Country music has never been in such a glorious and confused state of disarray. Tune in your average FM country station and you'll realize that pop and rock 'n' roll influences have never been stronger.
But as a counterbalance -- and to a large extent a reaction to this -- there has emerged a new generation of eminently talented and devoted "hard country" singers. And is the most prominent, and easily the most vocally gifted, of the handful of women at the forefront of this back-to-the-basics movement. few years (most notably since her switch from Polygram/Mercury to the MCA label) McEntire has musically come into her own, and with "Whoever's in New England" (MCA-5691) reaffirms her abiding ties with the western swing and honky-tonk-flavored traditions of her native Oklahoma. Yet (as the geography of the pop-style title tune suggests) she also ventures into more contemporary musical territory this time around.
The steel guitars (Weldon Myrick) and fiddles (Johnny Gimble and Randy Elmore) are in abundance on songs like the western-swingish "One Thin Dime" and "I've Seen Better Days," the Red Lane-penned Sammi Smith hit of yesteryear. McEntire also turns into one of her usual delightfully overwrought emotional performances on "Don't Touch Me There" (which, in the manner of so many great country tear-jerkers, is built on a gleefully ingenuous lyric double entendre).
In her emotion-charged yet always precise vocal readings of these songs, McEntire is, indeed, often reminiscent of Tammy Wynette in her heyday -- only without the accompanying shrillness, and with an added vocal clarity.
On the title cut and a few other selections, McEntire ventures with dexterity and ease into more urbane and middle-of-the-road territory, such as is more often frequented by the likes of Anne Murray and Helen Reddy. But McEntire's subtle vocal colorings and robust southwestern inflections overwhelm the most pop-flavored of these compositions, giving them a musical overlay that is specifically rural.
"Whoever's in New England" is a bit more self-consciously stylish, and lacks the overt pathos of earlier McEntire outings, but ultimately enhances rather than detracts from her rising status as country music's boldest young "old country" stylist -- quite possibly the closest thing this generation has to Patsy Cline.
Kentucky-born Dwight Yoakam, 29, through a veteran of Los Angeles' live music scene, is a newcomer to the commercial country sweepstakes. His recent major-label debut LP, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." (Reprise 25372-1; six of these 10 tracks were originally released on the 1984 EP of the same name, on the independent Oak label), comes on the heels of the critical accolades he received as the opening act for West Coast rock 'n' roll ensembles like the Blasters and Los Lobos.
A hard country and honky-tonk purist of outspoken and almost fanatical dimensions, Yoakam delivers a raw, gritty, Telecaster, steel and double-stopped fiddle-dominated brand of "hillbilly music" (the term he favors). He reminds us that hardcore country honky-tonk music, which was in its own way a precursor of rock 'n' roll, was born in dance halls and roadside taverns and not in 24-track recording studios.
Yoakam does not, technically speaking, possess the great vocal licks of more established neohardcore honky-tonk practitioners such as George Strait or John Anderson. Yet he is capable of conveying a fervor (his voice has a high-range break to it, which he calls upon to evoke everything from mournful plaintiveness to abject anguish) that these more widely acknowledged contemporaries seem to have lost when they began cashing their first six-figure royalty checks.
In fact, the unfettered and sometimes graphic emotionalism that echoes in Yoakam's original songs, like the gospelish "Miner's Prayer" and the hard-kicking title tune (he wrote several of the 10 songs on his debut LP), makes even a singer like George Strait sound almost wimpish by comparison.
More than practically anyone else on a major label right now, Yoakam comes closer to capturing the unembellished and somewhat frenzied recklessness of '50s and '60s honky-tonk music; and he's thrown in a healthy measure of the classically lean, Telecaster-dominated Buck Owens-Don Rich "Bakersfield Country" sound to boot.
Thus, drums crash boldly over reverbed guitars, wailing steels and Yoakam's echoey vocals as he works his way through original material that has drunks falling off bar stools ("It Won't Hurt"), drowning their cigarettes and sorrows in cheap gin ("South of Cincinnati") and being sold down the river by vengeful women ("Twenty Years").
Yoakam's taste in recycled nonoriginal material is rather impeccable; he kicks the album off with a swaggering, macho-posturing rendition of the 1954 Johnny Horton-Tillman Franks anthem, "Honky Tonk Man." He also delivers a restrained, almost mannered version of the oft-recorded Harlan Howard-penned Ray Price classic, "Heartaches by the Number."
In an era when Nashville producers feel compelled (in their attempts to second-guess the restrictions of modern country radio play lists) to smooth the rough edges and filter even the hardest of hard country stylists through layers of state-of-the-art production techniques, Dwight Yoakam's no-frills brand of "garage country" is refreshing indeed.