegrass and traditional country circles. “Headed for the Hills” could, perhaps, be a breakout album, thanks to the guest list alone, which includes such Nashville lights as Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch and more. Bringing attention from another side is Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who co-wrote all the songs with Lauderdale.Even with all the guest pickers and singers, “Headed for the Hills” sticks tight to Lauderdale’s plain-as-dirt way of making music. His voice isn’t a great one in any obvious way, but he keeps it front-and-center on these smart country-folk songs. Lauderdale doesn’t allow his talented guests to outshine him – for which you can either admire his integrity or consider him a fool.The Creekdippers, “Mystic Theatre”produced by Mark Olson (Glitterhouse Records)The Creekdippers – comprising the married couple of Mark Olson, founder of roots-rock group the Jayhawks, and singer Victoria Williams – make alt-country music through a slightly twisted filter. Both Olson and Williams have voices that will never be big on commercial radio, especially Olson’s, but just might settle comfortably into the ears of listeners who prefer something off-kilter. The arrangements feature dulcimers, pedal steel guitars and violins, and when they balance beauty and quirkiness, as on the love-gone-bad ballad “Betsy Dupree,” it is lovely. One wishes for more consistency on “Mystic Theatre,” but the high points make are worth digging for.

Old 97’s, “Drag It Up”produced by Mark Neill (New West)To call the music of Old 97’s, a quartet put together in Texas a decade ago, country-rock group barely begins to describe the sounds on “Drag It Up,” their sixth album. On “Smokers,” there’s a ska-punkish beat; “Borrowed Bride” has the melodicism of Rufus Wainwright; and “Coahuila” is a throwback to Jan & Dean surf-rock. And you don’t have to strain to hear country-swing and Byrds-style harmonies in “Blinding Sheets of Rain.” And yes, there is stomping country-rock in the opening tune, “Won’t Be Home.” Consider “Drag It Up” a tour through virtually every kind of country blend dreamed up over the last 35 years, bound together by the voice of Rhett Miller, who has dreamy pop leanings.Johnny Cash, “Life”(Columbia/Legacy)”Life” is yet another compilation of the late Johnny Cash’s music, a sequel to the trilogy “Love, God, Murder.” That earlier set made clear sense; Cash’s songs could easily be divided into the love songs, the God songs, the murder songs. “Life” is different, intended, I suppose, to sum up Cash’s multi-faceted life.The single-CD covers many of Cash’s peak moments, and they confirm that Cash was country music’s greatest voice. “Life” includes the ironic “Country Trash,” Cash’s splendid cover of the Bob Dylan outlaw tune “Wanted Man,” and the no-doubt-about-it love song “You’re the Nearest Thing to Heaven.” It concludes appropriately with “Lead Me Gently Home.”The problem here is that no account of Cash’s recording life is anywhere near complete without including the final chapter – the series of “American” recordings made with Rick Rubin that rival, in importance and guts, anything Cash ever did.

BR549, “Tangled in the Pines”produced by BR549 and”Cowboy” Keith Thompson (Dualtone)There’s nothing fancy, or for that matter, distinctive, about “Tangled in the Pines,” the sixth album by Nashville’s BR549. The music here is a twangy, cliched, slightly goofy take on honky-tonk that holds little appeal.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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