Country and its fans are notoriously obsessed with tradition and authenticity, and though the industry's definition of those terms is constantly in flux, on the surface no other popular music style places such an emphasis on the perpetuation of a certain set of values. But as suggested by a pair of new albums--one by newcomers and one by a perpetual also-ran--the message isn't nearly as important as the messenger.
There are few better ways to pass on values than through a family tree, and country has more than its share of family acts. There's the Carters, the Cashes, the Judds, the Williamses, the Shavers, and the Tillises, and that's to say nothing of the many singing siblings who've scored hits over the years. Patsy and Peggy Lynn, the twin daughters of Nashville legend Loretta Lynn, are the latest in this line; and while the press release that accompanied my copy of their debut album takes great pains to claim that no one at Reprise knew about their famous relatives (they also have Crystal Gayle for an aunt) until after they were offered a deal, the label certainly makes no secret of it now.
Patsy (named after her mom's pal Patsy Cline) and Peggy go out of their way not to mention their mother by name in the liner notes, in which they thank her for sharing "the blessed gift of music." Maybe they're just modest; maybe they just want to stand on their own four feet. But if I were in their pointy little boots, I'd definitely worry about being swallowed up in Loretta's massive shadow.
It's not the Lynns' fault that they don't share their mother's legendary rags-to-riches back story, but it is obviously their choice to shy away from the other things that made momma great. In the 60s Loretta Lynn both celebrated the classic honky-tonk sound and took a bold stance against the patriarchy that country music so happily embraced. She railed against the stereotypical stay-at-home wife in "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath," took less guff than most from a whiskey-filled lover in "Don't Come Home a' Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," and even left behind a brash anthem for reproductive freedom in "The Pill." Her work inspired strong, independent-minded female artists for decades to come. But not, apparently, her own daughters.
Take "Woman to Woman," the first single off The Lynns, which entered Billboard's country singles chart at an impressive number 56 last month. A mid-tempo rocker about a classic country topic--the other woman--it's got all the grit of a Massengill commercial. The Lynns' protagonist confronts the marital interloper "woman to woman, face to face," as if to imply that this is the civilized way. Loretta's tune about the same situation from 30 years ago, "Fist City," wasn't exactly a feminist triumph, but she did, in colorful terms, acknowledge that the man in question was no saint: he "liked to cat around with the kitty." Her daughters take a two-step backward, absolving the unfaithful hubby with benign couplets like, "It's not that I don't trust him / 'Cause honey, I know right where his heart is."
In fact, with the exception of "What Am I Doing Loving You," one of the two songs on the album they didn't write, the Lynns never give their men much trouble. They celebrate them, stand by them, even follow them into the next life ("I Won't Leave This World Unloved"). And musically they don't show much more spunk. Their singing--which follows the close-harmony model that prevailed in the 30s and was later popularized by duos like the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers--is no match for their mother's, but they're certainly not alone there. Unfortunately, what they could have made up in writing and arranging they didn't. A few tunes resonate with a glossy retro vibe: "Crazy World of Love" is a rockabilly-tinged stomper, and on "Oh My Goodness" the twins mimic Buddy Holly's appropriation of the Bo Diddley beat. But most of the material is typical Nashville mush: weepy ballads and tame, predictable rockers. The album was produced by Don Cook, who could have gone either way--he's worked with eclectic country ironists the Mavericks and megapopular cheeseballs Brooks & Dunn--but he gave the Lynns the standard-issue sheen. Almost nothing about the music ties them to classic country, and with their name, their poufy hair, and their filmy neckerchiefs, nothing needs to.
By contrast, Jim Lauderdale favors sport shirts and garish paisley pants, and has on occasion performed in footwear other than cowboy boots. But on his fifth album, Whisper (on RCA subsidiary BNA), obvious connections to the golden era of country abound. Though Lauderdale has written straight-up hits for stars like George Strait, Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, and Doug Supernaw, this is his first strictly country album since his 1991 debut, Planet of Love (Reprise). On his next three recordings, he dabbled in soul and roots rock with great artistic success but disappointing sales figures. On Whisper he's come full circle, teaming up with some of Nashville's greatest songwriters, including former George Jones partner Melba Montgomery and the legendary Harlan Howard, who's penned smashes for Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Bobby Bare, Rodney Crowell, and Johnny Cash and Ray Charles (who both scored with his "Busted" the same year).
That Lauderdale's returned to country, however, by no means makes this album easier to predict than his others. He's drawn on the full range of the good stuff: many of his tunes vividly recall the poppy 60s countrypolitan style, yet the album's closer is a gorgeous, full-fledged bluegrass number featuring Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. The average contemporary country song slogs through its melody with little variation, the chorus sprouting out of the verse dutifully enough to set your watch by. But Lauderdale numbers like "Goodbye Song," "It's Hard to Keep a Secret Anymore," and the title track continually reveal beautiful surprises like unorthodox sections and melodic embellishments.
Lyrically Lauderdale sticks to the usual travails and joys of love, but his resolutions are rarely so sunny as the Lynns'. The simpy "What Do You Say to That," whose Hallmark card lyrics ("You're like the warm sunshine / I think of you all the time") are matched by an equally sentimental melody, is the sole exception; most of his protagonists are walking away from failed relationships in numb resignation. Lauderdale's never been a stellar lyricist, but he's as good as many, and musically he's better than most.
About six weeks ago his infectious "Goodbye Song" was released to country radio as the album's first single, but almost no one has picked it up--even though Joe Galante, chairman of RCA's Nashville group, has personally been stumping for Lauderdale, sending out an uncharacteristic pitch letter with promotional copies: "To hear Jim Lauderdale sing is to hear a singular talent, one that understands where this music comes from," Galante gushes. "In a world of soundalike males, it's exciting to hear someone who's as distinctive and solidly country as Jim is."
But is distinctive what this industry really wants? More and more it seems that in Nashville the music is just another prop in an overdecorated "authenticity" pageant--one that has little room for a true country heart dressed in paisley pants.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Lynns photo by Scott Bommer/ Jim Lauderdale photo by Samuel Johnson; album covers.