Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Merle Haggard are among the most lustrous names in popular music. Yet, with the exception of Nelson, new albums by these artists raise more yawns than eyebrows. It's not that the musical powers of Charles or Lewis or Haggard have diminished. Rather, their careers have settled into comfortable niches created, on the one hand, by an industry more intent on milking their mythology than challenging their talents and, on the other, by the stasis that can result from such uniquely identifiable styles. Only Nelson seems totally in control of his music and only Nelson has the artistic makeup that inexorably pushes toward creative expansion of his past.
Willie Nelson loves duets and with Merle Haggard fresh off his artistic debacle with George Jones, and with them both on the same label, well . . . we've got "Poncho and Lefty" (Epic FE 37958). Although the press blurb calls this Nelson-Haggard pairing "historic," the album comes off as an enjoyable, low-key footnote to both artists' careers. Nelson's musical sensibility dominates here. The instrumentation is the perfectly subdued and sparse mix of acoustic guitars, fiddle and mandolin that characterized Nelson's brilliant Western synthesis. The playing of Nelson, Grady Martin, Johnny Gimble and others is restrained yet emotional, somewhat jazzy and sometimes romantic in a Latin way.
There are no new songs here. Nelson and Haggard have picked 10 songs, almost all sentimental ballads emphasizing the reflective side of two men easing into older age. There is a warmth to their voices here that, along with the quiet material and acoustic instrumentation, casts a warm glow similar to the autumnal tones of "On Golden Pond." The old-timers sentiment of "It's My Lazy Day," the nostalgic "My Life's Been a Pleasure," and the road-weary "Reasons to Quit" all carry the wistful feel of rocking chair reminiscence. This is hardly either artist's swan song, but Willie and Merle are old enough and sincere enough so that when they woefully harmonize "My reasons for quitting are getting bigger each day," you have to sigh along with them.
It's been 20 years since Ray Charles recorded his fabulously successful sojourn into country music, "Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music." Surprisingly his new release, "Wish You Were Here Tonight" (Columbia FC 38293), features a straighter country sound than that historic effort, employing a simple honky-tonk backup of pedal steel, fiddle, guitar and Charles' piano. Gone are the grandiose orchestral arrangements and emotionally extravagant singing of Charles' classic interpretations of country standards like "I Can't Stop Loving You." Here Charles is less the genius stretching his talent across the soul-pop-country chasms, and more the Georgia boy doing some good honky-tonk.
Charles hasn't lost his soul; the instinctive phrasing, the comic and sexy asides, the inspirational moments are all here. Yet Charles acknowledges the inherent restraint and conservatism of the honky-tonk he sings here by reining in the somewhat overwhelming emotional force that is his trademark. A Sonny Throckmorton weeper, "You've Got the Longest Leaving Act in Town," is granted an excruciatingly pained reading by Charles that wonderfully indulges the self-pitying sentiment that is the heart of many country songs. Although the honky-tonk playing and Charles' gravelly singing are fine throughout, the material here hardly matches the country classics that Charles was known for 20 years ago.
In 1957 Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a 10 million record seller, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," with only his piano and drums. This minimalist piece of rock 'n' roll brilliance is recalled because his latest album, "My Fingers Do the Talkin' " (MCA-5387), buries the "Killer" so deep in a plebeian morass of strings, horns, choruses and guitars that he can hardly swagger, much less kill. On the rocking "Honky Tonk Heaven," Jerry Lee does some nice boogie-woogie piano and sings with his inimitable offhand fervor only to be subverted by a gratuitous fuzz guitar solo straight from honky-tonk hell.
Throughout the album, the country ballads work better than the rock 'n' roll simply because their production is less obtrusive. Instead of Lewis carrying on a typically authoritative and arrogant three-way musical conversation with Jerry Lee the rocker, the philosopher and the piano man, we have them answered by shrill choruses and redundant horn charts. Although the album proves Lewis' skills have not eroded because of his medical problems, his control over his music may have been affected by his financial problems. It would be nice to hear Jerry Lee with a small combo just interpreting a set of classics, as Willie Nelson has done. Nashville and its producers could stay at home and just leave Lewis a piano and blank tape.