Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Now that it isn't raining horseshit anymore, even us nay-sayers can admit that country music's neotraditionalist revolt has toned up a permanently obsolescent subgenre. The key factor isn't so much the power of honky-tonk principle--it's the fresh faces any coup makes room for.

The neotrad tide, for instance, has made Randy Travis the Jim Reeves of his generation--an honest matinee idol who lives to sink his strong voice into a good song. He's too safe by half, but his craft approaches inspiration, and if No Holdin' Back (Warner Bros.) isn't as absolutely felicitous as last year's Old 8x10, it's solid for damn sure--exactly the well-selected, well-sung collection a great country artist should be able to turn out annually for a decade. We shall see.

And the face parade continues. Proud Texan Jimmie Dale Gilmore's eponymous second album on the blues-oriented Hightone label may be purist neotrad, but at least he recorded it in Nashville, where they know how to extract beauty from nasality--which is why the two midtempo ballads he wrote with Butch Hancock sound as right as the honky-tonk. Keith Whitley's fifth album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me (RCA), is the first one he got right even though he can--or could--outsing anybody on this page. One suspects fear of success had something to do with why he drank himself to death while finishing it last May--as do doom-drenched tunes like Tennessee Courage and Between an Old Memory and Me. I hope his widow, Lorrie Morgan, honors Whitley's memory by testing the followup to Leave the Light On (RCA) against the proudly independent standard of Five Minutes and He Talks to Me. A postfeminist Tammy Wynette is just the neotrad Nashville could use. She can have all the violin effects she wants--purist details aren't the point.

Playboy, Sept. 1989


Aug. 1989 Oct. 1989