Notable country album releases -- Alanna Nash reviews the latest music from James House, Tammy Wynette, Randy Travis, and more

Cowboy Songs

Notable country album releases

Hard Times for an Honest Man (MCA; CD, T)
With the release last year of his self-titled debut album, James House positioned himself as one of country music’s most promising shiny-eyed newcomers. Rife with rockabilly rhythms and thrilling songs of passion and substance, the release nonetheless failed to scale the charts. Now, on this follow-up, House goes slightly more for the radio-requisite melodic hooks than he does for poetic sensitivity, although he reprises ”Hard Times for an Honest Man” from the first album. That song is probably as much a personal statement about his career as it is a tribute to his family (”Where do you go/When you’ve got everything you wanted/Just not everything you need?”). Backed by smart and stylized playing, House moves through a fast-paced and diverse program of original material that pays homage to his heroes. The ballad ”Because You’re Mine” sounds eerily reminiscent of Roy Orbison; the rocking ”I Wanna Be the One” evokes the fashionable sound of Buddy Holly. Much of House’s music is hard-edged and bluesy, and all of it is embued with moral strength and the kind of sensual masculinity that proves unthreatened by vulnerable situations. A

Heart Over Mind (Epic; CD, T)
Faced with a myriad of personal problems and the changing taste of country music fans, Tammy Wynette has been down in recent years, but never truly out. Known for the sob in her voice, Wynette long ago discovered that her appeal is really as much cultural as it is musical, since the bulk of her fans are blue-collar women who look to her records to mirror their lives. This time out, she gives them a solid set of songs on the theme of making it alone after separation and divorce. From the intelligent ballad ”Just for a Minute There,” about the pain of loneliness, to the uptempo pluck of ”I’m Turning You Loose,” Wynette displays her mastery of emotional nuance and shadings, marred only by formulaic production. B+

Cowboy Songs (Warner Bros.; CD, T)
Honky Tonk Heart (Rykodisc; CD, T)
Just as cowboys come in all shapes, sizes, and attitudes, so does the music they make. Michael Martin Murphey, who’s ridden many musical ranges in his three-decade career, has always loved traditional cowboy lore best, and here he compiles 21 examples of the genre, most of them familiar (”Red River Valley,” ”Home on the Range”). Joined by Tammy Wynette, Suzy Boggus, and Highway 101, he turns in a lovely, low-key performance, evoking a spiritual quality on such tunes as ”O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” B+

Chris Wall, who works out of Austin, Tex., Murphey’s old stomping ground, is a cowboy of a more modern variety. A protégé of Jerry Jeff Walker, Wall is an offbeat tunesmith whose music on this debut hangs out around smelly barrooms and third-rate rodeos, chasing ”Trashy Women” and looking for the kind of love that stays around as long as an anxious tumbleweed (”Her lips were ripe with promise/But her tongue was just a tease”). Rough-hewn, clever, and ingratiating, Wall is a standout in the Texas school of gonzo songwriting. B+

Heroes and Friends (Warner Bros.; all formats)
Faced with a strong stable of new competitors, Randy Travis apparently decided to sit back and do something safe while he contemplated his next move. That meant cutting an album of duets with established superstars, such as George Jones and Willie Nelson, and throwing in some mighty odd choices, such as Clint Eastwood and B.B. King, hoping they’d hog-tie a different breed of buyer. The guests show up more to bolster Travis’ profile than to actually perform full-out. But when Loretta Lynn’s glorious voice, more soulful than God, comes soaring in on ”Shopping for Dresses,” young Travis comes undone. At that moment, faced with a true performance to play against, he might as well go back to frying catfish for a living. D+

Cowboy Songs
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