Jesse Winchester, Nothing But a Breeze. Given Jesse Winchester’s long tenure on the fringes of stardom, I hesitate to predict that this warm, one-of-a-kind album will put him over the top. But it ought to. Producer Brian Ahern gives the country/rock set a fuller, more satisfying sound than any of its predecessors could boast. And Jesse’s material, which possesses the same timeless quality that the Band used to evoke, has never seemed more striking. Highlights include “You Remember Me,” a superbly sung, bittersweet ballad; “Twigs and Seeds,” a toker’s lament that’s bound to make you smile; and the punchy “Seems Like Only Yesterday.”
Amazing Rhythm Aces, Toucan Do It Too. While still preoccupied with “Third-Rate Romance,” Aces prime mover Russell Smith has largely abandoned the offbeat, tragicomic perspective that fueled such vignettes. Now he’s writing of lost love as a straight-faced participant, and the results are often as third-rate as the affairs themselves used to be. The Aces’ musical sophistication, on the other hand, still fosters moments of greatness. Despite the prosaic song subjects, the outfit remains among the South’s most interesting.
Poco, Indian Summer. As Paul Cotton’s “Living in the Band,” a musical glimpse into Poco’s history, suggests, the outfit has survived umpteen personnel changes and years of only moderate success. The spirit responsible for that endurance shows up on this 13th album, the band’s most commercial to date, which melds attractive country/rock instrumentation to lively harmony vocals. Having failed to carve out an individualized niche, however, the quartet continues to do battle in a field already crowded with such competitors as the Eagles. And when you make the inevitable comparisons, Poco comes up short.
Delbert McClinton, Love Rustler. Though Delbert McClinton’s country roots still show, this third album finds him adding gospel and soul elements to a solid-rock foundation. It’s a successful mix, in that the artist’s rough-edged worldly-wise vocals grab attention and seem well suited to the diverse material. “That Woman” and a few other tracks excepted, however, the album is not as revealing or indelible as it is listenable. That McClinton wrote only one of its tunes may be part of the problem; that most of them end just as they really start to cook could be the rest.
Bonnie Raitt, Sweet Forgiveness. Though intended to widen her audience, the weak-kneed commerciality of Streetlights served only to eradicate Bonnie Raitt’s direction and alienate many of the fans she already possessed. Sweet Forgiveness, which continues the trend, is worse. While several of its tracks hint at her large talent, the misconceived production, unimpressive instrumental interplay, and weak, often inappropriate material preclude the sort of inspired moments Raitt used to offer. She does her job competently, but music-making isn’t supposed to sound like a job.
On the Bookshelf
Man in Black, by Johnny Cash. Originally issued by Zondervan, a publisher that seeks material “slanted to the conservative religious reader,” this book has less to do with music than with country singer Johnny Cash’s “born again” Christianity. A man of extremes who recalls having been “shocked” and disappointed when his 12-year-old elder sibling used the word “damn,” he later jumped head-over-heels into the world of drugs, then came full circle to embrace a puritanical, church-oriented life. Cash’s candor results in a better psychological portrait than he might imagine. And while I admire him and his music, I found his religious zeal here to be most reminiscent of the Reverend Moon cultists who wash away despair with one quick shower of neatly arranged answers. For true fans and truer believers only.
Country Music: The Poetry, edited by Carol Offen. Under such chapter headings as “Roots,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Honky-Tonkin’,” and “Lullabies and Legends,” this book offers well-annotated lyrics to more than 75 country-music classics. As diverse as it is intelligent, the selections range from A.P. Carter’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to Kinky Friedman’s “Sold American,” from Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train” to Billy Joe Shaver’s “Honky Tonk Heroes (Like Me).” The book isn’t as comprehensive or detailed as the similarly styled Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy, but it’s not nearly as expensive, either.
Just Country, by Robert Cornfield with Marshall Fallwell, Jr. More than 170 attractive Marshall Fallwell photos illustrate this book, which contains an intelligent examination of country music’s past, present, and future. Since the text is too brief and wide-ranging to allow for much detail, it may disappoint those already conversant with the genre. But because it says a little about nearly everything and everyone important to country music—and does so in a rather fresh, imaginative way—it makes an excellent introduction for neophytes.