"Is this Nashville country or Texas country?" the guy next to me asked during Mandy Barnett's set at Tramps in New York City last Saturday night. I said that Barnett and her band were from Nashville. "Texas country is more authentic than Nashville country, right?" the guy asked. I mumbled something about how it depends on the artist and turned my attention back to the show. That question, and my inadequate response, has been bugging me ever since.
Seeing Barnett's band, all its members dressed in suits and ties and looking as much like church deacons as musicians, and hearing the slickness of her music and the almost supper-club introduction she gave to the songs, I understood how someone might be tempted to classify her as "less authentic" country. Particularly after the raucous opening set by Waco, Texas' own Shaver, which kicked off with original outlaw country songwriter Billy Joe Shaver telling the crowd, "We look a little rugged, but we're all right." Both acts have an authentic country lineage, and in an evening of contrasts and consonance, their sets fit together beautifully. (Guitarist Junior Brown was added as a headliner a couple weeks after Barnett and Shaver had been announced.) You might say that the members of Shaver -- as, God bless them, they always do -- showed the tenderness inside their gruffness and Barnett used her smooth approach to country standards to reveal that she is one tough cookie.
A rumpled charmer in beat-up denims and a sly raconteur in good ol' boy's clothing, Billy Joe Shaver had the crowd on his side before he sang a note. Probably before he took the stage. Billy Joe is one of the greatest country songwriters of the last 30 years, but he and success have never been best friends. ("If the world is God's television set," Tom T. Hall once wrote, "Billy Joe Shaver is on Monday mornings at 3.") That may be why audiences display tender, proprietary feelings toward him.
I'll never forget the first time I saw him. It was a brutally cold winter night. The show was delayed. It was announced that Shaver's battered old van had given out on the interstate and he was covering the last 40 miles in a taxi. When he finally walked through the side door carrying his guitar and wearing a beat-up shearling coat, the packed house greeted him like a long-lost son who'd weathered a blizzard to make it home for Christmas dinner.
Onstage, his warm, mischievous manner contrasts markedly with that of his son Eddy, who spends the set hiding taciturnly behind his long, black hair while he reels off one hot-shit guitar line after another. (His solo on "Georgia on a Fast Train" scorched the honky-tonk rhythm that had preceded it.) At Tramps it didn't take long for Billy Joe to get very loose, doing his own version of a jig, pretending to rip out his hair during "People and Their Problems" and cracking jokes with the crowd between songs. Given how long he's been around -- since 1968 in Nashville -- and how tough times have sometimes been, it wouldn't be surprising if he affected a seen-it-all-and-survived hardness. But a deaf man could probably read the tone of the music and the performance from the glint that never leaves Billy Joe's eyes. The lyrics are not so simple that they can't be sardonic, as in his twitting of the country-bumpkin persona: "Got a good Christian raising/And an eighth-grade education/Ain't no need for you to treat me this way." Nor is there anything shameful in the roughhewn beauty of simple metaphors: "I'm just an old chunk of coal/But I'm gonna be a diamond someday."
Much of the set relied on Billy Joe standards but also made a place for Eddy's guitar heroics. It's a great partnership, with father adding heart to his son's edginess, and the son lighting a fire under his old man. It was by turns rough, loose-limbed, flaky and suddenly intense. Billy Joe ambles about the stage like, in his phrase, an old five-and-dimer, and by the end of his set I felt -- as I always do when I see him -- that if he isn't the warmest country performer around, you can't blame him for not trying.
The audience was still riled up when Barnett took the stage, and they never really settled down. She had to put up with a distracting level of chatter from the audience during her set (including the audible comments of idiots making fun of her accent). By the time her hour onstage had ended, her willingness to forge ahead in the face of that rudeness seemed the least of the ways she demonstrated her toughness.
It may be tempting to see the music of Billy Joe Shaver as a reaction against the slickness of country music like Barnett's. But unlike the anonymous singers clogging the country charts like Krispy Kremes in an artery, Barnett's style of country has been around enough to have grown roots. After the release of her second album, the gorgeous, hugely satisfying "I've Got a Right to Cry" (Sire), Barnett has been hailed as the second coming of Patsy Cline. Like Cline, she has a great big voice that can swoop from booming to caressing in an instant.
And she shares a producer with Cline; Barnett's was the last album the late Owen Bradley completed. Along with Chet Atkins, Bradley pioneered the countrypolitan sound of the late '50s and early '60s, which added strings and other sweeteners to traditional music for a lush sound. It was an attempt to get country as far away from the hillbilly image as possible, just as music like Billy Joe Shaver's is an attempt to embrace what's most wild and unvarnished in country.
Bradley's work was always too slick for some tastes, but now that mainstream country has become more popular and less vital than ever, it's hard to hear it as anything but the work of an honest man. No matter how many strings he could slather on a track (and just listen to Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" to hear how many that is), Bradley never allowed his work to get in the way of his vocalists. When I listen to much of today's country, it sounds less as if I'm hearing instruments or vocalists than machine-generated representations of them. Bradley's best work with Cline, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Kitty Wells and others never obscured the person at the center of the mix. "I've Got a Right to Cry" is an open emulation of Bradley's early '60s sound that (unlike k.d. lang's Bradley-produced "Shadowland") never sounds like mere imitation. It's a heartening record because it suggests that there is such a thing as "adult pop" that doesn't succumb to the worst MOR impulses.
In performance, it became clear that Barnett shares something else with Patsy Cline: She isn't quite a lady. That sounds awful, but what I'm trying to get at is Barnett's earthiness and the way it works to keep her music from seeming too perfect. It would be easy for Barnett to shoehorn herself into the role of sophisticated diva. But everything about her -- from her stature (which used to be called "womanly"), to the way she leaned into the mike as if to intrude herself upon the chattering audience, to the snap that started to show beneath her ingratiating introductions (and the flash of irritation when someone called for Junior Brown and she said, "You're gonna have to wait, honey. Junior ain't here yet"), to her attributing a sudden cough to too many cigarettes or confiding that her cover of the Everly Brothers "Don't Forget to Cry" was suggested by her mother one night "after a few Miller Lites" -- suggested the sort of presence that Joan Blondell brought to '30s movies: a wisecracking, likable broad.
You need some of that common touch when the sound you're going for is reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-rock '50s pop that worked to keep suggestions of sexuality and good honest dirt at bay. None of that sterility creeps into Barnett's music, and some of the credit belongs to her musicians, who understand that professionalism means not phoning it in. At Tramps, Barnett was lucky enough to be backed by Harold Bradley (Owen's brother), whose bright lead guitar lines swung the music with a spare grace.
It's that incredible voice, low and warm and freer as it gets bigger, that puts the songs over, that brings grit to the glamorous heartbreak scenarios and glamour to the grit of experience in her voice. She brought all of her contradictions into focus with the encore, "Love for Sale," a prostitute's lament and one of Cole Porter's most sophisticated songs. Barnett had no use for the cool reserve of Ella Fitzgerald's famous version (perhaps the best); she sang lines like "If you want the thrill of love/I've been through the mill of love," as an unflinching statement of fact, an acknowledgement that tears weren't going to do her much good, even as you could hear them lurking in the back of her voice.