It must be disappointing to a lot of country fans to see many of their favorite artists, even ones as tried-and-true-country as Dolly Parton, setting their sights on the larger audiences and sales of the popular market. At the same time, though, there is a growing contemporary group of country artists like Gary Stewart, Asleep at the Wheel, Moe Bandy, Micky Gilley and Alvin Crow with distinctively nonpop styles.These artists are aware of country's varied traditions, insist on fiddles not strings, and usually draw on the tougher country styles like honky-tonk and western swing.
Equally reassuring is the fact that the three most significant country singers of the last 20 years - George Jones, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard - have remained resolutely pure in musical approach, themes and devotion to the traditional audience. During the post-Hank Williams era, country music has gone through some tumultuous periods, that threatened and partially transformed by rock and now pop. The singing styles of these three men have provided the most direct and emotionally satisfying links to earlier eras and singers like Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers and Roy Acuff.
George Jones' latest album, "I Wanta Sing" (Epic PE34717), is one of the best country albums released in the past year if only because it matches Jones' beautiful, clenched-teeth singing style with the drinking and losing songs that resound so authentically with his personal life. What Jones sings "Please Don't Sell Me Anymore Whisky Tonight," his plaintive singing reinforces the weakness he freely admits and the problems they have caused him (most famous was his divorce from Tammy Wynette).
The self-deprecation that has becaome a Jones trademark is balanced by the title cut and the looney humor of "Old King Kong." "I Wanta Sing" is a joyous tribute to those singers who have most influenced Jones - Hank Williams, Lefty Frizell, Roy Acuff and Earl Monroe. Not only is the song a celebration of some of country's greatest voices, but Jones manages to work into the song snatches of classics by each of these artists. The expansion of Jones' audience in the last few years hasn't been precipitated by any stylistic changes; instead, younger and more urban listeners have begun to recognize and enjoy one of America's greatest singers.
Buck Owens, like George Jones, has been a country purist, honky-tonk practitioner, and consistent hit-maker for the last 20 years. Owens, capitalizing on the large population of displaced Okies in Southern California, helped transform Bakersfield, Calif., into a country music center in the late '50s and '60s. His clear and high tenor, great comic style, and the instrumental prowess of his Buckeroos have also helped make TV's "Hee Haw" a success. Unfortunately, his new album, "Our Old Mansion" (Warner Brothers BS 3087) is simply unconvincing.
There are good songs here ("Our Old Mansion" and "Let Me Touch you" are both beautiful laments) and the playing is tight, unobtrusive, and distinguished by the Buckeroos' pedal steel sound. The problem is one that no country singer - despite the songs, the voice or craft involved - can transcend a lack of the sincerity needed to make the simple themes and feelings of divorce seem to have lent more truth to George Jones' voice, TV seems to have drained the conviction from Owens.
Merle Haggard, who followed Buck Owens' success in California, has always seemed like a tougher, more authentic Western version of Owens mainstream county approach. Haggard once recorded a fantastic tribute album to one of his seminal influences - fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills. His latest album, "My Farewell to Elvis" (MCA 2314) is a much less successful tribute. Haggard is one of country's greatest songwriters, so it's not surprising that the only original here, "From Graceland to the Promised Land," is the album's most moving song.
Haggard's soft and dry voice, however, simply can't create the vocal fireworks needed to approach rock archetypes like "Don't Be Cruel," "jailhouse Rock" or "Heartbreak Hotel." Haggard's style is better fitted to bluesier and more sedate material like "That 's Alrigt Mama" and "Are you Lonesome Tonight." Covering a Presley tune has always been a challenge and Haggard, for all his sincerity, doesn't have the pop and rock instincts to work with Presley's repertoire.