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Hicksville


Photo by Nabil Cronful

Hillbilly heaven: Wayne Hancock

The other side of country

By Greg Cahil

All good things must end, or so they say. For music fans who grooved to the wave of promising neo-traditional country artists a few years ago, that old adage rings true.

Lured by the commercial success of such insipid pop-oriented country singers as Garth Brooks and Reba MacIntyre, Nashville all but abandoned the twangy sound that crept on to the charts in the early '90s and revitalized the country music industry.

Even stalwart neo-traditionalist Emmylou Harris has shucked her cowgirl duds on her latest--the uninspired Wrecking Ball (Elektra), an ambient, modern rock-inflected release produced by New Orleans wunderkind Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan).

Country fans responded to those shifts last year by elevating obscure bluegrass fiddler and singer Alison Krause's Now That I've Found You: A Collection (Rounder) to the top of the country charts--an unusual event for a bluegrass artists and the small, Cambridge-based independent label best known for reggae, world music, and blues.

The major labels may have all but forsaken that sweet hillbilly sound, but it's found a comfortable home at the indie labels. Renegade singer and songwriter Steve Earle has learned that lesson, leaving MCA behind and releasing his first album in four years--the excellent acoustic-oriented Train a Comin' (Winter Harvest)--on an unknown Nashville indie.

For those willing to scour the CD bins for alternative country, the rewards are rich.

Wayne Hancock stakes out his own slice of hillbilly heaven on Thunderstorms and Neon (DejaDisc), humming with steel guitars and cowboy yodeling. This Texas troubadour is the closest thing to the second coming of Hank Williams since Marty Brown blew into town a few years ago.

Presley's Grocery (Sugar Hill), by the Tennessee duo Brother Boys, blends a folksier brand of bluegrass-flavored country, reverberating with everything from rockabilly to rhumba rhythms--a perfect antidote for those Nashville blues.

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys return with Swingin' West (Hightone), a danceable number that resonates with the country swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. It's produced by ex-Blaster Dave Alvin. The lyrics are strictly tongue-in-cheek and laced with double entendres, like the plaintive "Let Me in There, Baby."

The edgier Cheatin' Heart Attack, from labelmate Dale Watson, draws more from the hard-luck, honky-tonk laments of George Jones and Merle Haggard. And Watson tells it like it is on the biting "Nashville Rash," complaining that he's "falling through the cracks" and "too country for country now."

Funny how things change.

Also recommended: Rounder Records is celebrating its silver anniversary with a series of two-CD collections, including Hills of Home: 25 Years of Folk Music on Rounder Records. This wonderfully satisfying 40-track release ranges from the countrified Piedmont blues of guitarist Etta Baker to an innovative banjo breakdown by Bela Fleck, Bill Keith, and Tony Trischka. Meanwhile, Top of the Hill: The Sugar Hill Collection gathers 20 tracks by such traditional bluegrass players as Peter Rowan and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Dan Crary, and Sally Van Meter.

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From the Jan. 11-17, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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© 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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