Of the many strains of paranoia that afflict record companies, one actually grounded in reason is the fear of signing artists whose primary talent is interpreting other people's songs. In the case of Lou Ann Barton, Elektra has managed to overcome its trepidation, and one spin of her blues-rocking debut album, "Old Enough," explains why quite eloquently. A native of Fort Worth, Barton was performing with Roomful of Blues at New York's Bottom Line when legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler first heard her tough-and-tender interpretations. He and former Eagle Glenn Frey took her to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where they teamed up to produce an album that's at once nostalgic and audaciously modern. Barton's style has a smoky nasality appropriate for a blues vocalist, but there's a gutsy quality often lacking in female blues covers. On the heart-rockers and boo-hoo ballads, she sounds girlish enough to be dating the leader of the pack, but when the lyrics call for a show of pain, she belts out a wail that leaves no question where it hurts. The title track, Frankie Miller's "I'm Old Enough," is an attention-grabber, with Barton giving some sassy lip to rival that of the Muscle Shoals Horns. "Brand New Lover" is made of the same tough-cookie batter, but "It's Raining" reveals a soft center to Barton's hard approach. Written in 1962 by Allen Toussaint (under a pseudonym), the song is structured around his familiar, vaguely New Orleanean rolling 6/8 blues tempo, and was a near-classic hit for Irma Thomas. Here, Barton shows that feminine heartbreak need not consist of sissy whining; she weeps the lyrics dry, and her style is wounded but willful, full of self-recrimination that comes across more in the singing than in the song. The rhythm picks up again with "It Ain't Right," a once-standard hip-shaker for Tina Turner. But it's "Finger Poppin' Time" that defines Barton's approach more than any other song on Side One. Word is that she had to fight for inclusion of this tune on the album, yet it's here one discovers her unique ability to shift gender and generational perspectives without stripping gears. The old Hank Ballard rocker never sounded so new -- or so aggressive. Side Two is less explosive, but it's solid. Outstanding among the five tracks are "The Sudden Stop," featuring the best blues grand pause since Janis, and a get-out-yer- hankies version of the Chantels' sappy- sweet "Maybe." Barton chokes her way through the latter with a hambone enthusiasm that might be laughable if it weren't so fearlessly vulnerable. Then, like a fickle, slightly bad barfly, she's growling out the album's roadhouse rock finale, "Every Night of the Week." Frey, Wexler and Barton have done a fine job of matching artist to material, and the album as a whole has the late-night, loose- juicin' feel of the genre it embraces. Track by track, it delivers on the back-cover exhortation to "grab your bottle and your baby and turn this sumbitch up!". There are minor quibbles. For all Barton's drive and power, there's a missed step or two when the lyrics are too weak to challenge the strength of the singer. Cover versions should certainly be true to the spirit of their originals, but not at the expense of artistic individualism. In the case of several of these chestnuts, a chorus can repeat itself once too often, and I, for one, would like to see Barton press interpretretation to higher limits. She certainly has the musical and emotional range to do so, and it's annoying when redundance or an emphasis on literal authenticity get in the way of her natural blues instin David Lindley with his tacos-in-creole-sauce covers. No matter how strong and appealing her voice, it remains to be seen how far she can take her interpretive talents, though it's clear that being a Linda Ronstadt for the '80s is not the ticket. For now, however, it's enough -- even exhilarating -- just knowing a whole lot of people showed some guts on this one.
THE ALBUM -- Lou Ann Barton, "Old Enough," Asylum E1-60032.