Through the '90s and beyond, Amarillo's Groobees have been doing the Panhandle proud with their mega-contagious mix of pop polish, folk songcraft and porch-swing twang. Vicarious success struck the band from big sky country in 1998, with the triumph of the Dixie Chicks' recording of Groobee co-vocalist Susan Gibson's "Wide Open Spaces." The next year, the band released its own version of the tune on a self-titled CD. While that disc was critically well received and an Americana hit, some complained that it failed to bottle the group's live magic.

Its latest, Buy One, Get Eleven Free, has no such shortcoming. Seldom has a studio CD played so live. While this endeavor does seem deliberate, it doesn't feel forced. Ubiquitous producer Lloyd Maines, who also handled the first release, got it right this time.

So much for the ambience; what about the music? The disc first seduces us with its canny hooks, and then enamors us with its deep substance. Gibson's lyrics are as personal and (dread word) introspective as any in music today, but her delivery is ballsy, so to speak, and woe-is-me-free. It's nearly impossible to imagine a Jewel or a Sarah McLachlan commanding, like Gibson does on "My Best Feature": "Take a look at this big ol' butt / you know I got a great big heart."

While Gibson's numbers lean toward soaring prog-country sounds à la the Dixie Chicks, Scott Melott (the other singing Groobee) showcases an eclectic grab bag of styles, ranging from honky-tonk ("Cheap Trucker Speed") to various zydeco fusions ("Ballad of an Opening Band"). ("Perfect World," sung by Gibson, fuses the bayou and the Panhandle in a new genre: zydebilly.) On the Melott-sung pieces, the band is earthy and low-down, while on Gibson's tunes, it seems almost celestial. It's a rare group that can simultaneously have its feet on the ground and its head in the stars, but the Groobees are plainly that group.

If mainstream country radio were run by smart people, Buy One would be the heartland's summer soundtrack. Unfortunately, country radio is run by people who would much rather churn out, in H.L. Mencken's phrase, "undifferentiated musical protoplasm, choking on its own effluvia." Leave 'em to it, we say. We'll be listening to Buy One, Get Eleven Free on tape.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax