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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Country and Rock: An Unstable Marriage

    Alison Kraus and Robert Plant: Raising Sand (Rounder)

    David Bromberg: Live New York City 1982 (Appleseed Records)

    The John Henrys: Sweet as the Grain. (True North Records)

    Rock’s always had a bit of a perverse fascination with country music. I’m mean, rock and roll’s origins have one foot firmly planted in country and western (and the other in black blues and jazz).

    Sometimes, it works brilliantly – think of Elvis, or of the mellow Eagles soaring harmonies, or the slightly more psychedelic Flying Burrito Brothers in their Nudie suits or the Grateful Dead spinoffs New Riders of the Purple Sage. In the late 1980s, punk rockers discovered country, and the results were electrifying — think Long Ryders, or my favorite band of the era Green on Red.

    The movement works less well, in my opinion, in the other direction. Country likes rock’s grandiose pomposity, the big arenas and the pyrotechnics, but the sensibility is always off.

    A few recent releases limn the boundaries between country and rock so well they deserve a serious listen.

    The vocal marriage of Alison Kraus and Robert Plant doesn’t immediately sound like a match made in musical heaven. After all, this is the guy who screamed and crooned “Stairway to Heaven” for rock’s hardest rockers, and she’s a bluegrass sweetheart, more comfortable with fiddles than ferocity.

    Yet there is something magical in this collaboration. Maybe it’s that hot academic topic, “hybridity” – the marriage of unlikely pairings into new syntheses. Maybe it’s just that coming from different ends of the spectrum, they actually share a lot — they met singing in a cabaret performance of Leadbelly’s songs, after all.

    But under the production genius of T-Bone Burnett (who scored “O, Brother Where Art Thou?”), Kraus and Plant unite: his voice is less grouchy and gravely, hers less syrupy sweet, their songs often plaintive and yearning and always heartfelt.

    On the other side of the ledger, there’s David Bromberg, the legendary New York Jewish boy who fell in love with traditional country music and filled in the frills all around Bob Dylan for years. As a solo artist, Bromberg’s always been aware of both his and the music’s limits, so he hams it up — his vocals are always growly and slightly sardonic, his picking just this side of out of control.

    This CD is a relic of a 1982 concert in New York, includes some superb examples of a fertile folky imagination. Undiluted by anything even vaguely resembling sweet, Bromberg remains an unrepentant traditionalist – and we’re all better off for it.

    The Canadian band, The John Henrys, sound like the real country and western deal, but the vocals are a bit too straining and the pedal steel guitars just too twangy so they sound like their reaching for authenticity has an element of parody. You know, like that unctuous fake-friend in high school who was so nice to you to your face and made fun of your behind your back? Sounds perfect? Nudge nudge. They’re both playing, and “playing at” the music — self-conscious but never dismissive or condescending.

    And that, it seems to me, is the best way for rock and rollers to engage with country music. Well, that and a Bourbon chaser.

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