Farm Report Glen Rock, PA ? My friend Jesse is a big old load of man. He weighs near 300, has a spiderweb tattoo on his left arm and sideburns the size of New Jersey. He listens to thrash punk?Blood For Blood, the Misfits?and his vanity plates match his screen name: GZLBREW.
But despite the balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll, I can't help noticing that the guitar and bass players are both women who are doing kind of a Hustler thing on the cover. Freaky. After Jesse drops me off, I try to soothe my skeeterwozzled nerves with a pile of new country CDs. But then it hits me: the men in country music are pussies; it's the women who've got the balls.
No wonder. A million moms want to take away our guns and shit. Big nasty old bubbas like me and Jesse are a dying breed. There are still a few of us out here in the ruburbs, though. In fact (I'm serious about this), in the neighboring borough of Stewartstown the other day, a sheep was "sexually assaulted" and killed by suffocation in the process. We still got the stones, baby.
But even out here we might be raising us up a generation of pussies. Why, my 12-year-old boy is more interested in hair gel than in purposeless vandalism or raping farm animals. My daughter, on the other hand, might be responsible for the Love Bug. I've heard the future, and it's she-male.
Shocking as it might be, even country music is in the hands of women now, and they are writing and playing and singing it with more oomph than ever before. It's not just the wild-cool hegemony of sister acts Dixie Chicks and SHeDaisy?this whole month long, the big silver Farm Report mailbox out on Rural Route 4 was stuffed with amazing shit. Every day.
Rebecca Lynn Howard is a phenomenon. Songs she wrote have been cut by Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery and Patty Loveless, and she's only 20. Writing is certainly at the center of Rebecca Lynn Howard (MCA). This is exactly what's going to keep country music alive.
Howard venerates the tradition and also pushes it forward, innovating within recognizable forms. "Move Me" is typical: the melody is both country rave-up and surprising in its continual modulations. But every song on the album is worth hearing several times. And what you realize at the end of that process is that you haven't heard a new artist in a long time to whom the whole country vernacular is the natural language.
This is an extremely commercial album and was produced for country radio. And it touches every genre of contemporary country music from the power ballad to the tearjerker to the party anthem. But the future of country music is going to have to be commercial, isn't it? So it might as well have this kind of craft and commitment.
Rebecca Lynn Howard explores various aspects of the country tradition with rare depth of understanding ("Jesus, Daddy, and You" says it all), but it also shows what, if we're lucky, country might sound like in another decade. The voice is strong. The songs are strong. The brain is strong. Kid's got balls.
Kristi Rose is a much more idiosyncratic case. This Is Pulp Country (Pulp Country Records, available, e.g., on Amazon.com, or kristirose.com) is high-concept camp. It wasn't recorded beautifully, and it has moments of really overwrought excess. But the idea is a great one, and Kristi's voice is haunting as hell. It's hard sometimes to tell whether you're listening to Patsy Cline (All the Right Reasons"), Peggy Lee ("Johnny Guitar") or Ethel Merman ("You Break It, You Pay").
At first I was just listening and smiling, kind of appreciating the Sherrie-Levine post-Derrida neo-appropriationist irony of it all. But pretty soon I realized I love this album. Kristi is cool?almost too cool. She sounds like Cyndi Lauper would sound after shooting heroin for 20 years. She's just a gutsy, nasty, good fucking singer. And there is one performance on this album that is as good as anything you'll ever hear: "Cheater's World."
Joanie Keller takes a much more straightforward approach to holding on to the tradition. Tammy Wynette is the obvious reference of her low-in-the-register, catch-in-the-voice singing. That is good because most women in country, perhaps under the hypocritical spell of that wimp-bitch Hillary (who's lived the politically problematic aspects of Tammy's oeuvre more than Tammy ever did), seem to have forgotten that Tammy was the most intensely expressive singer who ever recorded.
But Keller is no imitator. Sparks Are Gonna Fly (Broken Bow) is full of excellent new songs in a traditionalist vein, and Joanie interprets them with a lighter touch than Tammy would have but still with considerable intensity. There are a couple of songs here, notably "I Didn't Make This Bed for You to Lie In," that bid fair to join Tammy's in country heaven.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Tammy in the pantheon of country women are folks like Dolly and Emmylou. Tammy's powerful voice and insane dynamic range always barely masked the fact that she was falling apart completely. Tammy at her best sounded like this very line was the last lucid moment of her life. But Dolly's voice, which sounded so fragile and birdlike, always disguised and emphasized an extreme tensile strength. Dolly sounded like a delicate little flower, but you also knew she'd kick your pussy ass.
