With 89 percent of their word processors reporting, the cognoscenti of entertainment journalism have overwhelmingly endorsed the propositions that: 1. country music has strayed too far from its roots; and 2. women, though underrepresented on major-label rosters, now account for the majority of distinctive product that sporadically escapes from Music Row. For these elite commentators, Sept. 17Hank Williams’ birthdateundoubtedly marks a day of industry atonement on the order of the Million Man March. On that Tuesday, the debut full-length album by revered revivalists BR5-49 appears, and, barring a last-minute restraining order, a female artist actually surfaces on Atlantic Records/Nashville.
Over the past two years, the local media’s excited utterances about BR5-49’s conquest of Lower Broadway reached peaks last attained in the canonization of Jason and the Scorchers. The drumbeat was eventually picked up by the likes of USA Today and Entertainment Weeklyresulting in the kind of testimonials that propel record company publicists up the chain of personnel titles.
Undeniably, at a time when our “new country” crop is plucked largely from secondary schools and swimsuit competitions, the ascendance of this hardworking quintet represents an encouraging development. Not only has the group’s celebrated apprenticeship at Robert’s Western World reaffirmed the importance of honing a niche and repertoire, it may also help to loosen the stranglehold of radio-worshipping song publishers and their “in-the-round” meal tickets on the Music City club scene.
Nonetheless, the feeling persists that a little too much significance has been attached to the fate of BR5-49 by self-proclaimed country preservationists who likely own not one record by Johnny Horton or Webb Pierce. With few exceptions (perhaps most notably the Stray Cats), contenders that have entered the American pop arena with a throwback agenda have received no warmer welcome than Bill Boner would get at a think tank. However accomplished they may be, such acts hardly interrupt Rolling Stone’s eternal search for the Future of Rock ’n’ Rollfor rock, we are constantly reminded, thrives on change and progression. By contrast, impeccably hip crusaderswholly certain of what “real” country music isseem to have anointed the retro-flavored BR5-49 as potential saviors of the genre.
In declaring that “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad,” lead singer/guitarist Chuck Mead merely recites a cliché, but it’s a conceit worth remembering whenever pundits try to magnify one promotional campaign into a referendum on the direction or viability of a format. BR5-49 should be appreciated because of their capacity for enhancing the diversity of contemporary country musicnot for inspiring a host of soundalikes. It was a blurry procession of interchangeable “hat acts,” after all, that got us in this mess.
BR5-49 succeeds in quelling any fears that the group would emerge from the Castle Recording Studio as “Sons of BlackHawk” or “Perfect Ricochet.” To be sure, measured against the introductory EP Live From Robert’s, the album contains nothing as raucous as “18 Wheels and a Crowbar” or as deranged as “Me ’N’ Opie.” But in this equally spirited blend of originals and classics, producers Jozef Nuyens and Mike Janas have retained all of the essential ingredients: exuberant lead vocals, homespun harmonies, rambunctious instrumental interplay, and a pounding backbeat.
Purveyors of souped-up honky-tonk and hillbilly boogie, BR5-49 have commendably resurrected Moon Mullican’s “Cherokee Boogie” to launch the commercial assault. Rendered with hiccuped abandon, the band’s update of the 1951 relic reveals the indelible rock influence that pervades all of its work. However, contrary to what the morning newspaper’s music writer and an hour of “hot country favorites” would lead one to believe, rock did not beginor endin the 1970s.
BR5-49 ends as it begins: with the sound of a needle tracking well-worn groovesa shamelessly nostalgic ploy aimed at incurable vinyl addicts. Works for me.
Alas, recent history suggests that Arista/Nashville may find it difficult to sustain whatever level of chart penetration BR5-49 can initially achieve. When left-of-center warriors like the Kentucky HeadHunters, Confederate Railroad, and Arista’s own Tractors have been unleashed on the battlefield, their first cuts proved to be the deepest.
Primarily on the strength of Tracy Lawrence and John Michael Montgomery, Atlantic’s Nashville division has managed to claim a seat at the main table of Music Row Monopoly players. Yet since the label’s rebirth in the late 1980s, women have reportedly approached Atlantic with the same trepidation they might feel if they were seeking admission to The Citadel. Under president Rick Blackburn’s regime, the label has remained almost exclusively a boys’ club; indeed, its last album by a female artistKaren Tobin’s excellent Carolina Smokey Moonwas released in 1991.
To anyone unfamiliar with the names Shania and LeAnn, it might seem that Atlantic’s recent signing of Kentucky native Mila Mason must have followed the arrival of a team of EEOC investigators at 1812 Broadway. In the music business, however, numbers preceded by dollar signs underlie far more corporate decisions than do gender gaps or other policy considerations.
Judging from the thicket of life-size stand-ups in the company offices, Mila has quickly become No. 1 in the predominately male staff’s, er, hearts. Obviously, the curly blonde would not be embarrassed in a hardbodies contest, but hardened observers such as myself are paid handsomely, of course, to resist such influences. Can she stand and deliver?
Outwardly, That’s Enough of ThatMason’s maiden “project” (can’t we retire that word?)would appear to offer nothing out of the ordinary. Produced by veteran Blake Mevis, the album features the usual array of session musicians and no original compositions. Even the heavily promoted first single/title cut, which has already made some inroads, gives little hint of what the artist brings to the marketplace.
Yet Ms. Mason turns out to be a compelling, passionate songstress with the potential to wallop a wide range of material for extra base hits. In this respect, as well as in her phrasing and mannerisms, she invites comparison with the redoubtable Tanya Tucker. Mila also demonstrates a similar flair for transcending marginal fare, as exemplified by her gritty effort on “Hot to Molly,” a trite restatement of “She’s in Love With the Boy” that crosses the threshold of pun-induced pain.
Prominent among the album’s highlights is Mason’s treatment of the moving ballad “Tonight I Know I Will,” cowritten by Gary Scruggs and underrated Mercury/Nashville castoff Daniele Alexander. Mason, whose childhood immersion in show business included acting classes, artfully dramatizes the triumph of emotion over cognition in human relationships by building from a subdued tremble to a cathartic confession.
“Troublemaker,” by regular Nashville performing duo Verlon Thompson and Suzi Ragsdale, effectively showcases Mila’s bluesy side in a relaxed and lyrically concise framework. It’s her frenetic account of a backseat moment of truth, however, that provides the album’s most arresting line. Climaxing choruses in which the lovers spout a rapid-fire series of romantic demands, the singer emphatically proclaims: “That’s the Kinda Love (That I’m Talkin’ About)”! One can only snap to attention and say, “Yes, ma’am.”
Unfortunately, despite having the requisite vocal equipment, Mila Mason faces a daunting obstacle course. With its piercing guitars and 16th Avenue sheen, That’s Enough of That will not be embraced in either traditional or “alternative” country circles. Hence Mason must elbow her way to Radioland through mainstream traffic snarled by an influx of young female aspirantsa perilous route that often terminates in a fatal collision between dreams and quotas. As she approaches the task, she can at least take comfort in knowing that she won’t be easily confused with anyone else on her label’s current roster. In today’s jumbled free-for-all on the Row, that is no small advantage.
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