CONSIDERING the deep and pervasive influence of Lefty Frizzell's singing style, his recent election to the Country Music Association's Hall of Fame seems little more than Nashville's belated recognition of this maverick Texan's vocal genius. Frizzell was a singer's singer and his distinctive drawl and slurred phrasing can be heard in the voices of almost every major honky-tonk exponent from the '60s on, including Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, George Jones and Merle Haggard.
While Hank Williams may have served for inspiration and legend, it was the intimate, expressive power of Frizzell that has been a model for the country stylists' art. New albums by Haggard, John Anderson and J.D. Crowe all attest to Frizzell's continuing influence, and the renewal of traditionalism in country music itself.
While Merle Haggard, in his autobiography, "Sing Me Back Home," recalls the general influence of many country stars on his early musical development, he was much more explicit regarding Frizzell's impact: "More and more I found myself trying to sound like him, sometimes without even realizing it." If Haggard's 50th album, "Going Where the Lonely Go" (Epic FE 38092), more obviously recalls Frizzell than much of his recent work, it may be because the album is the most low-key, reflective and personal one Haggard has created in a while. As such, the album draws attention to his songs and singing, rather than to the improvisatory talents of Haggard's excellent western jazz band, The Strangers.
If Haggard's simple confessional approach results in one of his finest albums in years, it is due to the excellent material, including six originals, and the mature control Haggard now exercises over his rumbling baritone. The title cut is a moving affirmation of Haggard's outsider stance, blending his almost stoic vocals with a lyric of resignation and loneliness and Roy Nichols' exquisite guitar parts. In songs like Willie Nelson's "Half a Man," Jimmy Davis' standard "Nobody's Darlin' But Mine" and Haggard's own "If I Left It Up To You," one senses that Haggard's expressive art and range, like Nelson's, have matured to the point where to simply call him a great country artist is to understate his role in American popular music.
Among the new generation of honky-tonk singers, none has been more impressive or indebted to Frizzell than John Anderson. Anderson's emphasis on songs of suppressed pain and sorrow and his gentle, warbling vocal style recall Frizzell. While his latest album, "Wild and Blue" (Warner Bros. 23721-1), is a fine country collection, there are disturbing signs in the material and production that suggest Anderson's grip on the honky-tonk ethos may be slipping as the search for hits intensifies. For example, Anderson teams up with Haggard on "Long Black Veil," an obvious tribute to the delicately dramatic masterpiece Frizzell recorded in 1959. Anderson's singing is wonderfully soft and soothing, and Haggard is characteristically direct and muscular, but the song's sensitive atmosphere is disturbed by unnecessary horns, strings and background vocals.
Fortunately, for the most part, these production errors are more disconcerting than disastrous. An excellent duet with Emmylou Harris on "The Waltz You Saved For Me" is only slightly ruined by strings that keep getting in the fiddle's way, and a tough rocking blues, "Swingin'," is almost conquered by unruly horns and an aggressive chorus. The album's highlight is "Wild and Blue," a fast waltz led by the fiddling of Buddy Spicher. It's on this song and the straight weepers, such as "If a Broken Heart Could Kill" and "Honkey-Tonk Hearts," that Anderson's almost breathless phrase-bending so successfully conveys the emotion-loaded persona of a man near romantic breakdown.
While J.D. Crowe and the New South are mostly known as a traditional bluegrass outfit, their new album, "Somewhere Between" (Rounder 0153), is a surprising and accomplished sojourn into straight country music. Perhaps inspired by Ricky Skaggs' skillful negotiation of the bluegrass-traditional country terrain, the New South augments its bluegrass lineup with steel and electric guitar, piano, bass and drums. But "Somewhere Between" isn't an instrumentally focused album; instead, it is a showcase of the honky-tonk stylings of Crowe's vocalist, Keith Whitley. Whitley is impressive throughout as he demonstrates, like Anderson, that his deepest love is for a sad song, and his heaviest debt is to the soft croning style of Lefty Frizzell.
On one of Frizzell's last hits, "I Never Go Around Mirrors," Whitley nurses vowels and bends notes with the casual inflections that were Frizzell's trademarks. Similarly, Whitley reveals other obvious vocal inspirations in his rendition of Haggard's "Somewhere Between" and in a sad waltz, "Dance With Me Molly," which conjures up George Jones' more dramatically unrestrained style. While Whitley has yet to fully locate his own voice, his feel for the country ballad is so sure and his delivery so sincere and accomplished that it will be a wonder if he can't follow Skaggs' footsteps to broader country music success.