Schubas, April 15

There’s plenty of hard country in the Mavericks’ second major-label release, What a Crying Shame. It’s chock-full of excellent honky-tonk, soulful shuffles, and swinging country rock. But their most notable achievement is the song “I Should Have Been True,” an Orbison-esque, almost operatic ballad of loss and regret. With one majestic swoop, the Mavericks have found a modern take on countrypolitan. It’s a not insignificant achievement, considering the genre’s controversial status since its inception in the mid-50s. Marked by lush arrangements and heavy strings, countrypolitan wasn’t just a flirtation with pop, which had been going on in country for years–it was an out-and-out proposition, an acknowledged attempt at full-scale crossover, as Nashville tried to recoup audience defections after the rock ‘n’ roll explosion.

The countrypolitan sound–its epitome was perhaps Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”–was defined by its mixture of country twang, lush pop orchestrations, and overt emotionalism, though in its most denatured form it nearly did away with the twang altogether. The primary architect of the Nashville Sound was guitarist and industry honcho Chet Atkins; indeed, some detractors cynically referred to the movement as the “Chet Atkins compromise.” Other producers followed suit, notably the legendary Billy Sherrill, who worked this sound with a vengeance through the 60s and 70s with varying degrees of success. The high points often depended on the strength of the individual artist; Sherrill’s production for Wynette and George Jones resulted in some of those two artists’ greatest signature songs. The failures can be summed up in two words: Barbara Mandrell.

A rare and estimable female multiinstrumentalist, Mandrell nevertheless embodied for many country stalwarts all the evil excesses of the pop path. She was countrypolitan in extremis, a confection without the vision and artistic will of earlier country-pop artists like Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins. But after Sherrill set her tone, Mandrell went on to have more than a half dozen number-one country hits.

It has taken the Mavericks, a Miami-based quartet led by Cuban American Raul Malo, to reassert the potency of the Nashville Sound: absolutely lush, undeniably pop, yet fully sexed and striking bone. Playing to a packed room at Schubas last weekend, the Mavericks reproduced live what they’ve done so eloquently on disc. And there were even more glorious surprises: their revivification of countrypolitan is just one of the group’s salutes to the past. On the surface Malo–a somewhat portly guy with a thick wedge haircut–is hardly a traditional sex symbol. But in performance he’s a man transformed, wheeling, smiling, flushed, and dripping sweat. During a wild, stomping, big-band take on Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” Malo paused from strumming guitar and struck a pose, arched wrists frozen waist high. His gyration recalled a couple of famous photographs: Elvis onstage at the 1956 Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Bobby Darin live at the Las Vegas Copa in 1961. In that moment, Malo embodied all the craziness and cross-pollination of prerock music, the explosive arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, and the overwhelming seduction of the pop narcotic.

For better or worse, entertainers don’t always get to be who they want to be. Darin wanted to be Sinatra, Elvis wanted to be Dean Martin. Merle Haggard loves Bing Crosby. Patsy Cline reportedly loathed most of her pop classics. Malo may want to be Roy Orbison or Ray Price–or Bobby Darin, for that matter–and those singers, whether vocally or iconically, are undeniably major influences. But with his dizzying drama and romanticism and his stylistic range as a songwriter and bandleader, he’s more correctly described as the spiritual heir to Marty Robbins.

Tex-Mex, rockabilly, honky-tonk, gunfighter ballads, big-band jazz, and, yes, countrypolitan–Robbins lustfully embraced it all, and it all came out country because he was bigheaded enough to say it was. Unbridled vision can be risky, and it added a lot of crap to his discography, but the heights were stunning. Listen to the 1976 classic mid-life crisis/reincarnation epic “El Paso City”–an unusual, mystical meditation on his 1959 hit “El Paso”–and you can hear in story song the inner life of an American original. Mariachi horns, florid flamenco guitar, and tinkling pop keyboards back up lyrics that transcend ennui to become devastating confession: “These wild and unexplained emotions / That I’ve had so long / But I have never told.”

This song was one of Robbins’s last chart appearances, and that line is as close as it gets to revealing what drives certain artists to step out from obscurity and risk holding a stage at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair, the Copa, or just a corner bar on a Friday night in Chicago. Robbins, Elvis, Darin, Malo: with varying degrees of success, and like a million comers before and since, they all struck a pose that cried “look at me.” This pose says musical purity is a myth, a bore, that it’s impossible to isolate the ingredients in America’s musical stew.

Striking the pose, however, requires that one back it up. Artists with substance can incorporate disparate influences and construct complex, moving hybrids. Lacking substance, one simply becomes a poser, and posers are notorious for diluting and bastardizing original forms in grotesque ways.

The Mavericks back up their pose like nobody you’ve seen recently. “I Should Have Been True” stands as a bold symbol of perfect impurity. It’s countrypolitan in the ultimate sense; it throbs, it yearns, it aches, it encapsulates musical moments that live beyond their time and genre. It’s Andy Williams’s “Moon River” driving home the childhood poverty that lies behind Holly Golightly’s brave facade of sophistication; it’s the lost love in George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” returning to mourn her dead torchbearer; it’s Dionne Warwick’s heartbreaking summation of failure in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”: “And all the stars that never were / Are parking cars and pumping gas.” Country and pop will continue to be uneasy bedmates because most singers today don’t understand squat about either one. Marty Robbins did, and Malo does too. When the Mavericks play “I Should Have Been True,” Atkins’s gamble doesn’t sound like a compromise at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Charles Eshelman.