The latest of country's delicate flowers with a whim of steel is Lee Ann Womack, whose voice occasionally suggests Dolly's, and who, after a couple of very promising discs, reaches maturity on I Hope You Dance (MCA). The title cut is calculated to touch you but will actually touch you nonetheless, not least because of the absolute sincerity and simplicity with which Womack delivers the beautiful melody. Just as lovely is her cover of Don Williams' hymn "Lord I Hope this Day Is Good."
Womack was probably best known previously for "I'll Think of a Reason Later," an hilarious exploration of jealousy for her ex-boyfriend's new fiancee. But here she eschews novelty and just launches into a bunch of good songs.
Womack is herself something of a traditionalist; indeed, it seems like there's a little push and pull as she struggles against her producers to keep it country. But that tension is useful, actually, and on a song like "I Hope You Dance" the country in the performer keeps the pop in the music from swamping the emotion in the song.
But even as the testosterone thumps through the veins of country's women, the men are wandering around aimlessly in an estrogen haze.
Incredibly, even bluegrass music is infested with pussies these days. Take the latest sensation (insofar as bluegrass music can produce sensations), Nickel Creek. They're virtuosos. They have beautiful songs. And yet they're pansies. Their album Nickel Creek (Sugar Hill) is produced by Alison Krauss, and sounds a lot like her last one: trapped somewhere between American roots music and mellow-to-the-point-of-nonexistent new age.
In the world of bluegrass, playing music is a competitive sport. Three of them are champions on the fiddle-contest circuit, and two members are still teenagers. Mandolin player Chris Thile is an astonishing musician, which makes the instrumentals here a pretty wild ride. But as soon as Thile begins to sing, the disc becomes annoying. He's so damned boyish and earnest. There's no rigor.
If you're like in Tower or something and you want to hear what's wrong with this thing, skip to cut 11: "he'd many a mile to go that night, before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o." Once is once too often.
Let us now contemplate the pussification of the great Vince Gill. One of the best shows I ever saw was Vince alone with a guitar in a bar in Nashville: he did not play or sing a less-than-perfect note all night. Vince's beautiful tenor is beloved by anyone who listens to country radio, either through his own stuff or on harmonies with many other artists. He's a very serious picker as well. His last album, The Key, was one of the 10 best country discs of the 90s: an original exploration of the country tradition. Not only that, but he's producing the new Sonya Isaacs album which, whenever it finally comes out, will kick ass.
So I did not think that Vince could suck as much as he does on Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye (MCA). My beloved wife Wanda (who should know, being an AIDS widow and mother of many) calls it "Raffi Sings the Funeral Dirges." Maybe it's because he married Amy Grant. Or maybe he's just kind of lost his edge, or his mind. But this album is a bizarre foray into pure schlock. There's not a single interesting melody or gritty moment on this thing, just a wash of banal pop. Stop being such a fucking pussy, man.
Or let us ponder the ball-lessness of (God help us) Rascal Flatts, a new boy group that has a big radio hit with "Praying for Daylight." The last thing the country charts need is chirpy bubblegum with synthetic fiddles. Lyric Street Records, their label, sent me a press release along with Rascal Flatts, which said that the band members had met their hero, Merle Haggard, at a show in Milwaukee or someplace. Assignment, my young friends: listen to Merle Haggard, or go buy some prosthetic testicles.
But even after my encounter with Rascal Flatts, that Joanie Keller album had me in such a good mood that I couldn't lob anyone into the fiery pit of hell this month. So here's some bliss:
Claire Lynch, Love Light (Rounder): A lovely and ballsy and varied collection of bluegrass songs.
Erik Heatherly, Swimming in Champagne (MCA): What a great idea for this pretty young dude to cover "Flowers on the Wall." The whole album is sharp and beautifully produced by Keith Stegall. Heatherly recalls Marty Stuart: his voice is unremarkable but he's got great attitude and good songs.
George Strait, Latest, Greatest, Straitest Hits (MCA): It's amazing that George and Alan Jackson collaborated on "Murder on Music Row," which is about the end of country music, currently under way under the aegis of the major labels. But what's even more amazing is that I heard it on 106.7 the other day. Anything from George Strait is worth hearing, and there are a bunch of great songs here. But where is "Write This Down"?
Patsy Cline, True Love: A Standards Collection (MCA): If Kitty Wells or Loretta Lynn or Patty Loveless were to record "standards" it would be an absurd mistake. But Patsy was at least as much a pop and even jazz singer as she was country, and this is just a wondrous disc. "I Love You So Much It Hurts" is so perfectly suited for Patsy's voice that it practically kills you.
Dale Watson and his Lone Stars, People I've Known, Places I've Been : If Wynette is the obvious reference for Joanie Keller, Haggard is the starting point for Austin star-in-waiting Dale Watson. Maybe men in Texas still got the stones: this collection of songs is manly indeed.