Album Review

Various Artists - A Country West Of Nashville

Various Artists - A Country West Of Nashville

The latest from Dwight Yoakam producer/guitarist Pete Anderson's Little Dog label is posited as a sort of cousin to A Town South Of Bakersfield, the acclaimed late-'80 series on Enigma/Restless that documented Los Angeles' country-music underground of that era. Only this time out, as the title suggests, the scope has been widened drastically to showcase music spanning half of the country. The criteria: artists could have "no major record deal," and "couldn't live in Nashville." The implication: The battle over Music City's continued stranglehold over the definition of country music -- however trite at this point -- is still one worth fighting. Ten artists fit the bill, starting with '70s-era hitmaker B.J. Thomas ("Hooked On A Feeling," "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head"), who delivers the charming and countrypolitan-colored "Nashville Rain" (apparently Anderson was willing to overlook the titular faux-pas). Similarly smooth approaches are found elsewhere, notably on tracks by Eugene Edwards of Yuma, Arizona's and Brandon Jenkins of Norman, Oklahoma. More edgy sounds come from Austin stalwarts Reckless Kelly, with the Buddy Miller/Steve Earle-esque "I Saw It Coming" (apparently the band's new label, Sugar Hill, falls below Anderson's "major record deal" definition), and L.A.'s recently AWOL country-punker Cisco, whose "Say A Prayer" channels Rod Stewart's "Maggie May". Meanwhile, former Low & Sweet Orchestra frontman Mike Martt, with a weathered voice and indie-rock disillusion, delivers the collection's most affecting work with the ragged folk of "Bobby Kennedy", a defiant look at the underbelly of the American Dream. The salience of Martt's contribution also exposes one of this compilation's difficulties: It is largely unchallenging. Pleasant is more like it. Stranger still is how an album with a title that implies some sort of defining characteristic is a seemingly arbitrary 37 minutes of mostly country music. By the time you get to the last track, Sherri Stanlyn's jazz-vocal number "Lazy Balloon", you can't help but wonder: There weren't enough country artists outside of Nashville to complete the collection? Hardly the statement that appears to have been intended.