New Releases: The Best Tribute Album of the Year

Of all the records to be released this week — Martina McBride, Merle Haggard, Gary Allan, Billy Currington, and Lyle Lovett — who would have guessed that the best of the lot would be a tribute album?

Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers outshines the many dismal tribute albums that have surfaced the last few months. Most of the truly talented singers here are on a first-name basis with fans of traditional country music: Emmylou, Rodney, Alison, Vince, Terri, Merle, Patty, Dierks, Dolly, Marty, Del and Pam, among others. If you collect music from any of these artists or wore out your copy of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, do yourself a favor and buy this album.

Because Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ honors the harmonious duo, popular in the early 1960s, nobody sings alone. Ronnie Dunn and Rebecca Lynn Howard’s pleading “If I Could Only Win Your Love” merits a mention and so does Joe Nichols and Rhonda Vincent’s potent “Cash on the Barrelhead.” And I’ve always loved the high, lonesome song, “You’re Running Wild.” But honestly, there’s not a bad track here. How often can country fans say that? Stick around for the biblical recitation from Johnny Cash, a perfect “amen” to this astounding project. Carl Jackson and Kathy Louvin produced.

Curiously, McBride didn’t title her newest album This One’s for the Girls. And she should have, because — as a man — I didn’t get much out of Martina (RCA). Then again, I don’t consider sharing an elderly neighbor’s pie to be “magical,” I’ve never suddenly realized that I’m a butterfly — and I could do without lyrics like, “Baby in your arms I’m free to be a woman.” The requisite pitied-child song, by the way, is “God’s Will” about a child in leg braces named Will, who finally brings an end to the narrator’s lifetime of searching, thinking and wondering, after Will knocks on the door on Halloween night. There’s no arguing, however, that McBride is a powerhouse vocalist, proven by a redeeming live rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”

Haggard recorded his latest album, Haggard Like I’ve Never Been Before, at his California home and released it on his own Hag Records (distributed by Nashville-based Compendia Music). The first single, “That’s the News,” questions the end of the Iraq war, which instigated several offers to appear on political talk shows. But the real gems here are the poetic songs about love and growing older, such as “I Hate to See It Go” and “Return to San Francisco.” At 66, he still sounds darn good, too. Willie Nelson joins in on the Woody Guthrie classic “Reno Blues (Philadelphia Lawyer).”

Allan’s fans already know he’s capable of making terrific country albums that, for one reason or another, sneak beneath the radar. The sappy “Tough Little Boys” doesn’t hint at the raucous nature, but his fifth album See If I Care (MCA Nashville) might break him out. Yes, his fifth album. So, with a sturdy catalog of hits and a California cowboy’s charisma, why is he just now nominated for the CMA Horizon award? Nelson again pops up, this time on Jesse Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life.”

There’s a certain record label in town that has been assaulting country fans with tons of new singers this year — none of whom I cared for. Meanwhile, other labels are slowly developing worthwhile new artists. For example, Currington’s self-titled debut on Mercury Nashville isn’t hard to get through and shows plenty of potential for this Georgia native. Listening to a ballad about an alcoholic father, “Walk a Little Straighter,” may be uncomfortable for those accustomed to songs about true-life angels and all the ways you can show love. But if you like that tune or fellow newcomers Joe Nichols or Dierks Bentley, give this one a shot.

How do I feel about My Baby Don’t Tolerate (Lost Highway/Curb), the new studio album from Lyle Lovett? Lovett. Ha ha. If you don’t appreciate a good pun, then he’s probably not your cup of tea. But for those who dig flowing melodies, distinctive singing and the occasional smirk, Lovett’s music is worth investigating. Again, not a weak tune in the batch, and you’ll be singing the praises of the gospel songs at the end. Lovett deserved his Grammy for the wonderful The Road to Ensenada album in 1997. This one should be a contender, too.

The playlists at country radio and CMT don’t always match up, and the compilation CMT Presents Most Wanted Volume 1 (Capitol Nashville) offers several tunes you haven’t heard a zillion times on the radio — such as Cross Canadian Ragweed’s “Seventeen,” Alison Krauss’ “Maybe,” Rhonda Vincent’s “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Back of Your Hand.” But don’t forget the mega-hits — Rascal Flatts’ “I’m Movin’ On,” Joe Nichols’ “Brokenheartsville” and Mark Wills’ “19 Somethin’.” Music videos for Jennifer Hanson’s “Too Far Gone” and Chris Cagle’s “Laredo” are also included here. Trace Adkins, Dierks Bentley, Jo Dee Messina, Montgomery Gentry, LeAnn Rimes and Keith Urban make appearances as well.