A bunch of Texas cowboys may have saved country music from itself. While Nashville spent the past dozen years squeezing its songwriters into rigid formulas, Texas was nurturing its tradition of eccentric cowboy troubadours. Once a year at the Kerrville Folk Festival and every weekend at little bars in Austin and Houston, its singer-songwriters were encouraged to be as stubbornly peculiar as possible.
The older generation -- Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Susanna Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock -- has helped to develop a whole new generation of heirs: Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Radney Foster, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen and Fred Koller. Now that Nashville has loosened up a bit, these young Texans are providing some of the most original songs in country music.
Lyle Lovett: 'Pontiac'
Lyle Lovett may well be the most eccentric talent of the bunch. With a bundle of curls perched precariously atop his razor-thin frame, he often performs in concert with a cellist and conga player. His second album, "Pontiac" (MCA/Curb 42028), recalls the cabaret/short-story song writing approach of L.A.'s Randy Newman and Tom Waits. Yet Lovett's songs are unmistakably Texan -- from their saloon settings to their honky-tonk musical flavors.
Like his 1985 debut album, "Pontiac" is a frustrating mix of brilliant inspirations and more pedestrian fare. Lovett's dry, drawling voice and his gently swinging melodies are the perfect vehicles for his story-songs when they set up familiar expectations and then pull the rug out from under your feet. When his songs aren't so surprising, his voice and music are revealed as the ordinary tools they are.
The album opens with "If I Had a Boat," a delightful song about boyhood fantasies. Lovett imagines himself riding his pony on his boat out upon the sea -- a formulation that captures not only the impracticality of childhood wishes but also their persistent tug. The lovely folk guitar figure and the deadpan vocal make this song far richer than the Pee-wee Herman joke it might have been.
The same power of understatement well serves "L.A. County," an old-fashioned ballad of murder set to a honky-tonk clip-clop beat and a singing pedal-steel guitar. Lovett evokes a murderer's altered frame of mind by devoting more attention to the passing scenery than to the murder. He applies the same approach to "Black and Blue," a chilling tale of a marriage that has descended into boredom and violence, set to a Waits-like jazz combo arrangement.
The title song finds Lovett at his most Newman-esque. Over a stark chamber arrangement of piano, guitar and cello, Lovett whispers the secret confession of an aging average Joe wrestling with unguessed-at demons. By contrast, "M-O-N-E-Y" is a raucous blues about a woman with ruby lips, emerald eyes and diamonds on her mind.
Unfortunately, the other five songs on the album fall far short of those. At their best, these lesser songs are diverting reworkings of familiar tunes about romantic problems; at their worst, they lapse into the misogyny of "She's Hot to Go." One can only hope that someone with a chance to become a cowboy Randy Newman will learn to better edit his own work.
Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd: 'Foster & Lloyd'
Texas' Radney Foster and Kentucky's Bill Lloyd met at MTM Publishing in Nashville, where each had been signed as a songwriter. As two of the youngest in the place, they were drawn together by their common love of '60s rock 'n' roll. Not long after they wrote "Since I Found You," a hit for the Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the duo landed a contract to record and produce their own debut album, "Foster & Lloyd" (RCA 6372-I-R).
These two Nashville outsiders realized they were typical of a generation that discovered the Beatles first and the Everly Brothers second, the Byrds first and the Louvin Brothers second. They saw that the best way to get back to the pure country sound of the Everlys and Louvins was through the Beatles and Byrds. So they built guitar harmonies as if they were George Harrison and Roger McGuinn and built vocal harmonies as if they were Don Everly and Charlie Louvin.
"Crazy Over You," their first single, went to the top of the country charts with its Beatle-esque take on rockabilly. Even better is "Turn Around," whose attention-grabbing pop hook is whipped into frothy pleasure by Lloyd's jangly Byrds-like guitar and Foster's seductive lead vocal. The melodic guitar figures of "Sure Thing" resurrect Buddy Holly's popabilly as well as anything Marshall Crenshaw has done.
The six other songs also boast captivating melodies and harmonies, but the lyrics offer little beyond the most familiar romantic cliche's. In sharp contrast to the Bodeans, a band with a very similar sound, Foster and Lloyd sing as if little were at stake with the women they're addressing. Foster's tribute to his home-state roots, "Texas in 1880," simply substitutes cowboy myths for romantic ones.
Patty Loveless: 'If My Heart Had Windows'
Tony Brown, who coproduced the ground-breaking albums by Lovett and Steve Earle, has also coproduced the new Patty Loveless album, "If My Heart Had Windows" (MCA 42092), with Emory Gordy. Loveless comes from Kentucky, but she benefits from Brown's Texas connection. As was the case on her first album, the best song on Loveless' second is an Earle composition.
His "A Little Bit in Love" offers a suspicious attitude toward love, which is a welcome relief from the sentimentality of the rest of the album -- and the bulk of Nashville's output. Over a chunky honky-tonk rock beat, Loveless' muscular soprano develops a refreshing sassiness in her guarded offer to a new lover. It's no coincidence that the only other song to ring so true is Hank Williams Sr.'s swinging "I Can't Get You Off of My Mind."
John Hall's catchy pop-rock number "Fly Away" benefits from an Allman Brothers-like arrangement, complete with soaring guitar solo. The rest of the album, though, squanders Loveless' attractive voice on old-fashioned tear-jerkers such as Dallas Frazier's title tune and newfangled tear-jerkers such as Eric Kaz's Linda Ronstadt-designed "Once in a Lifetime."