Aaron Lewis

When brooding Staind frontman Aaron Lewis isn’t crooning nu-metal ballads like “It’s Been Awhile” and “Outside” or bow-hunting whitetail deer, he’s doing his own solo tours featuring some of the country songs he released on his Town Line EP last year. One song from that set even finds the Massachusetts-bred registered Republican sharing the mic with George Jones, Charlie Daniels, and Jon Young on a song called “Country Boy,” though he remains liberal enough to sing about smoking weed.

Sun., Feb. 19, 8 p.m., 2012


Nick Lowe & His Band+Geraint Watkins

British pub-rock, punk, and New Wave linchpin Nick Lowe is the Don Draper of adult contemporary music. Since 1994’s The Impossible Bird, his artistic persona has been that of a romantic stranger, as enigmatic to his lovers as to himself, and this brilliant smoothie delivers his nuanced material with classic country warmth (think George Jones on the Thames). These shows mark his first appearance with a band in ages, and keyboardist Geraint Watkins will open.

Wed., Oct. 20, 9 p.m.; Thu., Oct. 21, 9 p.m.; Fri., Oct. 22, 9 p.m., 2010


Good Old Boys, Rarely Meanin’ No Harm

John Anderson’s I Just Came Home to Count the Memories, the first of five new reissues from his ’80s Warner Bros. years, begins with the title track, which takes stock of the past but doesn’t linger a second too long. Not quite a star in 1981—he’d been scuffling around Nashville since the ’70s and had already cut a few singles and a couple albums— Anderson sang in a warm baritone that recalled George Jones’s swoops and Lefty Frizzell’s teasing midrange. He sounded lazy until you realized how artfully he changed registers, stretched out, or phrased and shouted like an r&b singer. “Memories” is a piece of overloaded Nashville formalism, from lyrics about “roses choking in the grass” to guitar lines that echo the vocal melodies to the finality of two rumbling piano notes that close the door on Anderson’s past for good. A tale of a busted marriage, it’s a canny take on country’s conflicted relationship to its past: “There’s no happiness in music/If someone isn’t close enough to care,” Anderson sings. Memories is an amazing record, with a superbly light-footed Dylan cover and the insane “Jessie Clay and the 12:05,” featuring a good old boy whose foolproof murder alibi gets derailed.

All the People Are Talkin’, from 1983, takes a break from Music City soldiers and instead uses Anderson’s band, with the singer himself on rhythm guitar. It’s his funniest, most gregarious record— with a soprano sax embellishing its straight-down-the-line funk, the title track evokes the urbane Lee Dorsey of Night People even as it casts Anderson as the object of derision. (He also throws in some quick, exact asides at the end, just like a big-band singer.) As a whole, the record makes domesticity sound like a roaring good time, and just for kicks, Anderson becomes an environmentalist on Fred Carter’s arty “An Occasional Eagle,” a Christmas calendar of a song, flawlessly delivered.

1984’s Eye of a Hurricane finds Anderson at what sounds like a slight remove from his fame and happiness. (He’d scored big with “Swingin’ ” off 1982’s Wild and Blue, itself recently reissued.) Hurricane‘s title track stands as his most convincing white-soul move, and one of the best songs ever written about staying out late in Tampa. Meanwhile, “Take That Woman Away” traps him in a marriage with a woman disinclined to let him escape. “She ran out to the car/Revvin’ up my old chainsaw,” he complains, and ends up gibbering in the rubber room.

At mid-decade, Tokyo, Oklahoma takes the persona of this superficially straightforward singer as far as it can go. The title track gets Anderson on a plane after a series of expensive long-distance phone calls, and “Down in Tennessee” is dislocation at its most nuanced. Finally, Countrified, from ’86, smells like a barrel of outtakes, although Tony Joe White’s “Do You Have a Garter Belt” suggests that this great country artist kept his erotic politics under wraps just to please the family.


