Once upon a time country singers played a little rock 'n' roll so they would sound more modern. Now in country music, which has grown ever more mellow, rebels are turning to the raw and rowdy sounds of the '50s. These new "hard-country" artists like Dwight Yoakum, Chris Isaak and Steve Earle have created some of the best country records of the past two years even if they haven't dented the charts yet.
Steve Earle is the latest addition to this growing movement, and his debut album, "Guitar Town" (MCA 5713), is one of the year's best records from any genre. Everything about this young Texan is down to earth -- from his crackling rockabilly guitar riffs to his confessions without self-pity.
There's an impatient hunger in Earle's songs. He comes from one of those blue-collar small towns that have been left out of the "national economic recovery." "There ain't a lot that you can do in this town," Earle sings. "You go to school, and you learn to read and write, so you can walk into the county bank and sign away your life."
Earle's West Texas twang and his cowboy guitar strumming both lend an authenticity to this story. When his tight little rockabilly band comes in thumping on the chorus, they lend conviction to Earle's claim, "I'm gonna get out of here some day." This tension between the singer's unapologetic hick roots and his guitar-motored dreams gives "Guitar Town" its power.
The highway leading out of town offers a lot more than a better paycheck, though; it promises heartbreaking women and music to match. On the album's title song, Earle alludes to the allure of Hank Williams' example, "and I followed that voice down the lost highway."
In sharp contrast to Hank Jr., Earle has Hank Sr.'s dry, deadpan delivery. This is even true in his heartbreak songs. Over a bouncy, contagious melody that recalls Roy Orbison, Earle sings, "Talkin' won't do any good anyway, 'cause goodbye's all we've got left to say."
The album is chock full of attractive melodies, which are given bright but simple settings by co-producers Emory Gordy and Tony Brown, both alumni of Rodney Crowell's Cherry Bombs. At times, the optimistic rockabilly arrangements recall Earle's West Texas predecessor, Buddy Holly. Earle's songs are so good, though, that they would survive almost any production and arrangement, and you will probably hear them sung by a lot of artists before long.
Billy Chinnock has arrived at a sound similar to Earle's but from a completely different direction. Chinnock is an East Coast rocker who moved to Nashville to ground his blue-collar rock in some hinterland roots. The aptly named result, "Rock & Roll Cowboys" (Columbia BFZ 40162), sounds like "The Boss on the Range." Springsteen's drummer, Max Weinberg, even helped out.
Much as Earle's album reflects his Texas roots, Chinnock's reflects his Jersey shore roots, but legendary Nashville producer Harold Bradley gives it a definite country-rock feel. All 10 of Chinnock's compositions boast grand anthemic hooks filled with sharp details from the work week and Saturday nights.
The best of them is "Men on the Line." As Chinnock's grainy, expressive voice ponders the curse of the assembly line, the weary country piano is set against the angry slide guitar. A similar musical marriage of sentimental pedal steel guitar and impulsive rock guitar capture the contradictions of romance in songs like "Just Can't Help Who You Love" and "Love Is Blind."
Earle's coproducer, Tony Brown, also coproduced Steve Wariner's "Down in Tennessee" (RCA AHL1-7164) -- this time with Norro Wilson. Indiana's Wariner has a warm, strong voice that he has parlayed into a steady string of Top 10 country hits. While pleasant enough, Wariner's records are too willing to compromise with Nashville formulas to carve out much identity of their own.
Side one is devoted to soap opera tales with simple radio hooks and too many strings. Side two is a lot better. Wariner sings a hot duet with Carol Chase on Paul Kennerley's rockabilly romp, "You Make It Feel So Right." Wariner's hot guitar playing is showcased on his own western swing instrumental, "Sano Scat," and on his old-fashioned honky-tonk confessional, "It's All Over but the Memories." These three tunes indicate Wariner may yet make some important country records if he ever seizes control of his career as Earle has.
Pake McEntire already has. Reba's brother has made a most impressive debut album, "Too Old to Grow Up Now" (RCA AEL1-5809), with producer Mark Wright and some of the best pickers in Nashville. Pake McEntire is no songwriter, but he has picked eight great songs and sung them all the way back to his roots in Oklahoma's roadhouses.
There's no schmaltzy strings or hokey mellowness on "Too Old To Grow Up Now." Instead everything is subjected to a healthy irreverence, both in the loose, hard-swinging music and in the sassy vocals. When McEntire complains about all the women calling him up "Every Night," you can hear his mischievous grin. When he brags "(What I Got Is) Good for You," it comes across with a good-natured jauntiness with no trace of arrogance. When he leads the band through the full-tilt rocker "I'm Having Fun," McEntire's exuberance makes the title indisputable.
McEntire can also be serious. The honky-tonk two-step tune "Savin' My Love for You" grows into a lovely valentine thanks to Mark O'Connor's fiddle solo and lush harmony vocals by Vince Gill, Guy Clark and Reba McEntire. The careful restraint of the Ricky Skaggs-like arrangement allows the longing of "Caroline's Still in Georgia" to work. Pake McEntire is less ambitious than Steve Earle, but he's no less successful within his own goals.