Last month’s television broadcast of the Academy of Country Music awards reeked of what it was–a Dick Clark production. It also shed light on which artists get in and which ones get left out of the commercial country-music sweepstakes. In an interview that preceded the show America’s oldest teenager spoke about how pleasurable it was to work with today’s young country stars. He’s right. Many rockers and rappers are unpredictable and often live messy lives, but young country stars are for the most part malleable, manageable, and sober charges. Most are eager to please and loath to speak their minds. And because many of them are disposable–purchased for their looks and youth, created in the studio, packaged for mass consumption–they’re no doubt scared silly. Clark built an empire on his unerring ability to smell fear, and the air at the ACM awards must have pleased him.

Throughout the evening country music took a backseat to a glittering mix of TV stars. Solid country newcomer Mark Chesnutt and unequaled legend Merle Haggard were presenters along with small-screen actors James Brolin and Jane Seymour. And good people were made to do bad things. The wonderful, commercially ignored singer Kelly Willis somehow managed to retain her charm even as she was put up to traipsing through a faux cafe while lip-synching. Despite her brave efforts, her alterna-status spelled doom, and not surprisingly she lost out to hot new mannequin Faith Hill.

Cohost Alan Jackson, a decent but hardly revolutionary superstar, made the most pointed statement of the evening by changing into a Hank Williams Sr. T-shirt and playing a new song called “Gone Country”–a tune about, appropriately enough, how everybody’s going country these days. On camera backstage Clark, possibly smelling insurrection, asked Jackson why he was wearing the T-shirt.

You’ll never see most of today’s best country artists at the ACM awards, but it’s worth noting that Hank Williams Sr. didn’t spend his career languishing on the fringe. He was an acclaimed superstar of his day, selling out shows and igniting passionate fan devotion. He ruled radio, and the fallout from his brief life continues to this day. He wanted to be famous, make lots of money, and be accepted on the inside, and he achieved all those goals without sacrificing his artistic integrity.

Can it still be done today? Two notable country newcomers–who of course have actually been around awhile–are trying. Bob Woodruff and David Ball have each taken the ambitious plunge into the mainstream market. They recently played consecutive weekends at Whiskey River, and both shows proved that the much-maligned term “young country” doesn’t have to induce night sweats over the current state of commercial country.

With Ball, the voice is the thing. It’s been a long time since such a formidable vocal stylist has come along, and Ball superbly follows the Lefty Frizzell-George Jones line. The title track off his soon-to-be-released Warner Brothers debut album Thinkin’ Problem rips out of the gate like few songs in recent memory. Ball sings the first few words a cappella, his vocals jetting in a hillbilly arc reminiscent of Jones’s opening plaint on “The Race Is On.” It’s a wake-up call if there ever was one, a high lonesome pitch that sounds as if it’s being hollered off a porch across a mountain ridge.

At Whiskey River Ball sang like a guy who’s waited long enough to take his place alongside George Strait as one of the great contemporary phrasers. Ball’s music falls down squarely in honky-tonk’s 1950s heyday, with some snarly Fender guitar-popping edge courtesy of the later Buck Owens-Merle Haggard Bakersfield axis. Although his band sounded like it was still working out a few musical kinks, Ball’s voice curved low and high, a precision instrument that stretched from nasally chants into muted, back-throated notes.

Of the two artists, Woodruff is unequivocally the more difficult mainstream sell, due to his astringent power as a songwriter. Onstage he reeled off songs from his stunning debut album, Dreams & Saturday Nights, without the preciousness that infects too many singer-songwriters, while his hard, edgy band kept the honky-tonk churning.

This thinly sideburned New Yorker is taking the Nashville plunge in earnest, recently doing the do on the Nashville Network’s hell chat show “Music City Tonight” with Crook and Chase. It’s telling that Woodruff’s label chose to give his songs “Bayou Girl” and “Hard Liquor, Cold Women, Warm Beer” the video treatment. Although both songs are tough, gritty honky-tonk numbers, neither presents lyrics that radio might find too offensive. The rest of his debut album reveals a lyricist of enormous wit and depth, with a vision that no doubt could frighten plenty of programmers.

Evoking God is a staple in country music, but Woodruff isn’t full of platitudes on the song “Caroline”: “Jesus bears the cross for us but won’t pass the wine / I’m sanctified but so unsatisfied.” And as if scolding Jesus weren’t sacrilegious enough, in “The Year We Tried to Kill the Pain” Woodruff’s narrator rolls with his girl on the lawn of America’s Protestant king: “That night we climbed the wall to Graceland / We made love there on the grass.”

Woodruff hews to the Hank Williams Sr. school of songwriting, using intensely personal lyrics that occasionally come close to standing as poetry on the written page. Like Hank Sr., Woodruff employs poetic devices, such as the use of the sympathetic landscape, to construct heartrending essays on the human condition. Squarely facing reality, with all the attendant exhilaration and bitterness, has always been a hallmark of songwriters like Merle Haggard. And like that legendary example, Woodruff doesn’t sugarcoat his observations. On “Poisoned at the Well” Woodruff overcomes the song’s trailer-trash setting by peopling it with devastated three-dimensional characters. He sings, “I’ve seen a lot of people die and it looks easy / It’s getting easier to hate you all the time.”

Those words aren’t nice and polite, but they are real. And it’s just that realness that scares much of the industry. As the current country booms across the pop wasteland, with its promise of fast, big money and quick stars, it’s widening its appeal by going for lowest-common-denominator tunes and inoffensive vocals. Woodruff’s songs and Ball’s voice cut through this morass by harking back to country’s glory days, when giants really did roam the earth. But as far as the ACM and Dick Clark are concerned, those days are gone. Gone country indeed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.