4 Albums That Reveal The Progression Of Country Music

Posted: November 02, 1986

Four new albums, when heard in order, tell the story of modern country music. What more could a critic (or a fan) ask?

Country music from what might be called its classic period may be found on The Best of the Early Louvin Brothers (Rebel Records), which offers the high, exquisitely agonized harmonies of Ira and Charlie Louvin soon after they forsook gospel in the mid-1950s. The Louvins are commonly considered the greatest of the "brother duets" that dapple country-music history; their entwined voices delivered songs of immense unhappiness - broken marriages, betrayed loves, omnipresent death - with a passionate intensity that might have passed for joy.

These early Louvin hits are a tad more cheerful than the duo's finest music (this is an act, after all, whose greatest album is titled Tragic Songs of Life), but even insoucient charmers such as "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" and "Hoping That You're Hoping" have an edge of desperation, as though the brothers had known that their happiness wouldn't last. Every song on this album features the pair's gorgeous harmonies, Ira's mandolin and Charlie's guitar. The record's high point is the chilling "When I Stop Dreaming," but practically everything recorded by the Louvin Brothers is worth hearing.

Although he has been recording since the '50s, George Jones became a superstar in the 1960s and represents the traditionalist period of country music in this little survey. With the exception of a few notably awful recordings, Jones withstood the onslaught of the slicked-down, orchestrated, ''countrypolitan" trend of the '60s, preferring to rely on his distinctively vinegary voice, instead of pop melodies, to maintain the loyalty of fans.

Jones was hailed throughout the last decade as the greatest country singer alive, but the unevenness of his records has prevented him from proving the case conclusively. The country-music industry is notorious for releasing mediocre albums, the standard formula being a few hit singles and a deluge of filler (the same was frequently true during the heyday of soul music). Although Jones averages at least two albums a year, his last first-rate album was exactly a decade ago - 1976's Alone Again.

Now comes what will undoubtedly be this decade's great one: Wine-Colored Roses (Epic) offers a series of excellent ballads sung by Jones in his best undertaker moan. From the stately waltz of the title tune to the plaintive honky-tonk of "I Turn to You," this is prime Jones. Even the risque novelty song, "The Best of Me," is uncommonly well sung.

This record also signals a new achievement for Jones: He has recorded his first decent duet since he broke up with his wife, Tammy Wynette. "You Never Looked That Good When You Were Mine" pairs him with, of all people, Patti Page, and the results are highly satisfying. Jones' moan and Page's groan combine to create an all-too-convincing picture of post-marital melancholy.

John Anderson was one of contemporary country's first neo-traditionalists, those whippersnappers who emerged in the late '70s, venerating vets such as Jones and Merle Haggard at a time when most young country singers were trying to sound like rock stars. After a string of hit singles and most-promising- newcomer awards, Anderson's career has been stalled lately, but that ought to change with Countrified (Warner Bros.), which includes a few solid songs that deserve to be hits.

Anderson sings in the stoic, clenched-jaw manner of Jones and Haggard (he even covers Haggard's old hit "The Fightin' Side of Me" here). But his most charming trait is that he invariably adds an element of irony to his

phrasing, as though acknowledging publicly the influence of his forebears.

The best songs on the new album, "Honky Tonk Crowd" and "Countrified," are almost doctoral theses on country music, transfiguring cliches by invoking them so fervently. As this metaphor suggests, Anderson's music can be studied, self-conscious; certainly this album could have done without a shameless, execrable novelty tune like "Do You Have a Garter Belt?"

Finally, we have the debut album of the O'Kanes, who might be described as, let's see now, post-neo-traditionalists - yeah, that's the ticket. The O'Kanes are Jamie O'Hara and Kieran Kane, who have made a good living writing songs recorded by stars as diverse as the Judds, Alabama, Tanya Tucker, the Oak Ridge Boys - even Tom Jones.

This sort of facility often signals the presence of hacks, but The O'Kanes (Columbia) is a remarkable album, a mixture of old-fashioned country, new- fashioned folk and just a whiff of rock-and-roll. O'Hara and Kane possess rather ordinary voices - they'll never be compared with the Louvin Brothers - but it's their very ordinariness that makes them so likable: They sing like a couple of friends getting together to compare (musical) notes.

The O'Kanes already have a hit single, "Oh, Darlin'," which neatly encapsulates all that is good about their music - the strong, loping melody; the deceptively simple wordplay; the conversational intimacy of their singing. Some of the songs on The O'Kanes drift into sentimentality; others strain too hard to be catchy. But on the whole, this sounds like the act that could make commercial country music exciting again.

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