Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Dixie chicks & dudes


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There's good and bad news when it comes to Broadway diva, film and TV actress Kristin Chenoweth's country album Some Lessons Learned (Masterworks). The good news is that it's not as humiliating as Gwyneth Paltrow's country music movie Country Strong. The bad news is that it's wicked mediocre and generic, Chenoweth's attempt to be a more liberal Miranda Lambert. Exercising different vocal muscles than we're used to hearing Chenoweth use, she sounds like she's still trying to break in those cowboy boots, and there's going to be more than a few blisters when she slips them off her feet. The blame goes to schlock and schmaltz queens Diane Warren and Desmond Child. Warren's songs, including "Borrowed Angels" (previously recorded by Chenoweth on her As I Am disc), "What If We Never" and the insipid single "I Want Somebody (To Bitch About)," should be listened to with a diabetes-testing kit nearby. Child's compositions, co-penned by Chenoweth and others, fare somewhat better, especially the novelty tune "What Would Dolly Do?" Speaking of Dolly, Chenoweth does a splendid job with Parton's "Change," as well as more authentically Nashville selections such as "God and Me" and "I Didn't."

Jazz legend Diane Schuur also steps out of her comfort zone, on The Gathering (Vanguard). Recorded in Nashville with a stellar line-up of musicians that includes Alison Krauss, Vince Gill and Mark Knopfler, The Gathering finds Schuur strutting her stuff in the country realm. She sounds like Willie Nelson's kid sister on Nelson's "Healing Hands of Time," does Tammy Wynette proud on "Til I Can Make It on My Own," gets to the heart of a pair of Hank Cochran tunes ("Don't Touch Me" and "Why Can't He Be You") and scores with Kris Kristofferson's "Nobody Wins."

Several years before Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his portrayal of a washed-up country singer in the Tender Mercies retread Crazy Heart, he released the album Be Here Soon, on which he proved himself to be a decent singer and songwriter. Almost as if to cash in on the remaining Crazy Heart momentum, we have Bridges' self-titled, T-Bone Burnett-produced Blue Note disc. Accompanied by Burnett and other musicians, and featuring guest vocal appearances by Rosanne Cash and Burnett's wife Sam Phillips, the whole affair is as dark and moody as Chenoweth's CD is slick and glittery.

After being a dominant force in the country-pop world of the 1960s and 70s, Glen Campbell did something of a disappearing act in the 80s and 90s, reduced to playing concerts in Branson, Missouri (no offense to Campbell or Branson intended). But like a variety of musicians including Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staple, Candi Staton and Wanda Jackson, Campbell was rediscovered by a younger generation, and given the opportunity to reach a new audience with his 2008 Meet Glenn Campbell album. Just a few years later, Campbell, diagnosed with Alzheimer's, has announced his retirement. With Ghost on the Canvas (Surfdog), he's planning to go out with a bang. Campbell performs a set of co-compositions with songs by Paul Westerberg ("Any Trouble"), Teddy Thompson ("In My Arms," joined by Chris Isaak, Dick Dale and Brian Setzer), Jakob Dylan ("Nothing but the Whole Wide World") and Robert Pollard ("Hold on Hope"), making this a fond farewell.

A country-music charts contemporary of Campbell's, Connie Smith is also making something of a return with Long Line of Heartaches (Sugar Hill), her first solo recording in more than a dozen years. A throwback to vintage Nashville, the Marty Stuart-produced disc features standouts such as "Pain of a Broken Heart" and "That Makes Two of Us" and "Blue Heartaches." It's both an introduction to and a welcome return for a certified country queen.

Gillian Welch, on the forefront of the alternative/insurgent country music scene since the mid-90s, returns with her best work after a lengthy period of creative dissatisfaction, on The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony). Welch's gift for 21st-century Americana is at its peak on the amazing "The Way It Goes." It's a song that is musically traditional, but with profoundly modern subject matter: friends grow apart as life takes them in different directions, and "everybody's buying little baby clothes." The album's bounty also includes "Dark Turn of Mind," "Tennessee," and "The Way the Whole Thing Ends."

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