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If Nashville would only let Tracy Byrd make a real album...

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)

 

Jim Hall and Pat Metheny
Jim Hall & Pat Metheny
Telarc

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny is the classic meeting of the old master, who Metheny once called "the greatest living guitarist," and the student. Such pairings can often turn into disaster when the younger tries to dazzle his elder contemporary or when the younger is in such awe that he fails to contribute his own ideas. Hall and Metheny, however, are confident and empathetic, and their generational differences add a unique dimension to the project.

The seemingly ageless Metheny, 44, is still so innovative that his maturity enhances his creativity. It never dulls his spirit. But since Hall, 69, is one of Metheny's idols and key influences, it would have been easy for the younger to have settled for just an accompaniment role on this album of duets. But Metheny doesn't, perhaps because both men are kindred spirits. Both have revolutionized jazz guitar: Hall with his amazing precision and use of understatement, Metheny with his unique tone and open melodic style. Both are adventurous players who between them have traversed fusion, bebop, avant-garde, third stream and bossa nova. They are both also superior composers.

From the opening bars of the album's first track, Hall's "Lookin' Up," it's clear that Hall and Metheny have a relaxed, natural rapport. Their tones and styles are complementary and they are seemingly always on the same page, so to speak, even when taking unusual turns. No matter where one player is going, the other is right there to provide the right support. That creates a large comfort zone, which allows each guitarist to be adventurous with full knowledge that the other one is in sync. It's that comfortable, laid-back aura that sparks many brilliant flourishes throughout the album.

Two examples of the duo's give and take are "The Birds and the Bees" and "Summertime." On these two songs, Metheny plays acoustic and Hall electric. The contrasting sounds of their guitars makes more dynamic colors than when both play electric. "Birds" features a constant exchange of ideas, as the two guitarists double the melody, trade sections of it and then nicely comp for each other. The bouncy performance is a textbook example of two musicians creating an arrangement designed to convey music, not egos.

"Summertime" opens with Metheny's riffing chords in characteristic fashion while Hall hits on the melody. Hall's solo is typically sublime as he communicates complex thoughts with only a few notes, something most shredders never articulate. Showing no ego at all, Hall appropriately lays out when Metheny goes on a dense chord-cluster filled solo, which has a mid-western flavor to it. When Hall finally restates the melody and then improvises simple statements over Metheny's backdrop, it's nothing short of exhilarating.

Hall and Metheny are two of the best lyrical players on the scene and when they play ballads, their melodic sensibilities shine. On "Farmer's Trust," each solo is graceful and even hummable. Their comping is restrained, and this track is hardly a technique festival, but that's not the point. It's the communication of a pensive melody. Listen to this track and before it's over you will notice that your world has slowed down and that you are more reflective. Hall and Metheny convey that type of atmosphere so well.

As their resumes suggest, both guitarists are versatile, and on this outing they venture into each other's territory. Hall's "Cold Spring" starts with a third-stream type melody, but quickly breaks down into bebop. Metheny, who doesn't play bop often, plays this stuff like a pro, and adds his distinctive licks to the mix. Metheny also bites off the groove with some authority. It's purely his solo space here, compliments of Hall.

"Into the Dream" is one of Metheny's far-eastern influenced atmospheric soundscapes. It's less about hot soloing, more about establishing a sonic mood as Metheny plays his 42-string Pikasso guitar underneath Hall's melodic statements. Hall's bop inflections, which quickly turn into avant-garde riffs, add another dimension to a piece that is more ambient than something that would be a springboard for jazz improvisation. But that's how well Hall and Metheny work together.

Among the album's 17 selections are five improvisations. They are notable not for their solid grooves or well-developed thoughts, but because they show the duo's telepathy. No matter where one is going, the other seems to sense it, which might be normal if they had been playing together for years. But Hall and Metheny rarely play together. How do they do it? Kindred spirits indeed. (Paul J. MacArthur)


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