Figuring out where an honorable genre piece turns into something half-assed is one of the trickiest jobs country music fans have. “Every Mile a Memory,” the opening cut on Dierks Bentley’s new Long Trip Alone, features taut, sprung music, but halfway through, Bentley delivers the lazy line, “Like a freight train rollin’ through my dreams.” Likewise, Darryl Worley’s Here and Now initially comes across as lively white R&B masquerading as country, but turns strangely flabby even as the riffs kick in.
Both records intermittently succeed as genre pieces, and at their best they have a curious, compromised aural dignity. This concentration on sound over lyrics is as experimental as mainstream country gets. Worley’s record features two guitars competing for space as the singer manfully throws his voice around, while Bentley’s music suggests what might have happened had Byrds guitarist Clarence White lived to lay his oblique licks over producer Brett Beavers crisply recorded mix, heavy on kick drum and acoustic guitars.
Working with Beavers, Bentley came up with one of 2005’s best country singles, “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do.” Gratifyingly abstract as an airy radio song, “Lot of Leavin’ ” sounded less substantial in the context of the record it led off, Modern Day Drifter. Still, the single evoked The Byrds of (Untitled/Unissued) as much as it did bluegrass or straight country music, and if tracks like “Cab of My Truck” and “ Domestic, Light and Cold” weren’t landmarks of significance, Modern Day got boring only when Bentley sang ballads.
“That Don’t Make It Easy Loving Me” (co-written, as is all of Long Trip, by Bentley) rewrites “Lot of Leavin’,” and in many ways it surpasses the earlier song. Once again, Beavers and Bentley combine deliberately simplistic drumming with tense guitar riffs. The guitar commentary is brilliant, and while the song is more a collection of cleverly assembled parts than a unified idea, it’s an exciting performance. Too, while much of Long Trip lacks a point of view, lines like, “When she threw it on my mic stand I figured they were probably double-D’s” make travel sound more interesting than it really is.
That song takes place in Las Vegas and on a tour bus where Dierks smokes some high-grade weed with one of his musical heroes and ends up “spinnin’ circles in [his] chair.” The rest of Long Trip doesn’t match its humor and grasp of useless, but fascinating, detail. “Soon as You Can” is a plainspoken miniature in which Dierks makes his way across the country with a “maxed-out” gas card. Here the local color consists of a state trooper whose advice to slow down Bentley ignores. It’s merely sincere, and since the song is about how Dierks must get home to his woman immediately, this picaresque doesn’t include any recreational drug use or strategically flung brassieres.
In the artificially lit world Beavers and Bentley have created, words are secondary. The music of the performances is often stunning: it’s almost as if these recordings have been created by a kind of accelerated growth process and then subjected to a meticulous pruning that creates the impression of something tangled beneath their clean lines.
On Here and Now, Darryl Worley and producer Frank Rogers use stuttering, interlocking riffs, jazzy guitar and hints of second-line drumming to make a sophisticated and very well-sung record that could have used a bit of extra pruning.
While Bentley’s record is a gloss on the road album and might sound best in an automobile, Worley is a deeper singer who’s more committed to interpretation, and he makes a virtue of understatement. So when he sings, “It ain’t the way you put a twinkle in my eye / Talking dirty on the telephone,” or declares, “Hello sunshine / Doodie doodie uhn dhn / Listen to the birds sing,” he comes across as too intelligent to make everything explicit.
“Living in the Here and Now” is perhaps Here and Now’s finest track. Charmingly self-deprecating, Worley sings, “People say I’m a crazy son of a gun / ’Cause I made me a couple million / Never saved a one.” It’s hard to resist a country singer who declares for thrift in the way Worley does in this song. When he sings, “I don’t ever buy green bananas / Don’t believe I’ll ever leave Savannah,” you get the sense that he could easily bend any genre he chooses.
With its Muscle Shoals-style soul arrangement and Memphis-inflected guitar solo, “Living in the Here and Now” is Worley at his most relaxed, while “Do You Know What That Is” employs a chorus of voices singing the title question and is anything but relaxed. “Work like a dog all day in the hay / Do you know what that is / Five days’ work for one day’s pay / Do you know what that is,” the song goes. It’s one of the least sentimentalized accounts of working-class, rural life in recent memory.
Here and Now bogs down in its own cleverness, and the guitar interplay is unexceptionable but enervating. The mix seems a bit muddy. Still, the many superbly rendered details and Worley’s subtle tenor make for an experience that’s good enough for Thursday if not Saturday night, and a modern blues record that pulls off something called “Party Song,” which mentions Cheech and Chong, without once sounding stupid. And “I Just Came Back From a War” might be country music’s most naturalistic Iraq war song to date.
These records demonstrate the continuing vitality of received ideas. Notions of transcendent genre expansion might not be useful for thinking about country music in the current era, but Here and Now and Long Trip Alone take their respective genres about as far as they can go without fragmenting into the half-baked and the banal. That Worley makes his record sound like a spiritual journey and that Bentley conceives his as a road trip is beside the point. Both pursuits can evoke a canned travelogue, or they can be an occasion to seek out truths that remain perpetually elusive.