Janie Fricke,
Country Side of Bluegrass
(New Music Deals, 2011)

Amy Francis,
(Cherry Ridge, 2011)

These two CDs revisit songs from another era of popular music, when Nashville embraced pop sounds in an effort to give country music, its commercial status threatened by the rock 'n' roll explosion, some degree of adult crossover appeal. It is ironic that today such music is thought of as "traditional" country. Still, the best of it was never unwelcome on a car radio or a honkytonk jukebox -- which is where I usually heard it, as opposed to my stereo, which was playing something harder-edged -- and the two albums under review deliver sheer nostalgic pleasure.

Janie Fricke enjoyed a string of hits in the late 1970s well into the 1980s, a number of them revisited in stripped-down acoustic settings on Country Side of Bluegrass (originally issued in 2004 as Bluegrass Sessions). Fricke has never found the critical recognition that some of her contemporaries, such as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris, attained, but as I listen to her, I'm not sure why. She's a talented, expressive singer who handles the material -- cheery or gloomy -- charmingly and convincingly, with a disarmingly matter-of-fact way of giving voice to female sexuality. (As if to underscore that point, the very first line on the first cut is "You don't know the meaning of uncontrolled desire.")

Whatever they're about -- romance and passion unsatisfied or fulfilled -- these are solid songs, usually unprofound but unfailingly likable. None is an original, but each demonstrates that Fricke had an unerring ear for material, most of it written by Music City professionals. Perhaps the deepest song is J.D. Souther's Appalachian-flavored "Faithless Love." I've never heard a more thrillingly realized version than the one here. Pro that she remains, Fricke rises to every occasion. As either song or performance, there's not a clunker here.

Though probably half Fricke's age, San Antonio resident Amy Francis immerses herself in the Nashville Sound -- the name given in the 1960s to the production theory that replaced fiddles with violins, guitars with pianos, so that country would have something of the resonance of mainstream pop. In so doing, she calls up the immortal likes of Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and more. Most of the 10 cuts on Balladacious hail from that period. The one exception, Vince Gill and Tim Dubois's superb "When I Call Your Name," has so deliberately retro a feeling that it could easily have starred on the country charts 40 or 50 years ago.

The mood here is delightfully desolate, the clear lesson being that love succeeds only in generating pain, regret, bitterness and terrific songs. Francis explores the country of heartbreak with the best of them, with violins, steel guitars and hushed percussion reviving the likes of "Picture of Me Without You," "Fool Number One" (my personal favorite) and the Cline standard "Sweet Dreams," concluding with the bleak and beautiful "Stranger Things Have Happened." My only complaint is the inclusion of Bobbie Gentry's absurdly overwrought "Ode to Billy Joe," though I am aware mine is a minority opinion. Still, good as Francis is at delivering it, it still seems like a dumb song to me.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 July 2012

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