A few years ago, without really intending to, I stopped listening to most new country music. When the most enthusiasm I could muster for certain new records was, "Well, it's not as slick as it might be," I realized that I had simply stopped expecting the genre to produce anything much of interest. The slicking up of country music was nothing new; it had been going on at least since the countrypolitan sound of the '60s. But in the last few years that slickness has felt like a stake through the heart. I suppose I could learn to tell Shania's voice from Tricia's from Deana's from Mindy's if I put my mind to it. But nothing I've heard has made the trouble it would take seem worth it.
More popular than ever, country music is also -- as a form -- more debased than ever. Turn to your local country station or switch on TNN and what you hear is less the country sound than representations of that sound, voices and guitars that twang as if they'd been programmed, everything stripped of the dirt of experience. The truth is that the themes country music has traditionally dealt with -- sin, loss and its acceptance, redemption or the refusal of it -- have no place in a genre that has been reduced to the manufactured emotion of party songs, empowerment songs (for the women singers), MOR ballads. The sort of schlocky material done by the singers that people in their 40s and late 30s grew up seeing on talk shows -- the likes of Jerry Vale, Sandler and Young, Vic Damone -- is now being churned out in a country idiom. The "rock" side of country is no less safe. For aging rock
audiences, the flashy stage shows of performers like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain are a sort of security blanket, allowing people who long ago stopped paying attention to rock 'n' roll to feel as if they're still in the fold.
The bright spots have been sparse. I continue listening to Martina McBride because, despite all the second-rate material and musicianship she settles for, I still hear a real person when she sings. (And I'm not ready to give up on anyone who delivered as powerful a performance as "Independence Day," perhaps the greatest single of the decade, certainly the most subversive.) But McBride's success is not likely to encourage her to take on the material or sidemen that would challenge her. And I don't know when we're likely to hear another album from Bobbie Cryner, whose 1995 "Girl of Your Dreams," the toughest set of marriage songs since Richard and Linda Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights," showed how real feeling might be possible in the slick country mainstream. Country radio has become so rigidly formatted that a few years ago the Mavericks' last album, "Trampoline," which you might have expected to spawn hit after hit, was ignored as too rock 'n' roll (and ignored as too country by rock stations). After his last album, "Unchained," which got no airplay, won a Grammy, Johnny Cash took out ads in the industry trade publications in which he expressed thanks "to the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support" -- alongside a 1969 picture of him giving the finger to the camera. There's no better example of what's wrong with country radio than the fact that you won't hear artists like Shaver (whose "Tramp on Your Street" may be the finest country album of the decade) or Alison Krauss, perhaps the purest voice in country right now. The bits of slickness that crept into "So Long, So Wrong," the last album from Krauss and her band, Union Station, suggested she was in for a long, uncertain fight to continue playing her music the way she wanted.
All this is by way of breathing a sigh of relief that Kelly Willis' new album, "What I Deserve," a title that seems both boastful and ironic, is a sure sign that she has rejected the mainstreaming moves of her last album, 1993's "Kelly Willis." Willis has sacrificed some of the rockabilly flavor of her first two albums, 1990's "Well Traveled Love" and 1991's "Bang Bang." "What I Deserve" is a darker piece of work, and a more coherent one. The emotions and playing on the album are all of a piece, a darker piece. Which is why you're not likely to hear anything from "What I Deserve" on any airwaves near you. "No, you don't get off easy," Willis sings toward the end of the record, and the line sticks because it comes at a time when country music is all about getting off easy, about disposable emotion. "What I Deserve" is about being in the grip of emotions so big they seem not as if they started inside the singer, but as if they were waiting around for her to get caught in their grip. And they don't sound as if they'll be dissipating any time soon. Not every song here is a sad song, but Willis has made the slow, easy roll of "I Got a Feelin' For Ya" feel of a piece with the heartbreak of "Wrapped," made us hear the potential for sadness lurking inside every happiness. The entire album is shot through with the fatalism that's particular to country. "You hold me close in your arms/And I feel the cold," she sings in the album's closer, "Not Long For This World," a song that lives up to the Fassbinder title: Love Is Colder than Death. Throughout "What I Deserve," Willis sings as if to ward off that chill.
"What I Deserve" was recorded in Austin, which has emerged as the
anti-Nashville. But it doesn't wallow in the glumness that makes some
alterna-country easier to admire than love. Willis may feel the shudder of mortality, but her delivery is palpably flesh-and-blood. She's never so hooked on misery that her timing and phrasing get dragged down into the atmospherics of a song. There's an essentially engaged quality to her singing. The title track is an admission of defeat that climaxes with the line "Hell, I've walked a long way just to find the end of my rope," that's as beaten-up and as specific as the scratches and cigarette scars on a barroom counter. Listening to "What I Deserve" brought home, for me, why I've never been able to join in the accolades that are regularly laid at the feet of Lucinda Williams. The heartache in Williams' songs finally counts for nothing because it's so unvaried, so wallowed in. Put it this way: Who can be bothered to care about the trials of a singer who sounds as if she doesn't have the energy to get through the goddamn verse?
Willis never forgets that she has to put a song across. There are surges and sudden husky swoops in her normal, almost nasal, register. She's got wonderful taste in songwriters, here covering Nick Drake's "Time Has Told Me" and Paul Westerberg's "They're Blind." (The truest test for any artist's grasp of the genre they work in is what it can be made to encompass.) There's even a nod to the Beatles in her version of Paul Kelly's "Cradle of Love" ("Seems like you been workin'/Eight days a week"). The song itself is a particularly sweet example of solace as seduction. Willis might be the woman the singer in "A Hard Day's Night" dreams of coming home to, knowing the things that she does "will make him feel all right." And she's blessed throughout with wonderful musicians. On "Not Forgotten You," the beat slowly gathers itself behind Willis, unobtrusively propelling the music, so that by the time she gets to the image "Hail the Western bound/With its black tail flying" the music has become a song match for it.
The album seems defined by "Happy Like That," written by Willis and Gary Louris. All of the discontent of the album seems to gather itself into this number, and Willis sings it with the sound of someone bringing bad news that we know is undeniable before we can even question it. It's the sound of a sort of a doomed -- but not foolish -- persistence. By the end of the final lines, Willis' voice, soaring at their start, has been tamped down. But the persistence of "What I Deserve" is equally undeniable. Six years (broken only by one EP) is three lifetimes in pop music. Willis was right to hold out until she found a label to release the music she wanted to make. "What I Deserve" is the album she's been working toward since her debut. Whatever its commercial fate, she's likely to be around for a while. Willis has found a way to navigate the emotional vapors while sounding too real, too strong to make us think she's in danger of disappearing into them.