Friday, February 13, 2004

Terrell's Tuneup: How I Love Them Old Songs

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 13, 2004

A close cousin of the “tribute” album is the “covers” album, in which singers or bands perform their versions of the songs that inspired them. In recent months I’ve received three such collections in the country/folk vein.

The most frequent criticism of tribute albums apply here: The covers are o.k., but the original versions are far superior. Yet all these new records have their own integrity and in many cases, it’s just great to know that people are still playing these great old songs.

* Twang on the Wire by Kate Campbell. Campbell is a singer-songwriter from the South who pays tribute here to Nashville’s pantheon of female singers from the early to mid 1970s. Most of these selections could be found on any cowboy bar jukebox during the Watergate era.

Twang is a low key affair, but it has a lot of heart. You can feel the love Campbell has for these tunes. She even finds the emotional core of country pop crossover ditties like Donna Fargo’s “Funny Face” and Taos resident Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden”.

(Those songs make me think about the “Outlaw” movement of that era. Not to detract from Waylon and Willie and the boys -- who I’ve always loved and always will -- but when you compare those songs to modern so-called-country radio fluff you have to wonder what the “outlaws” were rebelling about.)

Campbell does a creditable job covering the big three ladies of country of ‘70s country: Two Dolly Parton songs (“Touch Your Woman” and the teenage pregnancy horror tale “Down From Dover”); a relatively obscure one by Tammy Wynette (the stately “ ‘Til I Can Make it on My Own”); and one by Loretta Lynn (“Mississippi Woman, Louisiana Man” with alt country rocker Kevin Gordon taking Conway Twitty’s part.)

But my favorites here are two originally sung by a lesser-known artist, Jeannie Pruett. Campbell performs Pruett’s big hit, “Satin Sheets,” which is one of the finest examples of the country-girl-marries-rich-guy-but-learns-money-doesn’t-buy-happiness sub-genre.

But the other Pruett song here is a beautiful obscurity, “Honey on His Hands” is a powerful cheatin’ song and Campbell did us all a favor by reviving it.

The album ends with the title song, the lone original tune here. Here we get an image of a young Kate in her bedroom listening to records, being comforted and inspired by “angels with flattops, they play and they sing.”

Campbell does a good job here of honoring those big-haired angels.

*Countrysides by Cracker. This collection also consists of country covers (mostly) from the ‘70s (mainly). It’s a lot less earnest than Twang on a Wire and more fun loving. These are songs you’d drink beer and dance to while looking for love at a honky tonk. Campbell’s are the songs you’d drink whiskey and listen to after your honky tonk queen has stomped your heart.

Indeed Cracker, (which played in Santa Fe recently with singer David Lowrey’s other band Camper Van Beethoven), concentrates on hard-drinking outlaw anthems like Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s Ray Wylie Hubbard-penned “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers” and Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.”

And they even do Santa Fe resident Terry Allen justice, kicking off the album with a rowdy take on his “Truckload of Art.”

The lone original here, “It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself” is a hilarious, scathing musical diatribe against Virgin Records (Cracker‘s former company) that could almost pass for a Texas Tornados tune.

But not everything on Countysides is drunk and disorderly. Lowrey sings a moving, accordion-sweetened version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Sinaloa Cowboys,” a tale of a meth lab tragedy. Their straightforward version of Dwight Yoakum’s “Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room” is downright pretty.

And Haggard’s “Reasons to Quit” is a melodic hangover in which a worried boozer takes assessment of his reckless life.

*Honey in the Lion’s Head by Greg Brown. The material Brown works here is of an older vintage than the Cracker and Kate Campbell albums. Here, the deep-voiced Iowa songwriter goes back to old folk tunes -- the most recent ones being Jim Garland’s “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister” and Brown’s original “Ain’t No One Like You.”

This record has a lot in common with Dave Alvin’s Public Domain and Bob Dylan’s early ‘90s folk detour World Gone Wrong and Good As I’ve Been to You.

Honey is an all acoustic album, save a few electric guitar contributions from Bo Ramsey (he makes the lion growl on Brown‘s version of the Rev. Gary Davis‘ “Samson.”) It’s colored with banjos, mandolins and fiddles, not to mention a couple of singing Brown daughters.

Some of the material here is extremely familiar -- “Old Smokey,” “Down in the Valley,” “I Never Will Marry.” But Brown does an admirable job in making these old chestnuts ache.

Perhaps my favorite here is the last cut, an old hymn Brown sings with wife Iris DeMent. Jacob’s Ladder takes me right back to Methodist Youth Fellowship. Brown’s almost breezy arrangement makes a listener almost expect to hear the voice of Mississippi John Hurt chime in.

*Hey Santa Fe readers: Poet, picker, country singer and American ramblin’ man Kell Robertson will appear live tonight on The Santa Fe Opry 10 p.m. . That’s KSFR, 90.7 FM, Santa Fe Public Radio.

Kell, by the way, is the subject of a cover story this month in The Fringe, a free monthly Santa Fe "Alternative Arts & Culture Rag."

* Pazz & Jop: I was one of 500 or so music critics contributing to The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll. I see two participants named David Prince and I'm assuming one is my colleague from Santa Fe.

In the nearly 15 years I've been doing this poll, I think this is the first time that FIVE of my 10 album selections -- The New Pornographers, The White Stripes, Outkast, The Drive-By Truckers and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- made it into the poll's top 10. I feel so ... mainstream ...