There are few Nashville songwriters with an ear more finely tuned to country music's commercial mainstream than Sonny Throckmorton. Throckmorton has long been affiliated with the powerful Tree International Publishing Co., which is to country what the old Brill Building in New York was to '50s and '60's rock 'n' roll. His original songs have been recorded by Merle Haggard ("The Way I Am"), Ricky Skaggs ("Waitin' for the Sun to Shine"), The Judds ("Bye Bye Baby Blues"), Kenny Rogers, The Oak Ridge Boys and dozens of other leading artists. His "Middle Aged Crazy" (originally recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis) even became the basis of a feature film of the same name, starring Bruce Dern.
On his new LP, "Southern Train" (Warner Brothers 25374), which is also his first in nearly a decade, Throckmorton steps out with his own impressive vocal interpretations of 10 of his original songs, a couple of which have been heard elsewhere but most of which have not.
On "Southern Train," Throckmorton reaffirms his talents as a melodically provocative and lyrically inventive writer. He also proves himself to be nearly as talented a singer -- if only slightly less polished -- as most of the household-name recording artists who've so often made hits out of his songs in the past. His vocal style is, in fact, vaguely reminiscent of Kenny Rogers, with just a bit more gravelly, down-home authenticity to it.
On the jaunty title tune, "Waitin' On a Southern Train," Throckmorton even steps out and turns in some impressive white R&B vocal licks that are reminiscent of the great Russell Smith (former lead singer of the now defunct Amazing Rhythm Aces).
The standouts in this impressive collection of Throckmorton originals (a few of which have been cowritten with country songwriting legends like Harlan Howard and Don Wayne) are "Fool's Moon" (a lilting 2/4 ballad on which he duets with Deborah Allen) and the longingly escapist "Where the Fast Lane Ends." Like most of the songs on "Southern Train," they demonstrate Throckmorton's masterful flair for melodic invention and the lyric hook, and -- consequently -- have "top five" written all over them.
A much newer arrival on the Nashville scene is Randy Travis, who, on his debut LP, "Storms of Life" (Warner Brothers 25435-1), proves to be a remarkably talented and resilient hard-country singer, with a compellingly languid low-register vocal style cast heavily in the mold of the field's two leading archetypes, Merle Haggard and George Jones.
Travis -- unlike other recent Nashville newcomers such as Dwight Yoakam, Pake McEntire and Marty Stuart -- shies away from the frayed and frenzied neo-rockabilly influence. He, instead, seems most comfortable operating in the more subdued and emotionally complex territory of the slow- to medium-tempo country ballad.
Most often the themes of the 10 songs heard here (most of which were written by noteworthy Nashville writers like Paul Overstreet, Troy Seals, Max D. Barnes and Joe Allen) have to do with romantic regret ("Diggin' Up Bones" and the hit single "1982"), or the painful dislocation of the good ol' boy stranded in an uninviting contemporary landscape of subdivisions, junk food palaces and dual-lane highways ("Storms of Life").
Though Travis has written only two of the songs on "Storms of Life," they are both standouts. Particularly haunting is "Reasons I Cheat," a starkly fatalistic evocation of middle-aged despair and alienation -- which sounds particularly convincing, even if it does come from a photogenically handsome young singer-songwriter who is barely out of his mid-20s.
Another standout, which resonates with the muted irony and tongue-in-cheek humor that crops up repeatedly on "Storms of Life," is Johnny McCrea's and Steve Clark's "There'll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere." The song assures us that long after such artifacts of modern consumerism as video games and the Super Bowl have gone the way of the Edsel and the hula hoop, there will still be a group of true believers, huddled around a jukebox, drinking beer in a dingy bar somewhere, keeping the spirits alive -- just as Randy Travis does so wonderfully on this amazingly strong and confident debut outing.