Jerry Jeff Walker long ago made a successful crossover from late '60s folk music (he wrote "Mister Bojangles") to mid-'70s progressive country music. The liner notes to his new album, "CowJazz," herald a new hybrid between country, jazz and rock; but the claim is empty. The music inside has nothing to do with the country-jazz played so well by Asleep at the Wheel, Cowboy Jazz or even the jazz-like vocal phrasing of Willie Nelson. Instead, the album's just another collection of a few originals and some folk and country standards cloaked in Walker's loose, Texas honky-tonk style.
Walker never was a great singer, but his voice has deteriorated noticeably in recent years. What's the point of Walker growling his way through Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" with no hint of the original's sadness? The same can be said of Walker's treatment of songs by Hoyt Axton and Eddy Raven. Walker's four original songs wallow in self-serving sentimentality. "CowJazz" is enjoyable in its own sloppy way, but this kind of music has been done far better by others, including the younger Jerry Jeff Walker.
John Starling -- former lead singer of the Seldom Scene -- has moved from cult status in the bluegrass orbit to commercial success in the country mainstream, just as Ricky Skaggs did. Starling has also borrowed Skaggs' approach: Get some traditional country story-songs from Nashville's young writers and play them with so much old- fashioned, stripped-down country style that the bluegrass flourishes fit in perfectly.
Starling's second solo album, "Waitin' on a Southern Train," succeeds beyond all expectations and should help revitalize country music's best traditions.
Starling has picked 10 excellent, mostly unknown songs. The material is pure country (three songs have the word "train" in the title). But Cameron and Mikulka's "Homestead in My Heart" and Hugh Moffat's "Carolina Star" are homesick songs with heart-tugging melodies. Alan O'Bryant (harmony singer on the record) wrote a gospel funeral hymn and a honky-tonk weeper that both sound decades old.
Co-producers Starling and Paul Kraft left lots of room for top-flight bluegrass picking. The star is Seldom Scener Mike Auldridge, whose dobro moans especially mournfully on the title cut. Mandolinist Sam Bush, guitarist Barry Byrd and harmony singer Claire Lynch (who's quite Emmylou Harris-like) all get a chance to shine. Ultimately, though, it's Starling's deep, grainy voice that gives the songs their credibility. Without ever losing a bit of melody, he drolly understates every line as though the listener were already in his strictest confidence. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS JERRY JEFF WALKER, CowJazz (South Coast/MCA- 5355). JOHN STARLING, Waitin' on a Southern Train (Sugar Hill SH-3724). THE SHOWS JOHN STARLING Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere. JERRY JEFF WALKER Next Thursday at 9 at the Wax Museum.