After 20 years in the business, Razzy Bailey is on the verge of becoming a true country star: His last five singles have topped the country charts, another half-dozen have gone Top Ten and these days he seems to be recording no wrong. Unfortunately, he's really little more than a Kenny Rogers without the rasp, a lucky picker of other people's songs. Like the songs, Bailey's voice is country standard with a thin veil of grit; but there's little to distinguish it from seven dozen other no-name singers.
"A Little More Razz" is mainstream right down to its dependence on the syrupy Nashville String Machine and overblown studio chorus. Its few honky-tonkers ("Keep a Burnin' Love on Fire" and the semi-autobiographical "Poor Boy," which would have been more believable if Bailey had written it) are semi-rowdy and clich,e-laden; its ballads are either maudlin ("Guess Who's Gonna Be a Dad") or calculatingly reflective ("20 Years Ago"). "Love Is Muddy Water" aims for gospel fervor (and misses) while "I Forgot How Bad My Good Woman Could Be" and "A Quarter to Three" confirm that in country music, possession is nine-tenths of love.
Much more interesting is Earl Thomas Conley, one of a handful of impressive country newcomers (others include Ricky Skaggs, John Anderson and George Strait). Conley's been around for a while, too, finally hitting the jackpot with last year's "Fire and Smoke." He's a double threat: His virile, elastic delivery and sweat-stained voice are reminiscent of both Merle Haggard and George Jones, and he writes some of the most impressive and reflective songs in the country idiom today. Conley's delivery is straightforward and unblemished by overproduction -- country music before it went uptown.
Among the best songs: the Haggish insistence of "This Ain't No Way to Be"; "If It Ain't Something (You Give Me)" with moving vocal curls on choice words and slightly singed endlines; the upbeat "Highway Home," with a hint of "Uncle Pen" in its chorus; the sweetly elegiac "I Have Loved You, Girl (But Not Like This Before)"; the genuinely moral "Somewhere Between Right and Wrong." Conley's introspective and self-analytical lyrics provide a genial consistency that has led to his being called a country Jackson Browne -- except Conley got his act together in the honky-tonk, not the fern bar. The result is deep, honest country music, an increasingly rare commodity. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS RAZZY BAILEY -- A Little More Razz (RCA ASHL 1-4423). EARL THOMAS CONLEY -- Somewhere Between Right and Wrong (RCA AHL 1-4348). THE SHOW RAZZY BAILEY and EARL THOMAS CONLEY at the Wax Museum on Tuesday at 8.