Spinster Auntie of Handicapping the Country Grammy

What follows weighs the merits and demerits of the NARAS’s Field 8, Category 42, “Best Country Album”: CDs from one star of the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, an act generally characterized as bluegrass instead of country qua country, actress Kimberly Williams’ hubby, the distaff representative of the so-called Muzik Mafia, and Mrs. Garth Brooks.

 

 

Ah, February! Among other things, its arrival brings two related torments: the Grammy Awards ceremony of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and the Sports Desk’s precedent meditation on one particular race involved therein. A merciful deity would, of course, end both with utmost dispatch…leading one to suspect that Nietzsche knew whereof he spoke.

In any event, the former torment televises its 48th installment this Wednesday, February 8, on CBS. Barring an unprecedented display of discretion and compassion by the PLAYBACK:stl webmaster, meanwhile, the latter turns four under a title that derives equally from Universal Pictures and S.J. Perelman.

As usual, what follows weighs the merits and demerits of the NARAS’s Field 8, Category 42, “Best Country Album”: CDs from one star of the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, an act generally characterized as bluegrass instead of country qua country, actress Kimberly Williams’ hubby, the distaff representative of the so-called Muzik Mafia, and Mrs. Garth Brooks. All but the second (a 2004 release) “streeted” last year. In alphabetical order by artist, a pithy or pissy paragraph on each appears hereafter:

Ridiculing Faith Hill perhaps comes too easily—an agonizing admission to make. Certainly, a number of cuts on her Fireflies qualify as instantly forgettable, and she simply cannot handle husky (“I Want You”). Moreover, “Mississippi Girl,” independently nominated for a Grammy for “best female country vocal performance,” ludicrously positions her as still the gal next door despite wealth, fame, and cover-girl loveliness—yeah, right. Still, the 14-track Warner Bros. release opens memorably enough with the bright-as-a-June-noon “Sunshine and Summertime,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Take It Anymore” and “Stealing Kisses” exhibit laudable restraint, suggesting that Hill may not, after all, qualify as skim milk packaged as heavy cream. Also, with “Dearly Beloved,” she’s recorded the single most listenable track on any of the discs being considered here, a wicked little ditty about wedlock. Odds: 1–1

Few things can embarrass a music writer as much as confessing that an act or offering of indisputable artistry barely budges the needle on the ol’ Excite-O-Meter, but Lonely Runs Both Ways from Alison Krauss and Union Station prompts just such embarrassment. The 15-track Rounder Records CD features the carefully sculpted sound typical of the former fiddle prodigy and her four cohorts—genteel and (alas!) boring as hell. Although Krauss, in one capacity or another, has collected twice as many Grammy wins as the other four nominees here combined, she prompts no passion vocally; she sounds like an Emmylou Harris whose Gram Parsons never OD’d, who never had to trek emotionally from Boulder to Birmingham. By comparison, the meager trio of tracks on which guitarist Dan Tyminski sings lead (“Rain Please Go Away,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “This Sad Song”) jump. Odds: 3–2

Despite his general lack of affectation and his (deserved) street cred as a neo-trad country performer, Brad Paisley sometimes makes it difficult to sing his praises without reservation. His fondness for so-called bonus tracks like “Cornography” from Time Well Wasted borders on the maddening, for example; actually, it doesn’t border on the maddening—it trespasses like Germany in Poland in 1939. Furthermore, he’ll never rank as a great country vocalist. Still, the 16-track Arista Nashville disc has its pleasures. “Time Warp” merits its independent nomination as “best country instrumental performance,” and the CD also features a number of noteworthy humorous cuts: “I’ll Take You Back,” “You Need a Man Around Here,” and “Flowers,” all more interesting than the much-publicized “Alcohol” (contending for the “best country song” Grammy). Good, but not deserving of the award. Odds: 3–5

After missing a Grammy in this category last year with her debut, Gretchen Wilson returns with All Jacked Up, and her sophomore outing seems every bit as mediocre as its predecessor. With the opening title track, the 12-song Epic disc extends her virtuous-vamp shtick—still too facile by half—and “Not Bad for a Bartender,” the rags-to-riches listed closer, strongly suggests how truly shallow her aesthetic wellspring may be. “California Girls,” meanwhile, targets those with a bad case of flyover peoplitis, and “Politically Uncorrect” wastes the vocals of Merle Haggard in a shameless cameo as commercial as anything from contemporary commercial country—“rebel” this, sugar. Finally, with “All Jacked Up,” the ludicrously quote-unquote controversial “Skoal Ring,” and “One Bud Wiser,” Wilson’s angling to become the poster girl for quick-shop and truck-stop product placements. Yee-bloody-haw. Odds: 7–5

Either Trisha Yearwood or someone in her camp must have a gift for picking and arranging songs because her Jasper County clearly ranks as the standout among this quintet of discs. Even “Try Me” and “Gimme the Good Stuff,” the least of this MCA Nashville CD’s 11 tracks, scarcely qualify as duds, and many of the others prompt astonishment and delight for one reason or another. Dig the chugging intro and the juke-joint piano on “Pistol,” for instance, or the bluesy harmonica on “Baby Don’t You Let Go.” Otherwise, the skillful songcraft of “Who Invented the Wheel” opens the disc, which boogies to a memorable close with “It’s Alright.” Between those two tracks, Yearwood handles with equal ease and aplomb everything from the youthful alienation of “Standing Out in a Crowd” to the subtle sadness of the love song “Georgia Rain” to the cat-on-the-prowl gleefulness of “Sweet Love.” Odds: 2–5

Here endeth the yearly gaze into the country crystal ball. Before we all wait with bated breath for the music industry’s pretty people to scuff the red carpet into L.A.’s Staples Center, however, PLAYBACK:stl’s Office of General Counsel & Specific Balderdash demands a disclaimer. Although the Sports Desk nailed last year’s Grammy in this category—Van Lear Rose by Loretta Lynn—only a damned fool would make book on the prognostications of a man who avoids nickel-ante poker games for fear of losing title to his house.

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