I Still Miss Someone

When Charlie Louvin sings, “Why must you come back and haunt me?” he could be talking about his brother Ira, who died in a 1965 car accident. Or he might be referring to George Jones, whose guest vocal rises up from Charlie Louvin‘s first song, “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face,” like a drunk from the middle of a dark country lane. Along with its array of famous singers deployed in cameos that sometimes last only a few seconds, Charlie Louvin puts the 79-year-old country star’s thick, patient, and somewhat inexpressive voice front and center, with the likes of Jones, Elvis Costello, Bobby Bare, and Marty Stuart filling the void Ira left. Ira’s inspired, reckless mandolin playing and superb harmony vocals powered the Louvin Brothers’ best work—no other country act managed to sound so pious about murder and apocalypse. And while Charlie producer Mark Nevers doesn’t attempt to reproduce that interplay here, he decorates stark celebrations like “Knoxville Girl” and “The Great Atomic Power” with light irony—the latter stirs in creepy children’s vocals, a wash of feedback guitar, and a few harmonies from Jeff Tweedy. It’s hard to tell whether or not Charlie relishes the prospect of an explosion “blotting out the works of man,” but that indifference is a perk of age. Still, when he sings “Ira,” you know he misses his brother for sure.


World Turns Once More

In his 1991 hit “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” Alan Jackson celebrated the cathartic power of the “heartbroke hillbilly” ballads of the George Jones high-pathos school. To avoid unflattering comparisons, though, he sang his lesson in barroom etiquette with an unruffled half-smile, and gave it a toe-tapping beat. A charming and subtle singer who can dig deeper than George Strait but knows he will never be Jones, Jackson tends to let his mood barometer peak at no-big-whoop contentment and bottom out at low-grade depression of a type no responsible psychiatrist would prescribe meds for.

On 2002’s career-best Drive, September 11 and a newfound confidence as a songwriter lent a touch of profundity to his professionalism. The enjoyable What I Do is similarly assured and clunker-free, but it also returns to the emotional compression that Drive often detoured. To judge from Jackson’s pro forma delivery, the sturdy marriage celebrated on “Too Much of a Good Thing” is “good” as in “not bad.” And though he plays the “loneliest man in the U.S.A. today” in one of What I Do‘s mid-tempo numbers, only in the lovely “Monday Morning Church” does he even sound like the loneliest man in his cul-de-sac.

Which somehow doesn’t keep What I Do from being one of the year’s best country albums. After love and its relatives, Jackson’s favorite subjects are cars and country music, both of which owe a debt to assembly-line technology. When Jackson references Hank, then, he might be talking about Henry Ford, and he often approaches his art like he’s trying to best your agoraphobic grandmother’s Toyota Camry for reliability. For what it’s worth, he succeeds. What I Do‘s “If Love Was a River” is pretty enough to sing at your sister’s wedding, “Burnin’ the Honky Tonks Down” lets his Nashville session aces stretch out with impressive if not quite incendiary results, and none of the lesser tunes will have you racing to rock the jukebox. His passion is sometimes in doubt, but his sincerity never is. When he remembers shoveling manure on the from-shit-jobs-to-superstardom title track, you can tell the memory still lingers—in his nostrils at least, if not in his apparently intact hillbilly heart.


Blood on the Plow

Be forewarned: After a No. 1 debut and respectable five-week dalliance at No. 3, Garth Brooks’s latest album recently plummeted out of the Billboard top 20. We Garth fans have learned to watch such chart movement with warranted trepidation—the sight of our spoiled hero agonizing in the throes of commercial desperation is gruesome and piteous indeed. When Sevens took a similar plunge back in 1998, Brooks began siphoning funds from other Capitol acts’ promo budgets for his own use, spewing out cynically redundant limited editions and DOA live sets, and performing the Michael Jordan “I’m in—I’m out” retirement shuffle. Oh, yeah, then he dressed up like a sitcom caricature of Trent Reznor and crafted a “dark” side project that sulked along like a compilation of wilted Bread outtakes. Bet the dude wishes he had a band to break up so he could launch a reunion tour.

