Alt-country, that is country that has some blues and or rock-n-roll in it, has always captured my fancy. In light of what passes for country music these days, I thought I'd come up with a list of some of my favorite albums, again in no particular order.
Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1992). In spite of her pleas to the contrary this is in deed a dark album, full of regrets, violent death and fear of insecurity. But locked within all of those troublesome moments she finds the hope to go on. On Memphis Pearl mom promises her little baby it won't always be like this, even when deep down she knows it will; on He Never Got Enough Love Williams knows what the absence of a loving mother and the presence of an abusive father will do to any child; and on the title track, even in the face of a suicide we can only surmise is someone close to her, she still has the composure to know what was truly lost: "the breath from your own lips, a sweet and tender kiss, the sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring, dancing with no shoes, the beat, the rhythm, the blues." Williams gift is that she take us to the edge of despair and bring us back safely. She knows that despite its imperfections this truly is a sweet old world. The fact that we can't always see that is our regret; the fact that she can is her virtue. A
Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA, 1978). Like most Texas artists, Ely is pigeonholed. He's too country for rock and too rock for country. With fellow ex-Flatlander Butch Hancock doing the co-writing this is the finest country-rock album since Gilded Palace of Sin. Really, any one interested in what gets played deep in the heart of Texas, would do well to check out not only this entry but his self-titled debut. Ely's music is more Memphis than Nashville, and the result is an album that's more hard-edged and direct than the usual melodic twang that passes for country. With the exception of Willie Nelson no one even comes close. A.
Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974). In which the inventor of alternative country brings it all home, as they say. On GP Parsons' love for country music dulled the delivery. Here, all the walls come down. With Emmylou Harris backing up on vocal, he allows himself the freedom to develop his soulful rock. On Return of the Grievous Angel and Hearts on Fire Parsons and Harris outdo the Parsons/Hillman duo of Christine's Tune and Sin City - no small feat. And if In My Hour of Darkness isn't self prophetic than Love Hurts underscores his worst fears and insecurities. A pity he never lived long enough to appreciate the gift he gave the world; a shame the world still doesn't get it! A
Rosie Flores: After the Farm (Hightone, 1992). Of all the alt-country singers out there, Flores is the closest to pure country there is. Pure country like Loretta Lynne and Merle Haggard, though, which is a comfort here. But Flores borrows as much from Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, as any of the aforementioned greats. And like her 1987 self-titled debut her husky voice is just what the country doctor ordered. Blue Highway is the best damn non-hit song to come out in decades, while West Texas Plains is pure Nashville, replete with drinking and relationship breakups, everything but the dog dying. Perhaps album three? A-
The Jayhawks: Blue Earth (Twin/Tone, 1989). Calling Mark Olsen and Gary Louris a poor man's Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman is moot at best. Truth is this is best Flying Burritos album since Burrito Deluxe; in fact I'll take this over the former any day for sheer delivery. Since Olsen isn't quite the writer Parsons was, his aim is lower, which is OK by me. This album flows and rocks in a way Hillman used to fight Parsons over way back when. And I prefer Olsen's Baltimore Sun to Parsons' Streets of Baltimore anyway. Not a great album, just a damn good one. A-
John Prine: Sweet Revenge (Atlantic, 1973). Three of the first four songs on this wonderful album are some sort of joke Prine appears to be playing on himself, with Dear Abby the punch line. The odd man out is Christmas in Prison, this year's Sam Stone, about the tortured soul of a prisoner who has all eternity to morn the loss of the woman he loves. "We're rolling, my sweetheart, we're flowing, by God," is about as bleak and gut wrenching as rock-n-roll has ever gotten. And that's Prine's gift, or curse if you will. He is able to empathize with those the rest of us would rather not associate with. In so doing he becomes both the convict and the poor schmuck who gets caught with his girl friend's pants down to her knees all at the same time. Life doesn't get much more surreal than that. A