New Releases Answer “Whatever Happened To …”

Loyal country fans are rewarded this week by new releases from artists who haven’t seen much chart action lately. In the 1980s, Ricky Skaggs and Rosanne Cash ruled the airwaves, while the early 1990s offered country stylists like Hal Ketchum and Sammy Kershaw . All four return with new albums this week.

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder: Live at the Charleston Music Hall (Skaggs Family) barely references his past country hits — only “Uncle Pen” is included. Indeed, more than half the material here is new to Skaggs’ repertoire, including two new Skaggs instrumentals. Dipping three times into the Stanley Brothers catalog, the Kentucky native also revives Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” and Bill Monroe’s “Get Up John” as his finale. The song introductions are tracked separately, making it easy to lose the chatter entirely.

Cash hasn’t made a full-on studio record since 1993′s The Wheel, but she sounds remarkably in-step on Rules of Travel (Capitol). A standout cut, “September When It Comes,” unites her with her father, Johnny Cash , but the album has further riches — especially the earthy support from Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle . The sense of urgency that marked her career-making country hits from the 1980s — including “Seven Year Ache” — remains intact here.

With a handful of hits from the early 1990s, Ketchum has all but vanished from the country airwaves. Too bad, because he’s still in fine voice. At least Europeans appreciate this. In fact, Ketchum released The King of Love (Curb) in England last year. Here’s hoping he returns to the limelight, because this sunny-sounding work merits attention in the U.S. as well.

After hearing the title track to Kershaw’s I Want My Money Back (Audium), you won’t be able to get the phrase out of your mind. Read into that what you will. While Kershaw remains one of country’s most distinctive vocalists, his reading of “Metropolis” can’t touch Anthony Smith’s. (Smith wrote the song.) It should be no surprise that novelty songs abound here, although “Gone for Good Goodbye” shows a little bit of sparkle.

Kershaw also gets the Millenium Collection (Mercury) treatment, collecting his 12 Top 10 hits, from 1991′s “Cadillac Style” to 1997′s “Love of My Life.” Billy Ray Cyrus, a former labelmate of Kershaw’s, cracked the Top 20 only nine times and all those songs — along with the patriotic “Some Gave All” — are gathered on his own Millenium Collection (Mercury).

Dig those groovy Derailers and their good-timing latest album, Genuine (Lucky Dog). That’s pronounced “Jen-U-Wine,” folks. A fun blend of California country and Texas attitude, this Austin quartet can really shake ‘em down — at least up until the tearful “Whole Other World,” which hearkens back to the heyday of Dwight Yoakam and perhaps even Ray Price . Shines like chrome, this one does.

On the day that The Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie premieres in Nashville, the soundtrack (Warner Bros. Nashville) hits stores nationwide. Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy get in a few off-color laughs, while Bill Engvall jokes about the joys of life with teenagers and trying to quit smoking. But this is ultimately Jeff Foxworthy’s show. The redneck routine should be out of vogue by now, but dang, it’s still a gut-buster. Cover songs from Chris Cagle , Brad Paisley and Leon Russell liven up the proceedings.

Two other live albums arrive for high-energy country fans: The Wanda Jackson Show: Live and Still Kickin’ and Trent Summar and the New Row Mob: Live at 12th & Porter. Both bow on the Digital Club Network.

And two more noteworthy repackages: Steve Wariner ‘s The Hits Collection (Capitol Nashville) features later hits like “Holes in the Floor of Heaven.” The Essential Randy Travis appears on Warner Bros., with 12 No. 1 hits including “Forever and Ever, Amen.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.