Releases from the mainstream side of country music lead things off this week, one from a member of the old guard who continues to churn out the hits in George Strait, the latest from Lee Ann Womack, and another from a whippersnapper of sorts who traditionalists are hoping and praying is the genuine article. Rounding things out is the fine comeback release from Gene Watson who once upon a time was one of Music Row’s most consistent top hit-makers, but in later years has fallen prey to Nashville’s desire for youth.
Somewhere Down In Texas
MCA Nashville B0004446-02
As far as consistency is concerned, few, if any artists have had the kind of success George Strait has had over the last 25 years. Somewhere Down In Texas is the name of Strait’s latest and 33rd album. True to past form, it debuted on top of both the Billboard pop and country album charts in the first week of its release in late June. Never one to reinvent the wheel, Strait works the same formula Somewhere Down In Texas that has worked so well for him during his lengthy and ultra-successful run. In other words, his patented mix of ballads, Texas swing, and easygoing country. A balladeer with the best of them, Somewhere Down In Texas is an album with an autobiographical undercurrent to it. That tone begins with the title track on which Strait’s baritone is in fine form and continues with the number “Texas” on which he salutes his home state and all the things that made him what he is today. Strait takes the listener from the dancehall ala the spirited two-stepper “High Tone Woman” to singing about his own personal neon-in-the-window survival chamber on “Ready For the End of the World” (“I bought a case of Jack / A box set of Merle / I’m getting ready / Ready for the end of the World”). He finds salvation in the local honky tonk (the jukebox-ready “If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk”) and debuts his first ever duet with a female singer on “Good News, Bad News” which finds him teaming with labelmate Lee Ann Womack. Much like Alan Jackson, label Strait old Mr. Reliable when it comes to giving the traditional leaning country music fan what they want. While a tad heavy on the ” country lite”, Somewhere Down In Texas has more than its share of moments which match the best of Strait. (MCA Nashville, 60 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203, or www.georgestrait.com)
Lee Ann Womack
There’s More Where That Came From
MCA Nashville B0003073-02
It begins with a couple of saws on the fiddle followed by the singer letting her lustful urges spew singing “I had forgotten just what love felt like / And in that motel room all my senses came to life”. A steamer of a cheatin’ song which also doubles as the title track on the album, it sets the stage perfectly for the throwback styled recording that is this latest release from Lee Ann Womack. Following the misstep that was 2003’s Something Worth Leaving Behind which found Womack crossing too far over in trying to gain pop acceptance, There’s More Where That Came From is a return to the roots affair for the Texas native. For country fans, here’s thinking it’s like a breath of fresh air. It features a dozen songs in the classic country style filled with fiddle, steel guitar, and trickling piano. The songwriting taps many of the familiar themes of the best of classic country from drinkin’ and cheatin’ to vulnerability and love gone bad. Womack sings it all likes she’s a well-schooled disciple of such honky tonk queens as Wynette and Parton. Hopefully there is more where this came from in coming years. Recommended.
Lee Ann Womack appears at the Tweeter Center on August 27.
Modern Day Drifter
For those familiar with the periodical No Depression, you’re probably already aware that it’s the bible of sorts as far as coverage of the alternative country music scene is concerned. Suffice to say that other than a stray CD review or two, mainstream country music does not often find its way into the magazine’s pages. Hence the surprise for this and likely plenty of other subscribers when they opened the May/June edition of the magazine and discovered a lengthy feature on Dierks Bentley. Ever since his self-titled debut for Capitol Records in 2003, plenty of fellow country music fans have been proclaiming Bentley as an artist primed and ready to put the “real” back in mainstream country music. While there were certainly flashes on that debut, this writer needed more than a few tracks on an artist’s one and only recording before buying into the hype. The No Depression piece certainly piqued the curiosity when the writer equated the leadoff track (“Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do”) on Modern Day Drifter to a song in the same rockin’ country spirit of some of the late Waylon Jennings’ most drivin’ sides. The fact Bentley cited Jennings added nothing but fuel to the fire. After making a couple of passes through Modern Day Drifter, it’s obvious to these ears that Bentley is worth keeping an eye on. With a supporting cast of some of Nashville’s finest on the musician front, Bentley serves up an album leaning heavily in the roots direction. He offers up tastes of everything from straight up honky tonk (the aforementioned Waylonesque “Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do”) to pure bluegrass (“Good Man Like Me” with the Del McCoury Band in tow) to a few barroom-ready novelty numbers (a modern day red, white and blue beer drinkin’ anthem called “Domestic, Light and Cold”) to the requisite pickup truck song (“Cab Of My Truck”) to a couple of well done ballads (“Come a Little Closer”, “Good Things Happen”) each primed and ready to make the ladies swoon. Simply put, there’s no sophomore slump whatsoever to be found on Modern Day Drifter from Dierks Bentley. (www.capitolnashville.com or www.dierksbentley.com)
Then & Now
Koch Nashville KOC-CD-9867
It was smashes like “Farewell Party”, “Memories To Burn”, and “Nothing Sure Looked Good On You” that pushed neo-traditionalist Gene Watson into the upper echelon of C&W crooners from the mid-1970s throughout almost the entirety of the 1980s. They were the type of hit singles that earned him the sort of fan worship that never wanes. The big problem in latter years has been winning new ones, something which for fifty and sixtysomethings like Watson is near impossible these days. In a nutshell, commercial radio airplay for the generation of country singers that includes the likes of a Watson, George Jones and Merle Haggard just doesn’t happen anymore. Enter Koch-Nashville Records which as I’ve related in past reviews has become a haven of sorts for artists which for lack of a better description, have been put out to pasture. Listening to Watson’s latest comeback album called Then & Now, all I can say is shame on the major labels and commercial country radio for neglecting this C&W elder statesman. What you’ll encounter on the album is newly recorded remakes of some of Watson’s biggest hits (“You Could Know as Much About a Stranger”, “Sometimes I Get Lucky and Forget”) to go with fan favorites that never made the charts (but which Watson fans can find tucked away on his early albums). It’s a killer batch of tunes that spans “If I’m a Fool for Leaving” co-written by Little Jimmy Dickens to “Baby Me Baby” from the late and great Harlan Howard to the total honky tonk of “You Put Out An Old Flame Last Night” and “The Jukebox Played Along”. The clincher of it all is that it’s delivered by a master who remains one of the genre’s finest interpreters. Into his early sixties, age sure hasn’t affected the pipes when it comes to Gene Watson. As Then & Now amply proves, he can still slay ’em with the best of them. (Koch Records, 1709 19th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212, or www.kochrecords.com)