Many country singers have acknowledged their influences with albums of cover songs. Most of these have been mere exercises in nostalgia or, worse, schemes to turn a quick buck. But some, such as Alan Jackson's new "Under the Influence" (Arista), revisit country's past in order to shed light on its present.
Jackson has always been mindful of tradition, whether that's meant recording a George Jones staple like "Tall, Tall Trees" or hoeing the neo-traditionalist line on "Don't Rock the Jukebox." Jackson's new album, however, pushes this history-conscious agenda to the forefront. The record contains a dozen of the hard-country hits of the '60s and '70s that he sang in the bars when he first moved to Nashville.
The disc leads off with Jackson's current single, a shuffling, twin-fiddle remake of "Pop a Top," a barroom weeper that was a hit for Jim Ed Brown in 1967. Next up is one of the saddest country songs ever, Gene Watson's "Farewell Party," a lovesick suicide note on which sobbing steel guitar echoes Jackson's throbbing baritone. Swinging versions of mid-tempo hits by Charley Pride, John Anderson and Mel McDaniel are here as well, as are knowing readings of Merle Haggard's "The Way I Am" and Jones's "Once You've Had the Best."
Detractors might note that while Jackson's vocals are marvels of understated command, and the picking on the record is accomplished enough, none of the tracks surpass the originals. But that's not what Jackson's after here. He's paying tribute to the singers and music that inspired him and, in doing so, casting judgment, if only implicitly, on "hot new country" radio's rejection of the hard-core sounds and themes of honky-tonk music.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)
Whereas Jackson's tribute to tradition strikes a personal and public chord, LeAnn Rimes's eponymous new collection, a nod to the lush Nashville Sound of the '60s, just comes off as expedient.
The sticker on the back of the CD boasts that the album "contains some of the greatest songs ever written plus the hit single 'Big Deal.' " Several of these compositions, penned by Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, are among the greatest songs ever written. But despite sure-fire material and 17-year-old Rimes's gale-force soprano, most of her performances come off as more mannered than felt.
This isn't to say that the record doesn't have its moments. As one might expect, Rimes sounds at home on remakes of four Patsy Cline classics, songs from which her 1996 smash "Blue" took its cue. Her torchy renditions of Marty Robbins's "Don't Worry" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose" pass muster as well.
But all of this is the sort of thing that Mandy Barnett did with far greater style and authority on her 1999 album "I've Got a Right to Cry." And when Rimes essays more gutbucket material, as she does on two of Hank Williams's biggest hits, "Lovesick Blues" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," she trades vocal gimmicks such as vibrato and vocal slurs for feeling. Here and on versions of "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Cryin' Time," Rimes veers perilously close to lounge-singer territory.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8174.)
CAPTION: Alan Jackson and LeAnn Rimes's new albums reprise legendary country hits.