[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] applicants need only bring a guitar, an ego and money for blank tapes -- but it is about the most difficult to keep, along with one's dignity, especially in a modern-day business where words and melody routinely count less than wardrobe and movie tie-ins.
Still, earnest acoustic music -- we used to call it "folk" -- lives on. This means there are people around the country actually making a living writing songs that paint vivid pictures without the benefit of a video version.
Here are four scattered acts still fond of -- and, in varying degrees, versed in -- that old words-and-music thing: BILL MORRISSEY -- "North" (Philo/Rounder PH1106). Morrissey's distinctive voice -- essentially a Leon Redbone bass, but with a more accessible, quirky spontaneity -- is only half the appeal of this Boston singer's second album, in which he grapples gracefully with a snowbound, hardscrabble and evidently beloved New England. Morrissey, who appears at the Birchmere this Friday (probably in corduroy, despite the heat down here), is as fine a writer as a performer: In the creepy "Pantherville" or bittersweet "He Drinks Alone," or amid the deadeye, quietly devastating spoken verse of the title cut, he's deeply in character. In the "Married Man" (written with Cormac McCarthy, the only tune of the album's 11 that isn't his alone), he's in control, sort of. In the off-the-wall "It's Dangerous Out There," he's in bed -- and he's not getting up, ever. But in the album's best moments, Morrissey is in eloquent mourning: In "My Old Town," amid some aptly angry slide-guitar work by Edward Gerhard, it's for the cheap beer and pre-condo clutter of Main Street. In "She Moved Through the Fair," it's for a crystalline moment of carefree, county-fair youth. DAVE MALLETT -- "Vital Signs" (Flying Fish FF373). You wonder how country-pop superstars like Kenny Rogers end up recording tasty but essentially meatless music when there are meat-and-potato men like Mallett hanging around Nashville, dignity intact. Mallett's voice is easy and sure, though not as strong as you'd like -- but he sure does have a way with infectious melodies. And infectious, loping rhythms. And the sort of subtle, stunningly descriptive lyrics that fit the rest of a good song like a favorite pair of jeans fit a 40-year-old farmer -- as in the fresh and wondrous title song, or in the more specific warmth of "Good Times" and "Highways." You'll be hard pressed to find two more perfectly crafted celebrations of returning spring and enduring love, respectively, than Mallett's "April" and "Red Red Rose." JIM PAGE -- "Visions in My View" (Flying Fish FF367). Those who haven't heard Jim Page are in for a pleasant surprise, especially those who call an unsettling presence pleasant. Sounding like a cross between Dylan and David Byrne, and hailing from the urban wilderness of Seattle, Page and producer Micheal O Domhnaill have put together a biting and personal little gem. Page's wry and unrestrained delivery is a match for his lyrics (and the volume of words is positively Springsteenish), which are sharply ironic, vivid, astute and not at all apolitical. "Salvador," by far the most haunting thing here, is a lament for a future Vietnam, helped along by Page's Dylanesque repetition of a simple, piercing chorus: "Whisper in the winds of war: Salvador." This cut -- and such other standouts as "Bound for Out of Town," "The Great Gritty City by the Riverside" and the sole non-original, the traditional "Willie Jean" -- benefits immeasurably from Domhnaill's spare and precise touch on synthesizer, piano and, yes, pennywhistle. JOADY GUTHRIE -- "Spys on Wall St." (Rag Baby 1027). Like the nonsequitur title of this album, in which the Bay Area-based younger brother of Arlo is committed to his first official vinyl by producer Country Joe McDonald, most of Guthrie's well-intentioned fare will leave you wondering what he really meant to say. Is this mike on? Am I missing something here? Even on his three chances with a backup band -- except maybe in the semi-amusing "Draft Me If You Can" -- Joady performs the unGuthrie-like feat of hanging back. Thus do we, eventually.