There is talk that the bluegrass-related sounds of Appalachia will revitalize the country music of the '80s in the same way that the progressive country-rock of Texas, or outlaw movement, helped save the '70s.
With Ricky Skaggs and Emmy Lou Harris blazing the trail and family harmony groups like the Kendalls, Judds and Whites following, visions of back porch hoedowns in downtown Nashville spring to mind. The truth is, though, Skaggs' spectacular success is due more to his unique creative skills as a producer and pop revisionist than to any new-found love in Kenny Rogers fans for more authentic music.
Instructive of the real distance between traditional bluegrass and the record charts are two versions of "Don't Cheat in Our Home Town," both by Skaggs. The first version, now available on the re-release of "Second Generation Blue Grass" (Rebel 1504), was recorded in 1971 by 15-year-old Skaggs and Keith Whitley backed by Ralph Stanley's band.
With the light bounce of an acoustic bass and Stanley's banjo leading the way, Skaggs and Whitley re-create the ancient tone of the Stanley Brothers with uncanny fidelity. Skaggs' 1983 re-recording of the song, a national hit, is bluegrass only by implication. Not only does it have a rock-solid bottom of electric bass and drums, but it also features a thoroughly contemporary tangle of electric and pedal steel guitar.
The point is, in the same way that Bill Monroe's bluegrass was a creative, but hardly literal, representation of the old-time sound, Skaggs music creatively mirrors bluegrass and its virtues without really being the music.
Skaggs' new album, "Country Boy" (Epic FE39410), continues his saga as country's high-tech rustic, a pop perfectionist with straw in his teeth. His material wanders among folk (Peter Rowan's catchy "Rendezvous"), gospel ("I'm Ready to Go"), bluegrass (Monroe's "Wheel Hoss") and honky-tonk sources (George Jones' "Window Up Above"), and the fiery instrumental play is as much swing and honky-tonk as bluegrass. In fact, bluegrass' signature instrument, the banjo, is rarely heard on the album.
Nonetheless, "Country Boy," like all of Skaggs' records, evokes something old, sincere and at odds with the rest of Nashville. If there's a surprise, it's the knack Skaggs continues to develop for hard country sounds. More than ever, he features Lloyd Green's and Bruce Bouton's tensile pedal steel licks, and his version of "Window Up Above" sounds great precisely because his agile mountain tenor captures the emotional estrangement that is the heart of honky-tonk.
There's no doubt that "Country Boy" is an excellent country album, although predictably excellent. This is Skaggs' fourth major label release; his most important impact may not be opening Nashville to bluegrass, but rather confirming the vitality and signficance of the bluegrass community that spawned him. His music may lead at least the more curious and adventuresome country fan to more rough-hewn performers like Delia Bell and Bill Grant, or Hazel Dickens. Both have new albums out and, in both cases, you don't have to worry about a surfeit of polish or a lack of soul. The high, lonesome sound runneth over.
The loneliness that inhabits Bell and Grant's music is personal and romantic, while the haunting dislocation that runs through Hazel Dickens' "By the Sweat of My Brow" (Rounder 0200) is often tied to larger cultural forces.
And while this renders Dickens something of the topical folk singer (and her stark vocals and social empathy reinforce the image), her album carries the beauty and sweet sentimentality of the best mountain music. Dickens has her finest moments on two romances, "Scars From an Old Love" and the lilting waltz "Go Away With Me." Here an angelic air is created as the lovely voices of Phyllis Boyens and Jean French delicately embroider Dickens' sturdier timbre.