Keepers of the honky-tonk flame may fuss about country music betraying its roots, but there's been no shortage of twangy records coming out of Nashville lately. "Risin' Outlaw" (Curb), the debut from Hank Williams III, has been the most eagerly anticipated of the lot.
Hank III is the son of Hank Williams Jr., but on first impression he comes off less like a chip off the old block than as the second coming of his granddad. Hank III is gaunt like Hank Sr. was, he sings with much the same coon-dog whine and he plays ol' Hank's haunted, hell-bent persona to the hilt.
"I used to have a nice life/ I used to live by the light/ But I strayed from the good side of the Lord/ And I flirted with the devil and he dealt me a card," warbles Williams on "Blue Devil," a thinly veiled rewrite of his grandfather's "Lost Highway." The song's muted, gutbucket production even goes so far as to re-create the sound of a scratchy 78. A number of the album's other shuffles are, likewise, Hank Sr. knockoffs, right down to the sobbing steel and tic-tac guitar.
That said, there's plenty of Hank Jr. here as well, from the outlaw bravado of the record's title to such rowdy rebel-rock as "If the Shoe Fits" and "I Don't Know." On the latter, lines like "I might get drunk and rob a bank/ Shoot my car if it don't crank" are reminiscent of the inane swagger that marred his father's '80s and '90s recordings.
Still, most of "Risin' Outlaw" is entertaining enough--and it sounds good, much like the records of hillbilly revivalist Wayne "The Train" Hancock, three of whose songs Williams covers here. But until Hank III develops his own style and songwriting voice, his music will be little more than old hat.
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Clint Black is a member of the class of '89, the group of hat acts consisting of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, among others, that ignited the country boom of the '90s. Black is arguably the best singer to emerge from the bunch, and he peaked early, with "Killin' Time," a debut album steeped in honky-tonk and Western swing but one that was thoroughly modern in vision and scope. The Texas-bred singer's new disc, "D'lectrified" (RCA), an unplugged but full-sounding affair, is a loose concept album on which he pays tribute to his musical heroes, including some of his pop and rock influences.
The record opens in a traditional vein as Black turns "Bob Away My Blues," an old Marshall Tucker Band song, into a Bob Wills-style tour de force. The following track, "Are You Sure Waylon Done It This Way," is hard-edged outlaw country. Here Black adapts Waylon Jennings's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," with Jennings joining him on vocals, to probe country's current identity crisis. "It's the same old thing, fiddle and guitar/ Where do we take it from here," muses Black. It's a timely question--one that, judging by the stylistic mishmash of the album's remaining 12 tracks, he seems utterly at a loss to answer.
Indeed, the rest of the record is all over the map. "Hand in the Fire" and "Been There" ride light pop-soul grooves. "Harmony," sung with Kenny Loggins, and "When I Said I Do," a duet with Black's wife, Lisa Hartman Black, are sappy, overwrought pop ballads. "Dixie Lullaby," a New Orleans-style jazz number recorded with Bruce Hornsby, updates an old Leon Russell tune, while "Galaxy Song" is a whimsical bit of vaudeville that finds Black teaming up with its writer, "Monty Python" co-founder Eric Idle.
"D'lectrified" is an ambitious record with several winning songs, including retooled versions of three of the singer's early hits. And Black's by turns soaring and loamy baritone sounds as gorgeous as ever. Ultimately, however, the album doesn't hang together, and Black and company's penchant for instrumental showboating doesn't help.Black performs this Friday at the Morris Mechanic Theatrer in Baltimore.
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Like Randall and Black, Jason Sellers is a deeply emotive singer. But Sellers, who grew up singing with his parents' touring gospel group, has a voice that is rawer and more soulful than those of his Texas counterparts.
The melismas Sellers employs on "Till I Felt Your Hands" and on the title track of his new album, "A Matter of Time" (BNA), testify to those roots. As do such mid-tempo vamps as "Everybody's Walking" and "Bad Case of Missing You," both of which owe a debt to gospel music's worldly cousin, rhythm and blues. Elsewhere, Sellers and duet partner Pam Tillis turn George Jones and Tammy Wynette's 1976 smash, "Golden Ring," into a compelling country-funk workout.
"A Matter of Time" was produced by Walt Aldridge, a native of Muscle Shoals, the small Alabama town that produced some of the finest country-soul records of the '60s and early '70s. Aldridge embraces the less-is-more philosophy that galvanized those hits--a sensibility that values spacious, uncluttered arrangements and a lean, supple groove. The approach agrees with Sellers's voice--a raw-edged croon in the tradition of Ronnie Milsap, T. Graham Brown and, even at times, the redoubtable Delbert McClinton.
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Jon Randall's new album, "Willin' " (Eminent), is the product of perseverance. Once heralded by industry insiders as "the next Vince Gill," Randall released one poorly promoted disc for RCA in 1995, only to watch the label sit on its successor before dropping him from its roster. His next project, for Asylum Records, suffered a similar fate. Singles from each of these albums were branded "too country" for country radio.
Opting out of the major-label game, Randall made "Willin' " for a Nashville-based indie imprint, Eminent Records. The bluegrass-flavored album not only takes stock of the singer's snakebit career but confronts his marital woes as well. (Randall recently split up with his wife, country singer Lorrie Morgan.) "I've got two eyes full of tears/ 'Cause they don't like what they see/ They see your face with a perfect mouth/ It won't smile, it won't kiss, and it won't talk to me," he mourns on the haunted "Mountain of Regret."
Randall gets help along the way from such stalwart pickers as Sam Bush, Al Perkins, Jerry Douglas, Scott Vestal and the late Roy Huskey Jr., and, on vocals, Morgan, Emmylou Harris, Kim Richey, Tim O'Brien and others. At the album's center, though, is Randall's pure mountain tenor. It's a gorgeous instrument--one best suited to plumbing heartache, but not gritty enough for a rounder's plaint like the Lowell George-penned title track to sound credible.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.)