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Cubic Pecs and Cowboy Hats:
A Country Roundup

You can pretty much forget country music unless you're old enough or repressed enough to care deeply about monogamy--one-on-one love in all its passion, comfort, consternation, impossibility, and routine. That's why I doubt the Nashville hunks have siphoned much support from Nirvana, Madonna, or Public Enemy; I think Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, and the rest generate their numbers among natural country fans and converts who've had enough Richard Marx and Bryan Adams. As a city boy with a taste for the stuff, however, I worry anyway. If necessary, I can live with the square chins, cubic pecs, and cowboy hats, and I have no use for the purist claim that there's no true country between honky-tonk get-down and bluegrass high-and-lonesome. But I know that it's rarely beautiful people who sound the best. So I surveyed the current crop of male country albums with uncommon trepidation.

The basic formula hasn't changed. Almost every country album contains 10 songs and lasts 30 or 35 minutes, though some new guys--like Travis Tritt, who's now into guitar solos--stretch the length a little. Even artists who write their own also buy sure shots from full-time songsmiths, and even those who field crack bands rely on a cohort of studio musicians for their recorded settings. Because the key unit is the song, album filler is assumed, and because the form is so narrow, even the rare collection as consistent as Randy Travis's 1988 Old 8 X 10 or Clint Black's 1989 Killin' Time or Garth Brooks's 1991 Ropin' the Wind may strike outsiders as samey or thin. So in this genre, best-ofs make sense.

Ricky Van Shelton's Greatest Hits Plus (Columbia), for instance, offers a big 14 selections from a journeyman who rode in on the neotraditionalist wave of the late '80s. Shelton's fluid baritone isn't long on character, but as a proven hitmaker he ropes in more than his share of can't-miss stuff. Ballads as well-turned as "Life Turned Her That Way" (betrayer), "Somebody Lied" (betrayed), and "Just As I Am" (redeemed) embody an old Nashhville adage: it's the song, not the singer.

Just kidding. Country fans treasure familiar voices as much as they do fetching tunes and pithy Americanese, and not trained or pyrotechnic voices, either. They prefer a talky attack that signifies unpretentiousness, just like the drawl that goes with it--an approach epitomized since 1985 by the easy, subtle, deceptively rich baritone of Randy Travis. Sold separately and programmed with no historical logic, his two new Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.) packages are a rip--all 22 tracks would fit on one CD. But he's so committed to simplicity that the songs hang together like the work of seven weeks instead of seven years. The first volume is more classic, but its companion includes my favorite of his many off-the-rack one-liners: "Since my phone still ain't ringing I assume it still ain't you."

Worried about the hunk invasion, Travis has been doing time in the weight room, but his muscles haven't gone to his head: his previously unreleased new songs here are as hooky as his hits, and treat marriage as an experience to be engaged rather than a subject to be exploited. Clint Black has been rather less vigilant. Spoiled by fame or Hollywood or his own manly profile (he looks so craggy up against his Knots Landing wifey on the cover of People), he's devolved from the terse, guilt-stricken reflections of Killin' Time to the soggy homilies of The Hard Way (RCA). Imagine how trite and condescending a song called "A Woman Has Her Way" could be, and you'll have an idea what Clint considers sentiments suitable to a matinee idol.

This is what I feared from country's pop breakthrough--schmaltz, oomph, and other musical steroids. If Black's relatively mild case is exacerbated by his mild voice, Billy Ray Cyrus's capacity for overstatement only reminds us that the bigger the instrument, the grosser you can get with it. And though I'm glad the guitaristics on T-R-O-U-B-L-E (Warner Bros.) distract hunk-rocker Travis's Tritt from the sexist jive of his countryified It's All About to Change, Hank Williams Jr.-style Allman Brothers imitations are not my idea of great Nashville. So I'm afraid my favorite crossover king is also the world's, or at least the suburbs'.

Like anybody who sells 27 million albums, Garth Brooks is accused of a lot of things, most of them bland. He isn't even a hunk; as early critic Ken Tucker put it, "he has a face like a thumb with a hat on it." But not all suburbanites are as stupid as Michael Bolton believes. Brooks knows a good song whether it's his or someone else's, and he always adds the right quantum of expressiveness to his sweet, strong, unspectacularly adaptable voice. The Chase (Liberty) is burdened by the responsibilities Brooks believes come with success: the lead single is the first song in Nashville history to inveigh, however discreetly, against not just racism but homophobia. There's nothing as wicked as Ropin' the Wind's "Papa Loved Mama," which doesn't bat an eye when mama fucks around or when papa runs her over with his truck. But "Somewhere Other Than the Night," about sex on the farm, and "Learning to Live Again," about a divorcÚ's blind date, typify his smarts, and only the rodeo song rankles. Having mastered the kind of nice-guy aura that has escaped pop superstars since the days of Cole and Como, Brooks could yet get away with being a liberal.

And give Garth this: his megabucks translate into venture capital for eccentrics who might otherwise be counted too risky for Music City. Stacy Dean Campbell's Lonesome Wins Again (Columbia) is so classic it resists not just schmaltz but steel guitars, so bare-bones it doesn't countenance puns--this is country music as unalloyed sentiment, the sheer tuneful essence of the thing, ringing high and lonesome in your head whether you remember the words or not. Dennis Robbins's Man With a Plan (Giant) is country-rock honky tonk by a songwriter with an eye. Unlike Tritt, Robbins doesn't regard women as torturers or receptacles, and when he tells a joke, which is often, the only one who winces is Dennis.

Two debuts of this quality in a year may not be a Nashville record, though it is since I've been counting. But it's reason to put one's trepidations aside.

Details, 1992