NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Goodbye 2002, Hello Lisa Marie

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Before 2002 is cold in the grave, let’s look back on a few things from last year that will likely carry relevance in the New Year. Overall CD sales for 2002 are down by 10 percent or so; country music sales are up by 10 percent or so. The pundits say, well, war and patriotism always sell country music. Crap. The public buys what it likes and right now what it likes is well-crafted music about real life. And country music has traditionally been good at serving that up and is doing so again for a change — instead of trying to be Celine Dion or the Backstreet Boys.

Secondly, in what may well be a growing trend, Toby Keith and Johnny Cash enlisted in a growing rebellion against sterility in the recording studio. Keith and Cash joined such artists as Eminem and the Transplants in trying to thwart the synthetic purity of modern digital studio sound, in which such sound-altering aids as Pro Tools can make even you or me sing in tune. What Keith and Cash et al did was basically dirty up their sound — throw in some hiss and pop and crackle to make the sound more real, like back in the days of analog recording and one-take “live” sessions and vinyl albums.

Keith’s virtual reality can be heard on the cut “Good to Go to Mexico” on his Unleashed album. Cash’s is on the title song to his new American IV: The Man Comes Around. It’s quite a comment on the times that authenticity has to be faked, but still … I think capturing a true studio feel is a worthy goal. No one is perfect and perfection is certainly not the aim of music. Aurally speaking, there is a great deal to be said in favor of the warm and “real” sound of analog recording and vinyl discs. And there is a growing market for vinyl versions of current CD recordings.

In another developing area, there seems to be a gradual blurring of the distinctions between mainstream and alternative country. Performing rights organization SESAC, in particular, has devoted its energies to championing such emerging young songwriter-singers as Walt Wilkins. It’s not dissimilar to the UN’s first efforts years ago in helping struggling Third World countries — I mean, non-mainstream country artists and writers may as well be Third World nations or banana republics, for all the respect and attention they’ve gotten in the past.

Another aspect of the erasing of borders between areas of country music has been the open-mindedness of such superstar artists as Tim McGraw in looking beyond Music Row assembly-line songwriters for songs to cut. McGraw called on such non-establishment talents as Bruce Robison (for the song “Angry All the Time” on McGraw’s Set This Circus Down) and Lore Orion (whose group Kattl’s abortive debut album McGraw produced and championed) for the songs “Tickin’ Away” and “Illegal” from his new album Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors.

Also, before these CDs get by us, it would be good to consider some of the orphaned albums from 2002. In a particularly lush year for country music, these were noteworthy works that — for one reason or another — have not gotten the full attention they deserve.

1. Darryl Worley , I Miss My Friend (DreamWorks). A fine, fine second album from a singer with integrity and an obvious dedication to the best traditions of country.

2. Hank Williams Jr. , Almeria Club Recordings (Curb). A splendid tribute to Hank Sr. from Hank Jr.

3. Various Artists, Caught in the Webb: A Tribute to Webb Pierce (Audium). A labor of love from the likes of George Jones and Charley Pride in remembering the great honky-tonk pioneer Webb Pierce .

4. Daryle Singletary , That’s Why I Sing This Way (Audium). A big, sprawling, twangy voice that captures the essence of country. Such stellar talents as George Jones, Merle Haggard , Johnny Paycheck , Dwight Yoakam and Rhonda Vincent drop in to add vocals.

5. Roger Wallace, The Lowdown (Lone Star). Solid honky-tonk fare, with an emphasis on western swing, from a popular young Texas artist. Brings to mind a young and hip Conway Twitty.

6. Townes Van Zandt , Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (Tomato). The late songwriter extraordinaire Van Zandt never sounded better than in a sweaty, drunk club and these newly-resurrected 1973 sessions from Houston’s Old Quarter present him in exquisite form.

7. Leland Martin, Simply Traditional (IGO). The album title is very apt. Martin writes and sings pure country. Bonus points for having the cojones to include a lovely acoustic version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” here.

8. Laura Cantrell, When the Roses Bloom Again (Diesel Only). Nashville native Cantrell made a smart career move by heading to New York City where she gained attention as a savvy country music DJ and gifted singer-songwriter. This is Brooklyn country at its best.

9. Jim Lauderdale , The Hummingbirds (Dualtone); Lost in the Lonesome Pines [with Ralph Stanley] (Dualtone). Releasing two new albums in one day confused everyone. Getting past the confusion, these are some of the best things the prolific songwriter Lauderdale has offered.

10. Kasey Chambers , Barricades & Brickwalls (Warner Bros.). If she lived here, instead of in Australia, this golden-throated diva would be a superstar.

Finally, we should all stop and give thanks for the fact that country music’s self-image is now secure enough that pop songwriter Diane Warren had no country hits in the year 2002. She seems to be a wonderful person and is a celebrated songwriter, but she is not necessarily a country songwriter. Warren was responsible in the past for such efforts as “There You’ll Be” (which Faith Hill did for the Pearl Harbor movie), “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (which was a pop hit for Aerosmith before being the last thing heard from the good traditional country singer Mark Chesnutt after he was convinced to cover it), “Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me” (for McGraw and Hill), “How Do I Live” (in competing versions by Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes ) and “What If” (for Reba McEntire ). The Warren ditty “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” from the Coyote Ugly soundtrack was a Rimes thing and became a hit. But … nothing recently. No Diane Warren infestation of country music in the past year is proof that prayer can indeed change things.

P.S. Two reasons to live in 2003: Vince Gill ’s new album, tentatively titled Next Big Thing is due in stores on Feb. 11, and the debut album (as yet untitled) by Lisa Marie Presley is due on April 8.