Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

To me, the idea that reverence for the past is now country music's official wave of the future doesn't seem like a paradox. It seems like a load of shit. Neotraditionalism, shmeotraditionalism--country artists have always invited their audiences to escape the present; self-righteous purism is merely their latest gimmick. As always, they sometimes escape the present in entertaining or even revelatory ways. But up against the latest from Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, I'll take the work of two nonpurists whose devotion to their druthers predates this fad.

Like Linda Ronstadt, Barbara Mandrell and Travis, Rosanne Cash is a country-rooted interpreter who can cross over. Unlike them, she's Johnny's daughter, she writes some and she has a lot of guts. Her tough resolve gives her basically conventional good voice its personality--and lets her kick off King's Record Shop (Columbia) with "Rosie Strike Back," good advice for battered wives that all too many country fans need in 1987. Cash has much more going for her than simple integrity, and if nothing else on the album equals its lead cut, that's high praise for the song.

Like Earle, Yoakam and Charlie Daniels, Joe Ely is a honky-tonk man. Unlike them, he has never pretended that country was his first love. Ely is a butt-kicking rock-'n'-roller who, with contributions from Austin buddy Butch Hancock, has recorded more ace lyrics over the past decade or so than any country-tinged performer this side of Elvis Costello. On Lord of the Highway (HighTone), the giveaway is "My Baby Thinks She's French": "She plays Spanish guitar/At the coffee bar/She's takin' self-defense." Guarantee you Yoakam and Earle (maybe not Daniels) know women like that. They're just too fucking pure to admit it.

Playboy, Nov. 1987

Oct. 1987 Dec. 1987