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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Country ’tis of Thee

Written by  Gregg Shapiro
Nikki Lane Nikki Lane

It’s hard to imagine an American musical genre with a wider spectrum of fans than country music. Drawing on listeners of all ages, from all races and creeds, gay and straight, and political affiliations, it’s probably the one genre in which listeners mix in peaceful harmony. With the exception of a few artists (talking about you, Toby Keith and Blake Shelton), the LGBT community is welcome at concerts by Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, Carrie Underwood, as well as out country artists such as Brandy Clark, Ty Herndon, and Chely Wright, and others.

Country music has come a long way since the late Lynn Anderson topped the charts in 1970 with her irresistible Grammy-winning hit single “Rose Garden” (later covered with reverence by K.D. Lang). It’s a classic country tune that stills sounds good nearly 50 years later. The double-disc set The Definitive Collection (Real Gone Music / Columbia) compiles 40 of Anderson’s best-loved songs. In addition to “Rose Garden,” you will find charting tunes such as “That’s a No-No,” “Flattery Will Get You Everywhere,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “What a Man My Man Is,” “How Can I Unlove You,” and her covers of the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” and Karla Bonoff’s “Isn’t Always Love,” to name a few.

If Rodney Crowell’s good looks and tight jeans, as well as his singing and songwriting skills, hadn’t already earned him a following in the gay community, then his two queer-themed songs, “I Wish it Would Rain” and “Wandering Boy” from his 2001 The Houston Kid album, probably did the trick. Sixteen years and half a dozen or so albums later, Crowell has released another fine set of tunes on Close Ties (New West). Renowned for his collaborative abilities throughout his career, Crowell is joined by ex-wife (and frequent duet partner) Rosanne Cash on “It Ain’t Over Yet” and Sheryl Crow on “I’m Tied to Ya.” Other highlights include back-to-back stunners “Forgive Me Annabelle” and “40 Miles From Nowhere,” as well as album closer “Nashville 1972.”

Like Lydia Loveless, Nikki Lane represents the next wave of alt-country divas. Let Miranda Lambert stay home polishing her gun collection, Lane lives up to the title of her new album Highway Queen (New West). Beginning with the “yippee ki yay” of “700,000 Rednecks” and continuing through the twists and turns of the title cut and the thunderous “Lay You Down,” Lane paves her way into our hearts and heads. “Jackpot” pays off, “Big Mouth” comes through loud and clear, “Send the Sun” brings the warmth, and “Forever Lasts Forever” deserves a place alongside other country heartbreakers that came before.

Producer / singer / songwriter Joe Henry leaves his mark all over Lovers and Leavers (Highway 87 / 30 Tigers), the highly recommended new album by Hayes Carll. An intimate acoustic affair, the ten tunes include songwriting collaborations by Carll and his girlfriend Allison Moorer (“The Love We Need”), Jim Lauderdale (“Drive”), J.D. Souther (“Jealous Moon”), Will Hoge (“Good While it Lasted”), and bluegrass legend Darell Scott (“Love Don’t Let Me Down,” “The Magic Kid,” and “Sake of the Song”).

Texas-by-way-of-Canada neo-traditionalist country diva Whitney Rose follows up her 2015 full-length debut with the six-song EP South Texas Suite (Six Shooter / 30 Tigers). Rose’s rendition of Brennen Leigh’s “Analog” is a standout, as are Rose originals “My Boots” and “Lookin’ Back on Luckenbach.”

Don’t let singer/songwriter Sean McConnell’s hipster haircut fool you, he’s pure country on his self-titled Rounder Records disc. Fortunately there’s more to McConnell than meets the eye. He’s got a pleasing, powerful vocal style and songs such as “Beautiful Rose,” the rocker “Ghost Town,” “Best We’ve Ever Been” and “Running Under Water.”

On Northern Passages (Yep Roc), The Sadies rock harder than anyone else in this column. Canadians, like Whitney Rose, The Sadies add a dash of punk power pop to songs such as “There Are No Words” and “Another Season Again.” However, the band’s country heart beats loud and clear “God Bless the Infidels,” “The Good Years” and “Through Strange Eyes,” among others.

Nikki Lane performs on February 27th at U Street Music Hall in Washington, D.C. and on February 28th at Underground Arts – Black Box in Philadelphia.

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