Faced with Nashville's artistic bankruptcy at the end of the '70s, a whole generation of artists turned to the past to reaffirm their faith in country music. Deep in the traditions of bluegrass and honky-tonk, the Judds, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, John Anderson and others created country music so strong and authentic it was as if the schlock produced by Chet Atkins and Billy Sherrill had never happened.
At the same time, this younger generation also acted as if the Beatles had never happened, in effect denying the central cultural experience of their childhoods. As gorgeous and inspired as it often is, this neotraditionalist country often seems boxed in, cut off from its own time. By contrast, the husband-and-wife team of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash has created country music rooted in the present and facing the future. Though Crowell's albums have often been disappointments, Cash's have been among the very best pop music records of the '80s.
Rosanne Cash: 'King's Record Shop' Crowell produced Cash's new album, "King's Record Shop" (Columbia, FC 40777), a stunning record that combines a rare emotional transparency with an unyielding strength. Its themes of troubled adult romances and its unassuming confessional vocals clearly mark it as a country album. Yet its crisp drum sound, its aggressive guitar attack and its feminist attitudes identify it unmistakably as a modern pop record. It's the best of both worlds: The stories are sharply focused and beautifully sung and yet backed by an undismissible forcefulness.
The album demands attention immediately with Eliza Gilkyson's "Rosie, Strike Back," the story of a woman who is reluctant to leave the man who beats her up. Country queens past never acknowledged this dark side of marriage when they advised women to "stand by your man." By contrast, Cash is quite direct in her advice: "Hit the road and don't look back." The crackling guitar of Washington's Steuart Smith and the thumping drums of Baltimore's Vince Santoro effectively convey the story's ominous atmosphere; pop singers Steve Winwood and Patty Smyth reinforce the urgency of the song's message.
Cash takes her own advice when she sings Crowell's "I Don't Have to Crawl." This dramatic ballad has been recorded by Emmylou Harris and Crowell himself, but never has it achieved the exquisite tension it reaches here. When Cash smokily whispers, "If I wanted to, I could be long gone," it's clear that she doesn't want to leave her lover, but when her voice hardens a bit and she swears, "I don't have to crawl," it's clear she will leave before she's taken advantage of.
The song captures the essence of Cash's art: the determination to have both true love and self-respect. It comes through not only in the lyrics but also in the sensual yet stubborn vocals and the mix of lush harmonies and pointed guitars.
Similarly, Cash brings a new level of dramatic ambivalence to John Hiatt's oft-recorded gem, "The Way We Make a Broken Heart." Amid the pretty gospel harmonies and Latin guitar, Cash sounds torn between her desire for her lover and her sympathy for her lover's wife. The album's best song is "The Real Me," a ballad written by Cash and sung with an unprotected purity that justifies the title. There's something ferociously intimidating about the sheer honesty of this song.
It helps that Crowell has given his wife plenty of room to deliver the goods with her exceptional voice. Cash banned synthesizers from the studio, and every instrument has a particular personality that reinforces each song. Cash nods to the past with a spirited version of her daddy's "Tennessee Flat Top Box," but she also includes her own "Somewhere Sometime," a riveting rock 'n' roll number that owes far more to Tom Petty than to Conway Twitty.
Mary Chapin Carpenter: 'Hometown Girl' Cash included John Stewart's "Runaway Train" on her new album after she fell in love with Mary Chapin Carpenter's version of the song. Carpenter left the song off her debut album, "Hometown Girl" (Columbia, BFC 40758), but it hardly matters because her own songs are more than strong enough to carry the record. Carpenter has a writer's eye for detail and a folk singer's instinct for the patterns of fate. Yet her melodies are so pretty and easygoing that these original folk songs settle quite comfortably into their country music arrangements.
"Hometown Girl" is a breakthrough for Washington's music scene. Carpenter is a District resident, the album was recorded at Springfield's Bias Studio, and it was also made with a local producer (John Jennings), local management (Studio One) and the best of the local studio players. This home-town crew not only matches the professionalism of its Nashville peers but steers clear of the gimmicks that gum up most Nashville product.
The album begins with "A Lot Like Me," a song about two friends who play folk music in bars. One gives it up for a government job, while the other sticks with it. The song works because Carpenter doesn't pass judgment on either character but simply and knowingly observes that each has paid a price for his or her decision. The song will have a special resonance for anyone who has seen Carpenter play for tips at Food for Thought or Kramerbooks here in town.
Most of Carpenter's compositions are autobiographical tales that acknowledge the loss that comes with any change. The album's best song is the title tune, which finds Carpenter looking back at herself as a 16-year-old innocent who believed she could find a love as wild and eager as a Chevy convertible. She remembers that naive, idealistic teen-ager and wonders wistfully, "What happened to that hometown girl?"
That tone of wistfulness dominates the album and perhaps robs it of the variety it needs. Carpenter's cello-like alto always seems reflective and never becomes an assertive force. This detached perspective may limit the record, but it's a mode that Carpenter excels in. "Just Because" captures the universal bewilderment over the way love often arrives without reason. The songs are studded with marvelous wordplay, such as: "Other boys I knew were just like shiny dimes tossed and spent, that came and went a hundred times." The players, from pianist Jon Carroll to guitarist Jennings, complement the singer perfectly. Carpenter proves her instincts as an interpretive singer with a version of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" that cuts Patty Smyth's recent version to shreds.
Leslie Phillips: 'The Turning' Like Cash and Crowell, Leslie Phillips and T-Bone Burnett are a married singer/producer team. Phillips' debut album, "The Turning" (Myrrh/A&M, WR 0757), was made for the gospel-oriented Word Records conglomerate, but God is mentioned in only one song and referred to only obliquely in several others. Like Burnett, Phillips is a committed Christian who prefers to sing about morality in the real world instead of institutionalized theology. The seven songs she has written herself and the two she has written with Burnett are simple meditations that are more down-to-earth and more ironic than most religious music.
Phillips' album begins with a country-folk version of "River of Love," the same song that kicked off Burnett's last album. The rest of "The Turning" finds Phillips pursuing L.A. pop-rock as if she were a Stevie Nicks without the new-age mystic nonsense. Like Nicks, Phillips has a mesmerizing soprano that seems to reach out and touch crucial concerns with astonishing ease. Phillips, though, writes the kind of irresistible melodic hooks that Nicks hasn't produced since the first two Fleetwood Mac albums.
If Phillips sings like Nicks, Burnett has produced this album like Lindsey Buckingham, building up each verse with layers of clever guitar noises and emulator samplings. On "Carry You," odd sounds that remind one of factory stampers, wood marimbas and harpsichords create a hypnotic pattern around Phillips' heartfelt chant. On "Expectations," Phillips belts out the rocking chorus, while Burnett balances distorted guitar with toylike percussion.
Through all the beguiling music emerges a persistent quest for feeling that rings true. On "Down," Phillips acknowledges to God that her church left her with "shattered convictions I thought were reflecting You." On the title tune, she argues that the biggest sin is to let feeling turn "from burning to indifference" or from "caring to control." The burning and caring are unmistakable on this album.