Chicago Country Music Festival,
By Chris Varias
Everyone from the record store know-it-all to the music-magazine preacher seems to share the same theory about 90s-style country: the artists played on the radio are paper-thin, Eagles-lovin’ phonies, while those working outside radio’s confines are the keepers of a genuine Hank Williams tradition. Both generalizations hold some truth, the first a touch more than the second. Yes, country radio is bad. It suffers from such self-inflicted ailments as a love of the synth-powered ballad and a fear of the middle-aged singer. But those are merely problems with radio, not indictments of every country artist popular enough to get radio play. While most of these singers stink, a few have merit, so dialing up the local hot-country frequency is a lot like tuning in the contemporary rock station–either might be good for two decent tunes per hour. That’s why the Lord, or Henry Ford, put buttons on the car radio.
Patty Loveless is one of the few radio stars who doesn’t deserve to be dismissed. Not only does she have a delivery as emotive as any crooner working today, she knows what to do with it. Teaming up with her husband, the revered producer and Nashville player Emory Gordy Jr., who has contributed to such landmark albums as Gram Parsons’s Grievous Angel and Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, the pair form a song-crafting machine, plucking better-than-average material from songwriters and sending it up the charts. Loveless’s hits, which she reeled off one-by-one at the Country Music Festival, are glimmers of light in a dull radio format. But while Loveless shouldn’t be dismissed for her radio-star status, she should be scolded for not using it to expand the possibilities of country radio.
The chorus of the first song in Loveless’s set sums up her persona–she’s just-a-wee-bit-bad girl: “I ain’t the woman in red / I ain’t the girl next door / But if it’s something in the middle / That you’re looking for / I’m that kinda girl.” Loveless is at a point where the radio will play whatever she releases. With her clout, she could whack hot country upside its thick skull by discarding tunes that cast her as the conditional bad girl, a B-list lady in red. Instead of “something in the middle,” she should be pushing the envelope with a little Loretta Lynn-style empowerment here and some Dolly Parton-style sexuality there.
Loveless is fully up to the task. She wowed the crowd at the Petrillo Music Shell with “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” a hit from her album When Fallen Angels Fly. High-pitched screams from female fans punctuated the verses and chorus of the song, which tells the story of a woman who suddenly leaves behind a relationship, the kids, and a pile of laundry once she realizes there’s nothing in it for her. And there was a terrific version of the unapologetic tale of temptation “Old Weakness (Coming on Strong),” saltier than anything the alleged rockabilly act Rosie Flores was laying down on the second stage moments before.
But Loveless’s afternoon set was a hit parade of concessions to radio programmers. The most glaring example was the Jim Lauderdale-penned “Halfway Down,” a song about a woman’s downward spiral. Loveless overpowered the silly narrative, bending and stretching her way from rhyme to rhyme. If listeners didn’t pay attention to what she sang, they might have mistaken the tune for an edgy rocker about a girl who doesn’t give a toss. But careful listening revealed lines like “Fighting with the devil / Harder all the time,” which signals a rejection of sin instead of a fascination with the very things that make up a large chunk of the country canon. While the song is dressed up to resemble the tale of a life in decline, it reads more like a memo on the desk of Robert Reed’s corner office at the Christian Coalition, stuff country radio can’t get enough of these days. Sadder, and more revealing, was her rendition of “A Thousand Times a Day.” The song, which compares quitting the hooch to quitting an old flame, was a perfect fit for the newly sober George Jones when he included it on his 1993 album High Tech Redneck. Jones’s version had no luck on the charts back then, but Loveless is doing real well with it today. Yet she should have taken a pass on a song she can’t outdo Jones on, and instead opted for material that would help build a singular and stronger legacy–as Jones, Parton, and Lynn have all done.
Though critics may like her to become something more, Loveless stands out among her radio peers, and that’s commendable. But she’s not as commendable as Joe Ely, the restless living legend from Lubbock who has spent the last 20 years erasing borders–musical and geographical–to craft a songbook that’s too rock for country, too country for rock, and a real treat for those in the know. Ely’s signed to MCA, but he’s still considered a music-biz outsider and he’s no friend of country radio. He appears to be the perfect model for a keeper of Hank’s flame. Merely being an outsider, however, is not enough. Ely is one of the few country artists who has been relatively ignored by the radio yet deserves all the hype. His curiosity and drive have given his career a particular flair: he’s gone from singing backup on the Clash’s Combat Rock to crafting his own Hi-Res, a keyboard-schlock album from the mid-80s, to most recently settling on his love of Tex-Mex. But oddity and meandering are just symptoms of being a musical renegade; incredible songs are what make Ely special, and he’s come up with a must-own album for every decade he’s been around–1978’s Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1987’s Lord of the Highway, 1992’s Love and Danger. Yet for every masterpiece, Ely cranks out a pedestrian platter, like his latest, Letter to Laredo.
As Loveless drifted backstage at the music shell, Ely and his four-piece band took to the second stage for a set larded with material from Letter to Laredo. Ely’s songs have always been at their strongest when presented in a simple, stripped-down fashion. Sax sideman Bobby Keys and guitar hero David Grissom once made up part of a great Joe Ely Band, and Teye, his current flamenco guitarist, is a killer. But even better than star players are the songs themselves.
An Ely acoustic set is evidence of how little ornamentation a songsmith needs, and Laredo is evidence of how pomp does Ely wrong. Perhaps guided by his Texan instincts, he turned “Run Preciosa” and “Letter to Laredo” into big, long productions, giving Teye more than ample opportunity to pluck away. Bloated versions of songs like “All Just to Get You” worked for some in the intimate, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, but the tempo and phrasing evoked Neil Diamond. The older stuff, with Teye pushed back in the mix or offstage altogether, was the best. Robert Earl Keen Jr.’s “The Road Goes on Forever,” Butch Hancock’s “Boxcars,” and Ely’s own “My Eyes Got Lucky” and “Me and Billy the Kid” made at least one audience member crave more old gold. Ely may feel a need to grow in a certain, south-of-the-border direction, but it’s tough to watch an artist try to improve his act and never see it happen.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Patty Loveless and photo of Joe Ely by Dan Silverman.