The Malpass Brothers,
The Malpass Brothers
(Organic, 2015)

Dale Watson,
Call Me Insane
(Red House, 2015)

The venerable phrase "country music" doesn't mean what it used to. It's not even clear what it's supposed to mean in the 21st century, unless you believe that it's what gets played on what passes for country radio. That stuff strikes many of us as little more than cheesy, formulaic pop-rock with a Southern accent. Whatever it is, it's less than edifying. Meantime, a number of committed traditionalists, many operating far outside the Nashville city limits, have conducted a noble if forlorn crusade to restore country to its traditional definition.

Among the leading figures in this underground is the Austin-based Dale Watson, who for more than two decades has delivered full-strength honkytonk live in its natural dancin', beer-drinkin' environment and preserved it on recordings for independent labels. In recent years, though, he's given up on country music. Not that his own music has changed, mind you; it's more defiantly twangy than ever. But "country music" has devolved into something that, wearisomely, requires explanation and qualification. Anybody who loves it, or what it once was, knows the problem, and it's an irksome one.

Watson's solution is to rename it "Ameripolitan." In liner notes to Call Me Insane, Watson explains that the proposed genre incorporates four strains: Western swing, honkytonk, rockabilly and outlaw. Those styles dominated and defined country in its golden age, from the late 1940s into the 1970s. Insane's 14 cuts manage to nod to all of them.

Amusingly, the one number Watson didn't write, Tony Joe White's "Mamas, Don't Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Babies," parodies an anthem of outlaw country recorded by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. As I write, it's a heavy-rotation jingle in an automobile commercial. White's, which transposes "Babies" and "Cowboys" and fashions a fresh melody, lyrics and outlook, is a distinctly more pleasing song than the original, which has not failed to irritate me each time I've heard it. Keep in mind that the "Cowboys" were not fun-loving cowpokes but coke-addled Nashville musicians.

Insane is a fine album, as is every Dale Watson release, which invariably highlights his command of honkytonk as a form of high commercial art. Watson's baritone is reminiscent of Merle Haggard's, which is no bad thing inasmuch as Haggard is arguably the greatest of them all, surpassing even the sainted Hank as the personification of everything admirable about the music. The most unusual cut, "Burden of the Cross," shows Watson at his deepest and darkest, written in the shadow of a life-changing trauma that those versed in his biography will recognize. Its tune is adapted from the 19th-century folk song sometimes known as "900 Miles." On the other end of the spectrum, the swinging romp "Heaven's Gonna Have a Honky Tonk" imagines what, in a rather different song many years ago, Tex Ritter called hillbilly heaven. Watson offers up a glimpse of an earthly paradise in the amiable "Everybody's Somebody in Luchenbach, Texas," which is way less stupid than Waylon Jennings's "Luchenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)," a major contributor to air pollution in 1977.

If Watson leaves you wanting more of the hard stuff, the Malpass Brothers are where you want to turn. Brother duos have a long, glorious history, going back to the early days of what would be called country music, and Christopher (vocals) and Taylor (vocals, electric guitar, mandolin) Malpass do the tradition proud on this outstanding album, produced by bluegrass master Doyle Lawson. This is not a bluegrass disc, let us be clear, but Lawson's many recordings in that genre document his encyclopedic knowledge of what's worth saving in the country repertoire. He and the Malpasses make for a winning collaboration.

If Watson brings to mind the urban blue-collar country of the 1960s, the Malpass Brothers conjure up the relatively more rural music that played on the Grand Old Opry stage a decade earlier, in the era of Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Kitty Wells, Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce and the Louvin Brothers. If Christopher and Taylor weren't even close to being born then, that makes their old-soul command of the material all the more astounding.

Their two originals are indistinguishable from the well-chosen competing cuts, of which Willie Nelson's "Hello Walls" (a 1961 hit for Faron Young) and a couple of Hank Williams songs are the only one likely to be familiar to most listeners. There's nothing here not to embrace. The most recently composed non-original, Pete Goble's Western-themed "Here in Alberta I'll Stay," is surely intended to convey the feeling of a collaboration between Marty Robbins and Ian Tyson. An actual Robbins song, "Begging to You," is enhanced by vocal treatment that will bring you to your knees. I don't think I've heard a more heart-felt interpretation of a country song this year. Bob McDill's "I Met a Friend of Yours Today," my own favorite number here, stands in for the shattering true-life grown-up stories the strongest country songs used to tell.

Lawson's production takes a light touch, with lots of welcome space to place the emphasis where it ought to be, on the brothers' singing. An expert four-piece band boasting keyboard, fiddle, steel, acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, and drums backs the boys. Call it traditional country or Ameripolitan, it may be underground, but it ain't dead.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 July 2015

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