The Mystery of Mary Sarah: Country Music's Next Star?

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Many critics believe that for the past few years, country music has been experiencing the kind of artistic bankruptcy that comes along once in a generation. But now something odd is happening, and the unlikely catalyst is a teenager from Fort Bend County who once confessed her "MAJOR" crush on Justin Bieber to this very blog.

Next week, Cleopatra Records will release Bridges, an album featuring 18-year-old Richmond native Mary Sarah dueting with a clutch of Country Music Hall of Famers including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and the late Ray Price. Also on hand are near-Hall of Famers like the Oak Ridge Boys (her early champions), Ronnie Milsap, Lynn Anderson, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich (ahem) and a few others.

Frankly, Mary Sarah looks and sounds an awful lot like Carrie Underwood: All-American cheerleader good looks and a voice blessed with not only perfect pitch but dynamic range (which, unlike Underwood, she doesn't overuse). On Bridges, she goes well beyond holding her own against some of the greatest talents in country-music history -- most of whom are admittedly getting on in years -- and pretty much steals the show.

But this is no stunt record. Just about anyone who has been to a karaoke bar knows how easy it can be to screw up a song like "Crazy," but the young singer delivers that tune, and others even more difficult to sing, with real musicianship that matches that of her elders. Less surprisingly, she also gives many songs a pronounced youthful zip that once or twice rescues some pretty dated material from the old-folks' home.

Of the 12 songs here, Mary Sarah knocks at least a half-dozen of them out of the park: "Jolene" with Dolly Parton; "Crazy" with Nelson; "The Fightin' Side of Me" with Haggard; "Heartaches By the Number" with the late Ray Price; and "Rose Garden" with Lynn Anderson. Even agnostics and atheists might start to squirm when they hear the heights she and Gill take "Go Rest High On That Mountain."

Others, like "Texas When I Die" with Tanya Tucker, aren't far off the pace. If there are any missteps here, it's that some of the most adult-contemporary arrangements like "What a Difference You've Made In My Life" (with Milsap) and "Where the Boys Are" (with Paul Anka) are just irredeemably hokey; unlike "Crazy," some music should have stayed in the early '60s. (But Mary Sarah loves "Where the Boys Are," so there you go.) On the other hand, one of the nicest surprises here is Big & Rich's "The Great Escape," which has none of the flamboyance you might expect from the "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" duo and is instead a thoughtfully understated Haggardesque ballad.

Bridges certainly has its heart in the right place. It's dedicated to Freddy Powers, the longtime Austin singer-songwriter and an old running buddy of Haggard's, who spotted Sarah early on and basically set this whole project in motion. Their tender closing duet, "All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song," could choke up your average stone-faced DPS state trooper. (Now battling Parkinson's disease, Powers is also credited as an executive producer on the album.)

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It's a little hard not to think about LeAnn Rimes when listening to Bridges. In the past, whether by blind luck or a carefully orchestrated marketing plan, there has usually been room to slip a traditional tune onto the charts every so often. Of course Rimes did it when she came out of nowhere in 1996 with "Blue," and Martina McBride had a big hit with "Rose Garden" a decade later. But the question now is, has country music simply changed too much for artists like Mary Sarah to matter anymore?

Today it's dominated by watercraft-obsessed alpha-jocks who have trouble seeing past the tailgates of their pickups and have consumed a few too many cold ones to drive them anyway. It's a little hard to imagine Mary Sarah parading around in the kind of short-shorts that would get Jerrod Niemann or Brantley Gilbert's attention.

And among today's top female vocalists, what few there are on Nashville's A-list anymore, Underwood has listened to too many Faith Hill CDs and Miranda Lambert has downloaded one too many of the wrong Dixie Chicks songs. Kacey Musgraves might still have a fightin' chance, but let's see what happens after she spends all summer on tour with Katy Perry. There's also Sheryl Crow, now also a leading CMA contender and a prime example of the mountain moving to Mohammed. Aside from Parton, it's hard to detect much influence from the kind of singers Mary Sarah reveres in the lot of them.

That said, Mary Sarah certainly has the social-media stats to make her a contender: 96,000-plus Twitter followers and some 46K Facebook likes. Rocks Off has had the good fortune to interview her a few times, most recently in April 2012 before she sang the National Anthem at an Astros game. She really is as sweet as can be, with the kind of effervescent charm that's impossible to fake and even harder to deny. We still can't believe she told us in January 2011 that she would beat Bieber in a sing-off; then again, she totally would.

And you never know: "Rose Garden" might have enough drive to draw some ears on a few unusually nostalgic modern country stations; likewise for Americana radio and the haunting "Jolene" duet. Parton was reportedly the first star to sign on; Mary Sarah's father/manager, Richard, says thus far classic-country radio has been receptive to his daughter's music.

Whether or not it's with this particular set of tunes, Bridges makes it clear that Mary Sarah is going to be a star someday. Whenever that comes to pass, it won't be happening to a nicer person -- or a better singer.

Mary Sarah performs Thursday evening at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. Showtime is 7:30 p.m., but tables are probably going to be pretty hard to come by.


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