Bright Lights in Country

It’s trying to be a fan of country music these days, given how the sludge that comes off the Nashville assembly line has taken the music away from its roots and reduced much of its songwriting to strings of tired clichés. But here are some discs that give one hope for the genre.

CD: One For The Dancehalls by Jesse Dayton — In the city where I live, Austin, Texas, Dayton has held the popular Thursday night residency at the authentic Texas dancehall The Broken Spoke that packs in arm-in-arm country dancers for a few years now.

He has previously distinguished himself as a younger country artist who has taken the genre’s traditions to new places while not leaving its soul behind. On this one he draws from his weekly gig to reach back to the old-school honky-tonk style and makes it feel alive and vibrant in 2011.

CD: The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson — This gem from last year won’t stop beckoning me to return to it time and again. But as a two-disc set with 25 songs, there’s much to be savored. If one has a taste for such country giants as Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and enjoyed the 1970s outlaw movement, Johnson is sure to satisfy.

His voice has the raw depth and real emotionality that has marked the genre’s best singers. And he writes real as the day and night are long songs that stand tall beside numbers here from some of country’s greatest songwriters like Hank Cochran and Keith Whitley, and puts his one stamp on classics like Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times” and (a favorite of mine) “Mental Revenge” by Mel Tillis.

But what marks Johnson as an authentic star for the new century is how he keeps it real in what he writes and sings and how his band plays, reminding how country music at its best captures the soul of the American human experience.

CDs: The Family Secret by John Carter Cash, Awake But Dreaming by Laura Cash, Past & Present by The Carter Family III — The force behind all three of these recent discs as artist and producer is the son of musical icon Johnny Cash and June Carter, and even if none is an out and out masterpiece, their sum marks him as a multi-talented musical master on the rise.

His wife Laura’s set is straight-ahead traditional country topped by her pure and sweet singing.

His revival of his mother’s Carter Family mountain music string band roots brims with authenticity.

And his own album, which ranges from straight country to hard rock and many places in between, show such versatility, imagination and adeptness that I fully expect a monumental album from Cash in the not too distant future that would make his father and mother proud indeed.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2011


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