For us faithful, awaiting Garth’s public pronouncements over the years has been like taking a petulant toddler to Mass—you smile in denial and cringe with anticipation of the embarrassment to come. (A truly obsessive “I Hate Garth” page at Nashville/Opry/5156/index.html covers all his sins.) But, thankfully, for Scarecrow, Brooks has largely kept his lips zipped. The biggest stink came when he refused to perform Scarecrow‘s duet with George Jones, “Beer Run,” at the CMAs with said legend. According to Garth, it’s just not right to hoot and holler about crossing county lines for a drink, not with September 11 so fresh in our memories. And if he has nothing more to say about the WTC (save a small printed tribute in the CD booklet and some murmurs about the need for prayer in schools), consider yourselves lucky.

Given the Hee Haw yuks of “Beer Run,” issues of quality control might have been Brooks’s true concern—both singers have been put to better use than spelling out “B, double-E, double-R you in.” But they’ve each saddled up deader horses, and there’s a homely pleasure in the sound of two naturals trotting along so casually. Brooks’s anticipatory hiccups ain’t as classic as Jones’s bottomed-out dips, but they sure sound as idiosyncratic and effortless. And if George realized that Garth’s closing ad lib— “All right, but I’m drivin’ “—was a playful swipe at the Possum’s much publicized ’99 DWI, good for them both.

If nothing else, Garth remains a great novelty artist. “Big Money” is an ode to cowardice that advises layabout schemers to be nice to relatives with risky jobs so as to secure a mention in their wills. And the racy “Squeeze Me In,” in which Brooks phones ultrabusy career girl Trisha Yearwood at work and she faxes him back, is yummy yuppie foreplay at its most conspicuously consumptive. Even the hit is a lightweight treasure. “Wrapped Up in You” cuts against a gentle lope with a harmonica and fiddle OutKast could groove to, though even Andre isn’t a committed enough cornball to get away with “How do I love you, let me count the ways/There ain’t no number high enough to end this phrase.” Garth is, though.

As if hell-bent on rewarding brand loyalty, however, Brooks does himself in by recycling his typical subjects. After all, what’s a Garth Brooks album without meteorological melodrama (“The Storm” rolls out the thunder once more), live-your-life platitudes (“Pushing Up Daisies”), and a dumb rodeo rocker (“Rodeo or Mexico”)? By the time he closes off by boarding a very similar “ship out on the ocean” to the one launched a decade back in “The River,” you want to file a class action suit against the clod for infringing his own copyright. Nor does it help that he belts out the bombastic chorus as if he’s auditioning for Diane Warren. I know, he’s always sung from his gut. But, man, have you seen his gut lately?

Given Garth’s tendency to foot-in-mouthiness, the way Scarecrow skirts around the issue of a certain well-publicized D-I-V-O-R-C-E is hardly surprising. But the way the album studiously avoids discussion of either fidelity or infidelity may protesteth too little. True, “Why Ain’t I Running,” which caresses Brooks in a bath of ’70s AOR pedal steel as he decides not to hit the road, is a slap in the face to everything Eagles outlawism stands for—Garth’s lover can own him, stone him, maybe even be a friend of his. But the only time anyone comes within a zipper’s breadth of fucking someone else’s spouse is on the hapless “Rodeo or Mexico,” which finds Garth vacillating between the delights of a dusky-skinned señorita and bolting off to rope the wind. (Her knife-wielding husband simplifies the decision for him. Great.)

And so, as Garth Brooks slouches into lame-duck superstardom, he seems to be seeking shelter in competent irrelevance. Once, he sang that going on that first date after your divorce or not giving in to adulterous temptation was as courageous as stumping for the Confederacy or bitching drunkenly about city folk. But now he’s holding back. The album, says Garth, was named for the Wizard of Oz straw man, who “thinks with his heart.” Well, how about some fire, scarecrow? Coasting on the safest record of a career he claims is over, Garth Brooks does seem like a scarecrow—a hollow man, a stuffed man, retiring in every sense of the word. If so, this is the way his career ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.


