Country Round-Up: Kris Kristofferson; Patty Loveless
There was a movement in the late 1960s and into the 70s– the Outlaw Movement– to return country music to its earthy, human roots– and to reject the trendy sounds of Nashville, which had (get this) grown increasingly prone to gloss and dumbed-down polish. Some things never change: It’s 2009, the mainstream country radio is inexplicably aping its production values from 1980s rock music. Whatever. I’ve heard two new country releases that probably won’t make waves on the radio, but they remind me of what makes the simplicities of country music some of the most sublime musical pleasures there are. These records live up to the outlaw country credo– only one in sound, but both in spirit.
Kris Kristofferson – Closer to the Bone
How cool is Kris Kristofferson? This cool: For the title track to his new album, he enlists none other than Bob Dylan as his singing partner. Not only that, but it’s hands down the best song Dylan’s been involved with all year, though it was written solely by Kristofferson.
Dylan’s presence on the album, by the way, is uncredited: Kristofferson knows he’s cool, so he doesn’t feel the need to rub it in our faces. That sums up the modest spirit of Closer to the Bone, an album that lives up to its title by stripping away all but the bare essentials of melody and human emotion. Kristofferson– himself one of the architects of outlaw country– keeps that spirit alive here with an album of warm, meditative country shuffles, most of them based around acoustic guitar, harmonica, and perhaps a sparse rhythm section. These are quiet songs that could be sung around a campfire, and they’d have made a guy like Waylon Jennings proud.
And like Jennings, Kristofferson doesn’t let his tough-guy exterior and the spartan setting of his songs obscure his nakedly romantic heart: Indeed, by cutting away everything but the songs themselves, Kristofferson creates an album of uncommon intimacy, one in which the true riches lie in the words, the melodies, and the character-giving cracks in the singer’s weathered voice. Some of these songs are love songs; others, tributes to the dead or the grieving. One is dedicated to Johnny Cash, and another is about Sinead O’Connor. All of them are filled with wisdom, compassion, and a good-natured humor that make the kinds of songs you don’t just hear once and forget– they’re the kind of songs you feel like you could keep with you as you grow.
Patty Loveless – Mountain Soul II
Don’t let the II fool you: Patty Loveless is too much of a class act to make a rote sequel. One wouldn’t blame here, of course– the original Mountain Soul album, which mined the rich tradition of bluegrass, flew in the face of what was played on country radio at the time of its release, and it remains not just a high watermark for Loveless, but, for many fans of authentic country music, one of the genre’s best offerings of the decade. Still she resisted, in spite of persistent urging from her fans, until 2009– a time when, if the music on the new disc is any indication, the climate around her and the creativity within her made it the right moment to revisit the Mountain Soul aesthetic in spirit, if not exactly in form.
The differences are these: The first record was a collection of bluegrass standards sprinkled with a few originals, while the new one contains bluegrass cuts alongside other country nuggets given mountain-music treatment, as well as some brand new songs. It’s a much more eclectic set, then, though the sound of the album is every bit as rugged and lived-in as the original. Country and bluegrass musicians of great renown join Loveless here, but it’s the songs that matter, and they’re all killer: But what really impresses is just how timely they are. More than one of these songs testifies to financial breakdown– though most of these songs are very old, it feels as much a chronicle of 2009 as any album I’ve heard this year– and even the songs about love and loneliness have a universal spark to them. As with her last album, Sleepless Nights, Loveless here proves that great country music is essentially just soul music with a twang, and as such this music is moving and positively ageless. It’s another high point in a career that has seen one masterful record after another for the past ten years or more.