Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson weren't the only country singers to borrow electric rhythms and iconoclasm from rock 'n' roll in the early '70s. They were only the most publicized. Hank Williams Jr., Gary Stewart, John Stewart, Joe Ely, David Allen Coe and Lee Clayton all matched the three best-know country outlaws musically if not commercially.
John Stewart finally found commercial success last year. He teamed up with Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham to make "Bombs Away Dream Babies" and the hit single "Gold." This year Stewart managed to repeat that country-Mac formula without Buckingham's help on "Dream Babies Go Hollywood" (RSO 1-3074).
Gary Stewart has tried to duplicate John Stewart's formula by teaming up with the Allman Brothers on his new record, "Cactus and a Rose" (Rca AHL1-3627). The collaboration has produced a few excellent songs, a bunch of respectable songs and no best sellers yet.
Hank Williams Jr. has fallen back on cheap prejudice, country cliches and his family name to make his grab for success. His new album, "Habits Old and New" (Elektra 6E-278), contains two of his father's country classics and another song dedicated to his dad. The songs prompt comparisons that can only hurt the younger Williams.
As a Country singer, John Stewart was always a good lyricist who could hardly sing or write an original melody. Lindsey Buckingham solved this problem by arranging Stewart's chord changes into sophisticated rock-playing and harmony-singing.
On this year's album, Stewart arranged the instruments but Wendy Waldman arranged the vocals. The intricate, multi-layered harmony voices save the record. When Stewart sings about "The Raven" at sunrise, Waldman's choir (including Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson) give Stewart's literary images color and shape. The harmonies are as quiet and graceful as black wings against a red sky.
Gary Stewart is not as ambitious a lyricist as John Stewart (who can also get pompous at times). Gary Stewart is a far more convincing singer. His backwoods drawl works in a rock context where Dickie Betts has never quite succeeded. The leisurely pace of Stewart's singing and the electric punch of his musicians create a dramatic tension rather than the usual mismatch.
Betts takes advantage of Stewart's voice. Betts plays guitar on the album and collaborated with Stewart on "Harlan County Highway," the record's best cut. The Allman Brothers Band's other co-leader, Gregg Allman, also played and wrote the album. So did the Allman Brothers' new producers, Mike Lawler and Johnny Cobb.
Lawler & Cobb wrote "Roarin'," a Southern boogie designed to rattle the beer mugs off the bartop. It romps with more energy than anythng on the Allman Brother's own new album, "Reach for the Sky."
Producer Chips Moman and pianist Bobby Emmons contributed four country love songs. At first, they sound like Nashville formula tearjerkers. cYet an unusual realism creeps in. In contrast to a fairytale like "The Cowboy and the Dandy," Momans and Emmons' "Cactus and a Rose" is an unflinching look at a Texas man and Manhattan woman who just can't make it together.
Betts & Stewart's "Harlan County Highway" is a ballad tale of a Kentucky boy gone bad. The lyrics spin out the fate of a young moonshine runner. Stewart's haunting voice puts the cold crush of inevitability behind the words.
Hanks Williams Jr. once showed a lot of courage in risking his favorite-son status in country music to embrace country-rockers like the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band. On his new album, Williams betrays that heroism with reactionary songs and tuneless performances.
The worst betrayal is "Dinosaur." It's bad enough that he sings in a nasal, off-key whine and resorts to homosexual jokes. Most insulting, though, is the song's message. Williams compains about music changing into new forms like punk or disco, he boasts that he's an old "dinosaur" who refuses to change.
Most of the other songs are typical Nashville filler about honky-tonk romance and rebel pride. Williams commits all of Nashville's worst sins: His pitch is flat; his tone is flat; and his rhythms clip-clop along like a tired mule pulling a grocery cart.
"All in Alabama" is about Williams' near-fatal mountain accident in Montana in 1975. The story is great material for an autobiographical ballad, but Williams reduces it to made-for TV cliches.
Inevitably, the record's best songs are the two by Hank Williams Sr. The son gives "Kaw-Liga" a booming back-beat and "Move It on Over" a rockabilly bounce. As good as these two songs are, they only underscore how sadly lacking the rest of the record is.