It's only fair that Ricky Freeman, who's responsible for Ronnie McDowell's makeup and wardrobe, is credited on the back of McDowell's new album, "Love to Burn." After all, it's Freeman who keeps McDowell's pompadour coiffed, his collar turned up, his lips glossed, and his bedroom eyes softly reflecting the unmistakable image of Elvis Presley circa 1963.
That takes care of the album cover. Inside, the illusion is carried over into the music, although, as you may remember, the early '60s were not exactly Presley's salad days: At the time he was in Hollywood, largely confined to recording drivel -- the sort of material not far removed from the songs McDowell includes on "Burn."
In fact, songs like "Blue New Orleans," bubbling with such lyrics as "Bourbon Street can't be beat for good times," seem tailor-made for one of Presley's insipid travelogues, while "Dangerous" and "Body Talking" could go undetected on any one of Presley's substandard sound tracks.
Understandably, McDowell wants to shake his image as an Elvis imitator, a fate sealed by his recording of "The King is Gone" shortly after Presley's death. And he's had considerable commercial success in that regard recently. But when McDowell doesn't try to sound exactly like Presley, he sounds like him anyway -- on a bad day, in a bad year, in a bad film. So it is, with "Love to Burn."
On the other hand, just when you thought Nashville acclaim might jeopardize Ricky Skaggs' career, along comes "Family and Friends," an album that reveals the tenacity of Skaggs' country roots. There's nothing new on the record, just heart-felt country music sung and played as it seldom is today. As the title suggests, Skaggs has gathered kith and kin for this session. The latter include his parents, his wife, Sharon White, and her family, known collectively as Buck White and the Down Home Folks; and former bluegrass stringers Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas and Bobby Hicks.
Skaggs' mountain heritage is immediately evident in the harmonies his parents bring to bear on "River of Memory" and "Won't It Be Wonderful There." Uncomplicated and shamelessly unfashionable, their singing sets the tone for the entire album. Whether it's the a capella harmonies that light up "Talk About Sufferin'," the deft bluegrass exchanges on "Lost and I'll Never Find the Way," or the wistful duet Skaggs sings with himself on "Toy Heart," the music flows through "Family and Friends" as it should -- free and naturally. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS: Ronnie McDowell -- "Love to Burn" (Epic Records FE 38017) Ricky Skaggs -- "Family and Friends"(Rounder Records 0151). THE SHOW: Barbara Mandrell, McDowell, Skaggs, John Anderson, Big Al Downing, Saturday at Bull Run Country Jamboree, Bull Run Regional Park, Manassas, 2 to 7.