"Hell is that, hon? It ain't...bluegrass?"
She paused for another moment, struck dumb by the nameless horror, as these words played:
Come there's safety in the blood
(Hide you in the blood of Jesus)
Come plunge you in the crimson blood
"Christian bluegrass? I'm in my own fuckin' house and I'm listening to Christian bluegrass? That's it, I'm outta here." And she started to pack for Austin, whence she came. I managed eventually to smooth things over with the Astroglide and the bacon.
If anything could have converted Wanda from her unique blend of Hinduism, atheism and sheer irritability, it should have been the Dry Branch Fire Squad. Memories that Bless & Burn (Rounder), which contains some new material and also serves as a retrospective of a 20-year career, is a masterpiece of bluegrass gospel.
The title hymn is an original, but I swear it sounds timeless, like it was written by the Appalachian Mountains themselves. "Memories That Bless & Burn" is as basic and as essential as "Amazing Grace." A minor-key celebration of death and mourning, it is true and it is beautiful. In fact, everything on this disc is true and beautiful and inspired and dark and weird, but several cuts stand out as classics: "Were You There," "Dip Your Fingers in Some Water," "Touch the Hem of His Garment."
I'm a Christian farmer, and America is a Christian nation. All of the Founding Fathers were Christians, with trivial exceptions such as Jefferson, and Franklin ("I have found Christian dogma unintelligible"). America prints "In God We Trust" on its money, and if you're wondering which God that refers to, or, more deeply, to which God that refers, it doesn't say "In Kali We Trust," or "In Morrissey We Trust." The only way to avoid being lobbed into the pit of fire is to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior and Gary Bauer as your personal president. Right? Right.
Like me, the Dry Branch Fire Squad handles snakes and is unalterably opposed to sin. But as long as there are Hank Williamses among us, sin will be strong. You may remember a little ditty by Hank II that went: "If I get stoned and sing all night long, it's a family tradition." Well, the first time I heard that there was an artist out there billed as "Hank Williams III," I feared that, as usual, I was being made the butt of a tasteless joke. Possibly "Hank III" was some group of RISD auteurs ragging on the sacred memory of Hank Sr. And yet the promo people assured me that this was no jive: it was Hank Williams Jr.'s son. And damned if he didn't look kinda like his grandpappy on the album.
And sound like him, too. The first time I put on Risin' Outlaw (Curb) I wasn't sure whether it was serious or parodic: it was so hardcore that it was almost insane. I used to live in Cottondale, AL, but this dude has a drawl that must originate in Antarctica or something. Anyway, my dear family and friends snickered and jeered. I burst into tears and turned it off.
But then the next time I was alone I put it on again. And again. And soon a whole bunch of the songs were lodged in my head like shotgun pellets. From the first cut:
I might get into Shania's pants
But I don't think I got a chance.
But I ain't sayin' I won't try
To do it all before I die
I might win but if I lose
I'll just blame it on the Jews
By the time I was into the last couple of cuts, which seem to have been recorded on a cheap dictation machine in a little honkytonk somewhere, I was one satisfied rural American. The Hanks are sinners and they encourage others to sin. Yet I can't help thinking that they're still coasting on "I Saw the Light": Jesus is holding their place in heaven while they shoot morphine. Ain't no airplay, but I'm praying Hank III makes it. And he will, too, if all Christians of goodwill buy his album.
Now let us make a quick comparison of two albums: I'm Not so Tough (BNA) by Mindy McCready and Breathe (Warner Bros.) by Faith Hill. Why are we comparing these albums? One of my first memories was my mama warning me about brazen strumpets, and these girls manifest a certain definite hussiness: they are steaming pits of pure temptation, doe-eyed twentysomething blondes who wear only lingerie and gaze out at you from the covers of their CDs with looks that promise infinite bliss. And both are devoted to transcending country music and being pop stars.
And yet one sucks and the other doesn't. How can this be? Well, let's just say that Faith picked a bunch of really bad songs. Let's say that Faith is purveying pure gruel. Let's say that there's not a single interesting non-whitebread-type moment on the entire tired disc. She's got a nice little white girl's voice, but whether she's trying to do Heart or Celine Dion, the result is boring.
But Mindy at least has oomph, and Lord knows a harlot oughta have oomph, like that tart Lisa who hangs out down there in the parking lot of the Getty Mart. But anyway, there are some good songs here, notably the collaboration between the writers Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg: "All I Want Is Everything." Now wanting everything is not a very Christian attitude, is it? First off, ain't charitable. And second, a good Christian really ought to want nothing. And third, what the hell is everything? Told you. But she knows how to rock this great song out.
The night after the Dry Branch-meets-Wanda incident, the Lord appeared to me and appointed me to stand in judgment of the world, just as he once did to the great Gary Bauer. Here's a summary of the results.
Reba McEntire, So Good Together (MCA). The usual Nashville success story: The massive talent. The stunning debut. The miserable, decades-long failure of taste. Next thing you know, you're being spit-roasted by Satan.
Yankee Grey, Untamed (Monument). "All things considered I'm doing just fine, even though you left a hole the size of Texas deep inside." My young 'un Emma's gloss: "Either they're really, really, really fat, or they don't exist at all." If only.
Tracy Byrd, It's About Time (RCA). He's got a big old voice. He's done some great shit. This is not a disaster. But buy the last one or wait for the next one.
Jack Ingram, Hey You (Lucky Dog). Jack is very Austin. Kind of a less challenging Steve Earle thing. Real, and real cool.
Alan Jackson, Under the Influence (Arista). Along with Dwight Yoakam, the best country artist of his generation. Here he covers a scad of classics from the previous generation.
Trace Adkins, more... (Capitol). Receives eternal bliss merely for "I Can Dig It."
Bruce Robison, Long Way Home From Anywhere (Lucky Dog). This album is simple, basic, good. And being Kelly Willis' husband is a glorious martyrdom.
I'm working on saving Wanda's soul so that I don't have to cast her into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. The only possible solution is continual repetition of Memories That Bless & Burn, already well under way. This year as Jack Frost roasts on an open fire and chestnuts nip at our noses, we'll be basting us in the blood of Jesus. Wait, baby, put down that chainsaw.