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Tracy Byrd, Jim Hall and Pat Metheny

Tracy Byrd
Keepers/Greatest Hits
MCA

They don't usually make "albums" these days on Nashville's Music Row, but rather collections of either potential singles or songs that the record makers wish could be singles. And as any music fan with a modicum of taste will tell you, even some of those singles are hardly music for the ages. So if you want value for your money from most commercial country acts, Best Of albums are usually the way to go. And by calling his 11-track greatest hits release Keepers, Beaumont-boy Tracy Byrd is engaging in a fair amount of truth in advertising.

If you want to hear modern country without too much crap -- and let's face it, folks, a good bit of what you'll hear on your local country radio station ain't even country (at least as we know it here in Texas) -- this disc is a good place to hang your hat and stay a while. For as Byrd sings on the final cut here, "We're from the country, and we like it that way."

The truth is more that Byrd isn't just from the country but this here part of Texas on the Gulf Coast. In the wake of Mark Chesnutt and followed by Clay Walker, Byrd is part of that Texas triumvirate who remains grounded in honky-tonk, Western-swing and old-school country. They're all three acolytes of the real country revival sparked by the success of George Strait in the mid-1980s. Although none of them have remained quite as devoted to straight-ahead country as Strait himself, it's acts like them, and fellow hit-maker Alan Jackson, who keep today's country from descending into full-scale twangy pop and soft-rock.

Of course Byrd isn't so traditionally country as to follow the old-school themes and pathos that made country "country," before it went big-time, when it was the music of the real lives of real people. There's nothing here about cheating, heartbreak, getting drunk as a skunk, jail, trains, tragic death or murder. Instead, there's Byrd, hewing to suburban family values, which make up so much of the lyrics written these days in the Nashville song factory: love and devotion and cutting up without a halacious hangover the next day. The wildest hair Byrd sings about is the euphoric effects of wine in "Watermelon Crawl": "If you sip you some, but obey the law, if you drink don't drive, do the watermelon crawl." It's hardly "Jack Daniels, Jack Daniels, Jack Daniels, Please."

But Byrd's ability to stay true to country as it once was yet also satisfy the demands of the current market is what makes him one of the better acts on the scene today. This mix is best exemplified by the one new song here, "When Mama Ain't Happy," in which the upbeat home and hearth lyrics are counterbalanced by heavy steel and fiddle riffs. It provides a bit of contrast to the track that follows, his version of Johnny Paycheck's old hit, "Someone To Give My Love To," Byrd's first chart success. And it sounds like it could have been cut in the 1970s, what with its twangy, echoing guitar riffs, tinkling acoustic piano and sorrowful steel. It's one of two songs made famous by Paycheck included here that Byrd has managed to score with, the other being "Don't Take Her She's All I Got." Since about the only notice that ex-con, one-time boozer and blowhound Paycheck could manage in today's Nashville is to get arrested, it's a tribute to Byrd's old school devotion that these songs are so well-done.

Not everything on Keepers necessarily keeps the flame, such as the pop schmaltz of "The Keeper of the Stars," and this set would have been far stronger if it had included more stuff from Byrd's best overall album, Big Love. And in new Nashville fashion, the photos that accompany this record resemble something between a Ralph Lauren western wear fashion spread and a Marlboro ad. But even as Byrd gets compromised by the strictures of country radio, he continues to sing like he is from the country. Country music journalist (and all-too-frequent commercial country apologist) Robert K. Oermann writes in the opening lines of occasionally hyperbolic liner notes that Byrd's voice has "the warmth and patina of richly polished mahogany [with] flecks of gold in its upper reaches and dark umber shadows when it dips into a low baritone." Whatever that means. But even if the man's voice isn't an instrument with the scuffed-plywood roughness of a barroom stage or the depth and bite of sour mash whiskey, it is at least a voice that sounds like it's no stranger to the proletariat pleasures of back-road honky-tonks.

Keepers may not be today's country at its very best, but it is almost as good as it gets within the great compromise of the country radio realm. And one can also hear hints of the great classic country album that Byrd could make if Nashville were ever to allow him to do so. Within the vast creative wasteland whose capitol is Music City, Tracy Byrd's music provides some rays of hope, and time will no doubt mark at least some of these Keepers as classics in a day when such milestones are in short supply indeed.(Rob Patterson)

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