Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Virtue Unrewarded

MCA's Rhythm Country and Blues, featuring 22 famed acts, 31 known session men, and uncounted anonymous string players, and American's American Recordings, featuring Johnny Cash and Johnny Cash's acoustic guitar, have at least one thing in common: both claim a portion of this nation's musical past. Since neither makes any bones about its activism--since both, in fact, do their damnedest to make hay off it--claim should provoke no indignant disavowals. Unlike the justifiable charges exploit and appropriate, it casts no stones, and unlike the self-evident observations interpret and reconstitute, it invites no scrutiny, and that's how the labels' conceptual controllers want it. These albums are status objects, the biz equivalents of slim volumes of verse except for the eternal biz hope that they'll break through to a profit anyway. Singles and videos can't be expected to generate the groundswell such a happy outcome would require--for once, the press is crucial to any sales strategy. So not only does an aura of virtue make Al Teller and Rick Rubin feel good about their pet projects, it serves a commercial function, enhancing publicity value by masking artistic and philosophical shortcomings. And the members of the press have cooperated like the natural-born suckers they are. Music scribes just can't resist a good deed.

Here I am, then, with a little nay-say for your ass. Never mind exploitation--I'm pomo enough to shy away from lecturing artists on their uses of a past that's out there for anybody to misprise. Under favorable circumstances, I can even dispense with interpretation, which may be my stock in trade but isn't my staff of life. Right after love, sex, and chicken soup from Little Poland, that would be music, and when music gets me going, I'm hedonist enough not to fret about what Led Zeppelin has done to/with Delta blues, or Afrika Bambaataa to/with Kraftwerk. Problem is, things rarely work out so neatly, or pleasurably. Which is why, although you'd never guess it to read their notices, the way the records at hand interpret the past is so much more interesting than the music they contain, most of which is flat as a pancake, dead as a hat tree, sterile as a mule, and so forth.

The other big thing they share, of course, is country music, conceived in each otherwise dissimilar case as the product of a class first and a region second, though this being America--this being Amurrica, in fact--I mean class in the vaguest possible sense: "ordinary people," "just folks," "the salt of the earth." Rhythm Country and Blues, which certainly doesn't conceal its Southernness--a booklet photo depicts a fork in the Interstate: right Memphis, straight ahead Nashville, left death or dismemberment--gives the game away by opening with Vince Gill and Gladys Knight's "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." As Request's Keith Moerer points out in one of the smarter pieces generated by the project, it sounds more like a Coke commercial than like Marvin & Tammi, but its ideological thrust would be clear even if it didn't. It means to tell us that country and "R&B," as label prexy and RC&B executive producer Teller puts it, are "alternative versions of American soul music," "real" music expressing the "real" emotions of "real" people--people who, need I add, couldn't care less about the color of anyone's skin. Amurrican Recordings begins with the altogether different assumption that its chosen "man of the people" is also a "rebel," an "outlaw." "Outlaw is part of what I perceive this label to be about," avers prexy-producer Rubin. "That's the essence of rock and roll."

The overwhelming likelihood that both these ideas are wrong doesn't doom the art that comes out of them any more than the absurdities of Dostoyevsky's pan-Slavism or Yeats's spiritualism or Van Morrison's scientology or Chrissie Hynde's antifeminism. Anyway, their truth or falsity is relative at worst--as musical poses, lower-middle-class realism and rebel role-playing have considerable and even complementary use value. Nevertheless, they stand a better chance of doing good when they spring from near an artist's creative center, and this time they seem laid on from the outside. Not that Lyle Lovett doesn't love Al Green, or George Jones respect B.B. King, or B.B. King appreciate George Jones; not that Clint Black wouldn't gladly jump the Pointer Sisters' time-tested bones. And not that Johnny Cash doesn't believe at the moment that his stark new record is "the real me": "It's what I do. And it's what I feel I do best." But none of these feelings is immediate enough to animate the music that goes with them.

With Rhythm Country and Blues, what else could anyone expect? Duet albums are hard enough to bring off when one artist is a constant; guaranteeing the chemistry and commitment of 11 discrete biracial pairings is plainly impossible. The chestnuts at hand are so stultifyingly familiar that almost every track begins with one strike against it, and although producer Don Was is smart enough to go for early takes, spontaneity, fun, his hypercompetent studio elves have a way of bringing the count to 0-and-2. The profusion of artists and choice of material guarantee that personal prejudice will mar the reviewing process--as a sucker for Aaron Neville, I find Trisha Yearwood's pristine support on "I Fall to Pieces" tolerable just because she isn't literally Linda Ronstadt, while those who have wearied of Neville's shtick quite reasonably demur, as do those who are simply sick of the song. Even gibbering raves take care to note exceptions, with the Black-Pointers "Chain of Fools" a big loser.

