Songs of Self 

Locally based tunesmiths release personal musical statements

Locally based tunesmiths release personal musical statements

Vince Gill

Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye (MCA)

Steve Forbert

Evergreen Boy (Koch)

John Hartford

Live From Mountain Stage (Blue Plate)

New love apparently agrees with Vince Gill. It can be seen on the faces of the newly betrothed singer and his wife Amy Grant, whose nonstop public appearances have them showing up on the evening news as often as Elian Gonzalez and Al Gore. And it can be heard in the uncomplicated exclamations of bliss that overwhelm Gill’s new Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, the country star’s latest musical offering.

While Gill openly celebrates one of the happiest moments of his privileged life, music critics have been hacking at his new album like neophyte golfers trying to blast balls out of a sandy bunker. Of course critics, being a cynical and sarcastic lot by trade, tend not to respond to polished pontifications on the exhilarating hormonal effects of hooking up with someone who rocks your world.

In this case, though, I’d argue they’re wrong. Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye may not be Gill’s most emotionally and musically affecting album—that honor goes to his previous release, The Key. However, he does offer some of the most refined, tastefully rendered country-pop arrangements of recent times. The new album may not end up being one of the most critically acclaimed country LPs of 2000—so far, those honors will go to Trisha Yearwood’s Real Live Woman and Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance—but it’s certainly heads above the hackneyed musical clunkiness of recent albums by Mark Wills, Chad Brock, Keith Urban, and other Music Row singers currently filling the airwaves with soulless expressions of what love can do.

How a listener reacts to Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye likely will depend on how he or she feels about direct, openhearted expressions of romantic love. Those inclined to swoon to such unfettered sentimentality will react positively to Gill’s earnest lyrics of joy and fulfillment. But those who giggle or gag at Hallmark-like gushiness will find his songs too maudlin for their tastes. ”Little Things,“ for instance, begins and ends with the couple in bed with the Sunday paper spread across the sheets, while Gill coos lines about how rapturous it is to hear his wife breathe and to brush her hair.

Nearly every song speaks of such intimacies, and all are delivered in sumptuously gorgeous settings that avoid the usual Music Row clichés. Instead, Gill and producer Tony Brown opt for subtle, sparse arrangements—this is consummate pop-country songcraft, with the polish coming across as elegant rather than contrived. Gill ends the album with a beautiful eulogy to a friend that adds a nice grace note to this highly personal collection. To some, his unadorned feelings may taste too sugary; others, though, will hear it as a reminder of how sweet love can be.

Of course, happily married men are capable of writing much more emotionally complex material. Steve Forbert, a jewel of the Nashville music community, is a longtime father and husband who writes songs with ambitious depth. Never predictable, even after more than 20 years of recording, he emerges with fresh themes and new sounds on his latest, Evergreen Boy. The album is his first collaboration with famed producer Jim Dickinson, whose Memphis background is evident in the horn charts and bass lines, which add a buoyancy to Forbert’s poignant and positive take on life.

Foremost, Evergreen Boy is a rollicking, revealing reminder that Forbert is an outstanding American songwriter with a distinctive voice and a provocative way of expressing his open-eyed wonder at the world. Lyrically, he breaks beyond well-crafted formulas for occasional flights of imagistic fantasy. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, he’s able to present hard-earned wisdom in a manner that’s neither preachy nor pessimistic. His songs suggest that life can be meaningful and enjoyable, and part of that joy comes in small pleasures.

Speaking of the small joys of life, John Hartford’s sprightly charm has never been more apparent than on his new release, Live From Mountain Stage. Mixing early string-band music, country classics, and oddball originals, Hartford sparkles with merriment while dancing his way through performances that display his engagingly earthy voice and his prowess as a fiddler and banjoist.

To his credit, Hartford doesn’t just revel in his eccentricities; he also makes them entertaining. And he’s never shown off how well he can engage a crowd as on Live From Mountain Stage. His off-kilter charm shines on this one-of-a-kind meeting of old-time string tunes and modern folk-pop songs. The selections, which span his vast repertoire, are culled from three different performances for National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage program in 1994-96. The disc includes several familiar tunes, including ”Gentle on My Mind,“ a Hartford original that Glen Campbell turned into a pop classic. Here, Hartford both speeds up and strips down the well-known song, and his expressive enunciation and shimmering banjo work give the old chestnut a fresh shine.

Elsewhere, he explores traditional songs like ”Yellow Barber“ and ”Catletsburg“ with a verve that accentuates his joy in playing music rather than his technical know-how, and he spices the mix with lovingly delightful takes on the rarely performed country gem ”My Tears Don’t Show“ and the bluegrass standard ”I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.“ Throughout, Hartford keeps the performances as lean as his own tall, lanky frame. He never expands beyond a trio—unless his frequent clogging could be considered a fourth instrument—and the players occasionally break down into duo settings, as on the wonderful ”Where Does an Old Time River Man Go?“ featuring pianist Bob Thompson.

What come across clearly on all three of these albums are the personalities and private obsessions of all three artists. Rather than mold their musical leanings to fit some commercial trend of the moment, each musician taps into his own inspirations. That they end up expressing themselves so well is a credit to each of them and a boon to their fans.

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