Drowning, Not Waving

Sigh . . . Does anyone begin a story about a pure, untainted country musician without whining about the death of pure, untainted country music? Can't someone get to the enduring, traditional artistry before bemoaning the genre's current obsession with modern country (or country porn?) acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks? Couldn't we be the first to resist another easy joke about Garth Brooks' "Chris Gaines" split-personality freak-out, only noteworthy for the fact that the unlistenable album he made in that guise last year was briefly being bought for $5 by higher-paying used CD stores (we know because that's what we got for it)?


As is evident from the state of mainstream country music, some stuff is beyond everybody's control. The label marketing machines are far too powerful and vast to override. And so are frustrated critics. But enough venting.

Thing is great country is out there. It just ain't on the radio anymore, a fact made that much clearer by the advances we just got of these amazing new reissues —George Jones' I Am What I Am, Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger and Johnny Cash's At San Quentin albums. This is music soaking with heart, passion, feeling, honesty, depth and soul. Whatever happened to these guys, anyway? Are they all dead and nobody noticed? And, amidst the sea of disposable, here-today-gone-today country-pop acts out there (wasn't that Billy Ray Cyrus taking our sandwich order at Subway the other day?), is anybody making authentic, honky-tonked, liquored-up country anymore?

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Jack Ingram is, though you probably haven't heard of him, seeing as he's among many great singer-songwriters drowning in the current flood of chi-chi cowboy glamour. With any luck, though, Hey You, the superb album he put out last year, will someday also get the reissue treatment those other classics deserved (only it's out there now, so you don't have to wait till then).

Ingram is a Texan, cursed with pretty-boy looks and smart enough to have earned a psych degree from Southern Methodist University. He writes special, fluffless songs that are like smoother versions of Steve Earle tunes (he even sings like Earle a little, but he's kissed with just the right amount of hardened grit stuck in his windpipe to make him feel all the more . . . real), and like Earle, Ingram can mix country and rock & roll generously and effortlessly. Listen to Hey You's "Barbie Doll," the kind of planned-community-burner that the Stones quit doing around Some Girls and have been trying to recapture—badly—ever since. He has penned intense, deeply personal songs about dads who run out on their wives and kids, like "Biloxi," which is based on a true story—Ingram's—and has bitter, biting, fuck-you lines aimed at his old man like "Well I hope the girls were pretty/And nobody said it was late/And I hope you stayed out all night and never had hell to pay/Down in Biloxi"). Ingram's love songs, even the ones that seem like they'd be all ooey-gooey just from their titles, like "Feel Like I'm Falling in Love," come out truthful, innocent and twaddle-free when he croons, "I'm not afraid/Of my heart breaking/ I have paid/That price before."

His music is gorgeously glitz-free—no froufrou synths or strings, just an awful lot of pedal steel and twang-ang-ang. You could pigeonhole Ingram into the "alterna"-country camp, but—as grand as a lot of the bands are who get stuffed into that box—the better, more obvious term here would be real country. Because guys like Ingram craft sounds that echo honestly and perfectly with the music's origins:old, weathered sounds that scrape so much against the grain of most else that's commercially out there now that it feels new again. His Crazy Horse show is sure to be a reminder of those roots.

And then, on June 17, the Dixie Chicks will blow into the Pond for a couple of nights and ruin everything. Great. Just great.


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