Keith Whitley,
Sad Songs & Waltzes
(Rounder, 2000)

Sad Songs & Waltzes gripped me from its first chords. This is country music as it ought to be, full of life's details and fusing folk (American and Celtic), blues and bluegrass into a unique and varied mix. Keith Whitley's voice expresses emotion with passion and power, and is a perfect match for the music and lyrics. Fifteen songs make this a long album, full of traditional country's variety.

As well as being an excellent country album, Sad Songs & Waltzes has an interesting history. Whitley's vocals were recorded in 1982 as part of the album Somewhere Between by J.D. Crowe and the New South, with additional tracks recorded for an uncompleted solo album between then and his death in 1987. In 1998, Crowe used the original tapes to remix this album with different accompaniments and musicians, the better to spotlight Whitley's voice. It's a fascinating story told more fully in the liner notes, and has certainly led to a stellar album; I only wish they had included one of the original recordings, untouched, for comparison.

"Sad Songs & Waltzes" is the centerpiece of the album in many ways, blending the theme of lost love with nostalgia for the days country music had its own special sound and traditions. "Girl From the Canyon" is solid bluegrass in style, a ballad that hearkens back to folk traditions. "Another Town" is another bluegrass/Celtic mix, this one uptempo.

Many of the songs on this album are about regrets. "I Would Have Loved You All Night Long" regrets the missed chance to have demonstrated his love, saying if he'd only known that last night was their last night, things would have been different and maybe she wouldn't have left him. "Dance With Me Molly" tells the story of a man mourning his lost love via booze and sad music, seeing "yesterday's woman in tonight's glass of wine." "Family Tree" ends the album with regret for family lost or left behind, in all kinds of ways.

In "I Never Go Around Mirrors," the singer tells us how he avoids men who have lost their loves, and so has to avoid mirrors. It's a nice twist on the theme, combining woe with a bit of humor, and makes a great start to the album. "Honky-Tonk Crazy" follows it, warning a woman away from himself because he's bad news. Of course, no one really expects her to heed the warning, which leads us to the next song, "To Be Loved by a Woman." In this one, she sticks with him, and while he doesn't change his behavior all that much, he does at least appreciate her faithfulness and devotion. While I suppose appreciation is nice, I'd think better behavior would be even nicer! Still, he does stay, and maybe they can work it out.

In "I Don't Know You Well Enough to Say Goodbye" the singer hopes to forestall a breakup. This is the sort of complicated emotional territory that country can handle well. Walls can exist "Somewhere Between" even two people who love each other, a sad song about a complex feeling that we've all felt with those we love.

"Where Did You learn To Love Like That?" is one of the light-hearted songs, and I like it a lot. So often women who display a serious side are treated as not desirable; the singer of this song is amazed that this isn't true of his beloved -- in fact, she "taught him a thing of two!" It's cute and a lot of fun.

Several of the songs remind me of the Austin Lounge Lizards in style and content, a compliment since they're among my favorite groups. The guy left behind asks "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?" of the girl who moved on, to another town and another love. "Long Black Limousine" blends the themes of nostalgia, death and homecoming. Both songs sound a lot like the Lizards, though without their eccentric edge. "Where Are All the Girls I Used to Cheat With?" could be covered by the Lizards as is, detailing how the girls have moved on, as has his wife, and left him behind feeling sorry for himself.

People who like country music that sounds like country will love this album. Every song is excellent, and the whole beautifully put together and paced. It would be a good album for someone who is just beginning to listen to country, too, especially if they are coming from the worlds of traditional folk, Celtic or bluegrass; the influences of all these are clear. I began appreciating country, especially the older types, when I grew old enough that its subjects reflected my life more than rock's -- crushes aren't that personally relevant to someone with a teenaged daughter, while aging, long-term marriage and ambivalent experiences are, and these are covered more completely and skillfully by country than pop. Fans of the Austin Lounge Lizards should also give this album a listen -- it's the serious side of the music they have fun with. If you like country at all, I can't recommend this album highly enough!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]



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