Friday, October 28, 2005

It's Martina Time

I bought "Timeless", my very first Martina McBride album, two days ago. It's not that I haven't considered her talented, in fact she is usually the one bright spot any time Nashville stars have to actually sing live on TV awards shows. Without the help of multiple takes and AutoTune, most acts these days can't sing any better than I can.

What Martina finally did to get me to buy her record is take that huge risk no longer acceptable here in Music City - she cut an entire album of Country Music.

Not country-rock, country-Buffett, country-Kiss, country-Kid Rock, or any other heinous hybrid that has plagued the charts in recent years. I'm talking about some by-God Country Music. Standards. Classics. The Literature. The Catalog. The Bedrock of Rural American Music.

Why this is considered such a notable event boggles the mind. I constantly hear stories of numerous songs being rejected by The Suits for being "too Country". The idiocy of that mindset, tied to the pervasive and complete ignorance of the traditions of very industry they are employed in, the willful scorn directed at the history of the genre, the prevailing belief that Garth Brooks is "old school"... all of which has made Nashville the creative cesspit it has become today. Having said all that - a very condensed version of my usual rant - I actually have hope that this album might change everything.

It debuted at #1. It sold more copies in it's first week than any other Martina McBride album. Ever. It was cut almost entirely on vintage gear, using vintage microphones and instruments. It is not bathed in reverb. There are no midgets on the album cover. No one has to scream how bad-ass or redneck they are. No song titles consisting of grade-school puns or groan-inducing turns of the phrase. No paens to Bud or Jack. Or to the joys of romping in the mud with models and strippers.

None of that.

Instead, beautiful, meaningful songs played with grace and fire and respect and love by great musicians. Recorded and mixed with purpose by McBride's husband, John. Produced with honesty and passion by Martina herself. Songs from Hank Williams, Sr.'s "You Win Again" to Tammy Wynette's "'Til I Can Make It On My Own". Pedal steel guitar appears all over the place, played by the acknowledged master, Paul Franklin, in the manner and fashion of the original players.

This is not a karaoke cover-band effort - these songs were originally performed by legends, thereby many of the elements in these classic arrangements are by now so familiar that they seem as integral to the sound of the record as the melody and lyric. I think the McBride's found just the right blend of "loving tribute versus fresh interpretation". Johnny Cash's "I Still Need Someone" is cut as an acoustic mid-tempo reflection on a lost love with an Emmy Lou Harris/Allison Krause vibe. Dolly Parton sings harmony. It works.

I think the "traditional" phase of the cycle of Country Music (straying from it's roots and eventually finding them again) may finally be here. I became a true fan of Country when Dwight Yoakam (who appears here on "Heartaches By The Number"), Ricky Skaggs, Steve Earle and Randy Travis cut Country albums in the mid-'80's. It sounded fresh and new because Kenny Rogers was ruling the charts at the time. Steel guitars, Telecasters and twangy vocals made a comeback that lasted until Garth started cutting Billy Joel songs.

For a mainstream artist like McBride to pull this off - actually get it past the label and do such a remarkable job on the songs themselves - may give the lemnmings on Music Row the bright idea that there is a market for real Country Music. They somehow pretended that the "O, Brother Whereout Thou" phenomena never happened. There might be a place for Keith Urban under the Country umbrella, but why can't both styles survive and thrive? I can't imagine Blues Music embracing Kenny Wayne Sheppard and then calling B.B. King "too bluesy". Or Rock radio crowning Green Day the new kings and never playing Led Zeppelin.

It would be great if McBride can use her clout to get this style accepted at Radio again. Artists like Mandy Barnett and Elizabeth Cook have been singing and writing this kind of music for years and are continually ignored by the Row, but have devoted fan bases and the respect of their more commercial peers. Critic's Darlings have struggled to get traditional Country on the radio. Maybe, just maybe, one of Radio's Darlings can convince them otherwise.