There's a new wave of female vocalists tearing up the country-music charts these days. In vocal style and attitude, some of them, such as Reba McEntire, Gail Davies and Gus Hardin, recall the traditionalism of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Others, such as the Judds, Karen Brooks and Lacy J. Dalton, follow the more progressive path cleared by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
Traditional or progressive, these women have begun to take control of their careers, including songwriting and production, in order to establish their artistic identities in Nashville's bland record factory. A good example is McEntire, a traditional country singer who was voted the County Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year in 1984. From her professional start in 1975, it was clear McEntire had a rich, expressive country voice, at times recalling Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. But it took years for her to get the kind of songs and production that would best serve her hard country mannerisms.
On the heels of two No. 1 hits, McEntire has released "Have I Got a Deal for You" (MCA-5585), the first album on which she coproduces and contributes songs. There's nothing fancy about "Have I Got a Deal for You." It's just a solid set of country songs warmly and convincingly sung by McEntire and tastefully played by some of Nashville's finest.
In fact, her band seems to take as much delight in the absence of strings, synthesizers and gooey choruses as McEntire does. On "I Don't Need Nothin' You Ain't Got," she lets her band show off, and Weldon Myrick's pedal steel guitar and Johnny Gimble's fiddle tear through this western swing number with freewheeling verve.
The heart of this album, though, is McEntire's singing. On the title song or her own confessional ballad "Only in My Mind," her honest twang and perfectly controlled vocabulary of sobs, tears and warbles opens the songs up, gently but convincingly. On the folksier "Red Roses" and "Don't Forget Your Way Home," her pure upper register and stately delivery recall Dolly Parton's mountain ballads. Though the songs here are obviously products of the Nashville songwriting mill, McEntire possesses the country singer's essential gift -- the ability to transform the romantic cliche' to stone-cold truth.
Unlike McEntire, Lacy J. Dalton had no problem establishing an identity for herself when she joined Columbia in 1979. Signed as much for her songwriting skills as for her remarkable voice, Dalton quickly garnered a reputation as an "outlaw" and was often called a country music Janis Joplin. Dalton had spent years on the West Coast trying to make it as a folk, rock and soul singer, and it showed in her sophisticated outlook and voice, a smoky-toned, bluesy instrument that recalled Bonnie Bramlett or Tracy Nelson more than Tammy Wynette.
Dalton's progressive approach is obvious in her satisfying new album "Can't Run Away From Your Heart" (Columbia SC40028). In a tale of potential infidelity, "The Night Has a Heart of Its Own," Dalton displays the kind of irony and ambiguity Rosanne Cash routinely injects into romance. Despite the heavy use of acoustic instrumentation, the musical arrangements here are strikingly modern, too -- drawing on both L.A. country-rock and the progressive western style of Willie Nelson.
Nelson, in fact, shares vocals with Dalton on "Slow Movin' Outlaw," a slow-moving ballad that says "so long" to the cowboy era, hopefully for the last time. Better is Dalton's "Adios and Run," an attractive, Spanish-flavored tale in the mode of Nelson's "Pancho and Lefty."
The best moments here, though, come when Dalton's tough, sultry delivery sinks into a lyric that asserts her stance as a realistic romantic -- a vulnerable woman, but no man's fool. On Wendy Waldman's dramatic title song, Dalton achieves not only a big country hit, but one of the finest pop performances of the year. On her own "Over You," her husky vibrato and Mark O'Connor's exotic fiddle re-create the haunting effect of a lost love. If there is any irony to Dalton's record it is that, like Cash, this gifted singer-songwriter has had to seek refuge in the country market, although her music is obviously tailored only to her quite striking and sophisticated talents.