Still, some generalizations are possible. Eight of the country performers are under 40, eight of the African Americans past 50--since Boyz II Men aren't about to risk their street cred backing crackers, Nashville has to provide the commercial juice. As a result, this is as much a meeting of the generations as of the races--one more case of young whites relating to black music that history has taken out of harm's way. Yet despite their years, the blacks outsing the whites almost every time. I agree with those who single out the over-the-top competitions--Travis Tritt recklessly pursuing Patti LaBelle, Conway Twitty going deep after Sam Moore flies high, Reba McEntire revving up the cornpone when she catches Natalie Cole making a downhome move, and, most startlingly, Tanya Tucker damn near outscreaming Little Richard on Eddie Cochran's decidedly uncountry "Somethin' Else"--as the most inspired collaborations, and while these contests all seem affectionate, they make you think. Although Al Teller may mean to recapture the dubious Stax-Volt legend of gifted Negroes working side by side with tolerant whites to glorify a supposedly common heritage that's actually mostly black, I trust that long before he read his clippings he also knew that all the country originators--Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams--were directly influenced by black musicians. Because there's a sense in which the underlying tension here has established black artists, most of them far better off than their counterparts of 50 years ago, showing their even more privileged young New South admirers who's boss, and the admirers, just like always, eager to pick up some pointers but reluctant to go to the back of the bus. In fact, maybe the record would give off more sparks if this drama didn't remain so sub-rosa. As it is, we can be thankful nobody suggested "Abraham, Martin and John."

All of which is mainly to note that Rhythm Country and Blues is dragged down not only by its built-in musical predictability but by its pretensions to virtue. Not a problem, seemingly, for Rubin, Mr. Offensive ever since the Beastie Boys, or for Cash, who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But first of all, that was long ago--if Rubin knew squat about country music, he might have sussed that the Man in Black's connection to country's so-called outlaw movement was mostly advisory, and that said movement was history before the '70s were. He also might have gathered that Cash revivals have been reported regularly ever since 1980's Rockabilly Blues, which ended up supplying all of two songs on Columbia's superb Essential Johnny Cash, one of the most astute boxed sets ever assembled. Usually the revivals have adduced his Sun connection, as on 1982's Dead Elvis keepsake The Survivors and his unfairly maligned late-'80s albums with old Sunster Jack Clement. Whatever the sales tack, Cash has obliged, just as he does here with a pained, impassive, chilling remake of "Delia's Gone," an old murder ballad as mean as any gangsta yarn. But while he's always been folkie enough to think about stripping his music down to solo songs of small tune and less beat, that doesn't mean he was right--folkies rarely are. Rick Rubin may believe outlaw is the essence of rock and roll, but at best it's a metaphor that can power unlikely music into the canon. If rock and roll does have an essence, which I doubt, it's rhythm. And above all, rhythm is what's missing from this record.

Cash isn't ordinarily conceived as a man with a beat, but when you think about it he's got his own--the trainlike chicka-boom of "I Walk the Line," which decisively enlivens folkish material like the box's "Ballad of Ira Hayes" and "Legend of John Henry's Hammer" and signature "Man in Black" and inflects most of his pop successes as well. It's nothing heavy, just a walking shuffle, but without it, the claim that Amurrican Recordings is his "crowning achievement" (Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone), that he has once again "bent country music toward him" (Jonny Whiteside, LA Weekly), is a crock. To prefer his pro forma "Bird on a Wire" to Leonard Cohen's, his dreadful "Man Who Couldn't Cry" to Loudon Wainwright's, is merely to validate salt-of-the-earth shtick over arty shtick; to claim that the cornfed 1994 "Drive On" is truer than the ravaged 1971 "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues" is to succumb to slacker ignorance or neolib revisionism; to applaud his live "Tennessee Stud" without wincing at the Viper Room assholes cheering in all the wrong places is to kowtow to the company line that Rick Rubin has rescued a Nashville legend from Nashville. The album has its moments after "Delia's Gone," the only time words and voice combine with the undeniable seniority his claque claims to hear everywhere; I've grown to appreciate Glenn Danzig's "Thirteen" myself. But on balance, I'd recommend 1987's Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town, doo-doo choruses and all.

One reason Johnny Cash is a great artist is that he knows his core fans, a subset of the ordinary folks who've always bought Nashville product doo-doo choruses and all, are neither the solitary iconoclasts of Amurrican Recordings nor the feel-good traditionalists of Rhythm Country and Blues. They have an intuitive attraction to both possibilities, but at center they're more sociable, more sentimental, more venal. As I understand history, it's an American miracle that anyone can create good art for this audience. But these two records ain't it. Whether they convince anyone else depends on who believes the hype.

Village Voice, June 14, 1994