Wynton in Wranglers

At the beginning of every Alan Jackson concert, a video trots out a visual roll call of all the great country artists that Jackson wants everyone to know he reveres. Cash, Hank, Patsy, Waylon—a grand parade of rebel reprobates who constitute the bedrock of hillbilly style. Jackson’s sales leave the aforementioned artists in the dust, but he has apparently not forsaken them. The 42-year-old hunk from Newnan, Georgia, has recently been on a public crusade to leach out the claptrap from country and bring the music he loves back to its messy, Bud-and-sawdust essence. No more “three minute positive not too country up-tempo love songs,” as Jackson sings on his new album, When Somebody Loves You. An overachiever from the Neo-traditionalist Class of 1989, Jackson has positioned himself as a lone wolf battling Nashville’s powers that be with acoustic guitars and a scruffy pair of Justins on his feet.

Sure, it’s a bit of a marketing con job—Jackson ain’t exactly David Allan Coe, or even Junior Brown—but it took some rawhide cojónes to crash the Predator’s Ball with “Murder on Music Row,” his sardonic duet with George Strait that laid to waste all those Sucker Opies grabbing the bling-bling with the cotton-candy trifle of countless high-concept novelty numbers. “Murder on Music Row,” which eventually hit No. 1, was so baldly confrontational that Strait himself seemed to disavow it as a joke when the pair accepted their trophy for best song at this year’s Country Music Association Awards (would that Jackson had acknowledged the irony of slamming country gimmickry with his own slapstick shtick). Jackson’s too large to worry about offending sensitive music honchos; on last year’s CMA broadcast, he sang George Jones’s “Choices” in his performance slot when Jones was cut off and couldn’t complete the song. He’s Nashville’s Mariano Rivera—as close to a sure thing as any label can hope for—and he’s earned his right to bitch.

Jackson has thrived with an indeterminate persona. He’s a sophisticated hick (he named his band the Strayhorns, after Duke Ellington’s favorite collaborator), an aw-shucks shit-kicker with a Tiffany spittoon. Rather than trade on his private life for tabloid headlines, Jackson projects himself as a stolid, simple craftsman doing good works for the preservation of honky-tonk music. Like a Wrangler-clad Wynton Marsalis, he’s a public figure whose reverence for his musical heritage keeps it real for soccer moms. Reverent, but not slavish: Jackson dilutes country tropes just enough to make them digestible for fans who would never think of buying a Lefty Frizzell album. Jackson is also a master at working both sides of the picket fence. Witness his terrific 1999 covers album Under the Influence, which alternated cuts from the canon like Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop a Top,” Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party,” and George Jones’s “Tall, Tall Trees” with FlufferNutter like Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” Even when Jackson’s pledging fealty to his forebears, he’s got one eye on The Gavin Report.

A high-water mark of the Bush-era Big Hat movement, his 1989 debut album, Here in the Real World, was musically foursquare and tastefully restrained yet perfectly suited to Jackson’s low-key emotionalism; its biggest hits, “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” and “Wanted,” offered up simple virtues in both form and content. Later, feel-good product like “Chattahoochee” and “Midnight in Montgomery” borrowed requisite thematic signposts to no startling effect. But Jackson’s resonant, smooth-as-Southern Comfort delivery, with its melancholy echoes of Jones and Haggard, convinces you that clichés are verities. Even when Jackson’s playing the cornpone card, as on his self-pitying anthems “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “She’s Got the Rhythm (and I’ve Got the Blues),” he’s got enough self-knowing rural soul to make his whimsy work.

When Somebody Loves You is typically sturdy Jackson, whipsawing from gritty to irrelevant to goofy. Now that he’s firmly established himself as Nashville’s acceptable rebel hero, Jackson gleefully and continually chucks empty beer bottles at the establishment. “Meat and Potato Man” is a contemporary reactionary upgrade of “Fightin’ Side of Me” or “Okie From Muskogee”: a long enemy’s-list of fusty bourgeois signifiers (“I don’t like caviar, sushi bars . . . phony stars”). “Where I Come From” and “It’s Alright to Be a Redneck” are Jeff Foxworthy routines without the punch lines, but like those old Haggard songs, they have their own fetid roughneck charm. Jackson perhaps protests too much when it comes to Nashville’s new pop wave—he’s not averse to recording facile boilerplate to notch another hit on his belt, and the new wave has its own virtues. But in the country cosmos, a benign maverick still beats a benevolent hack.