Honky-Tonk Women: Shania Twain and Wynonna Judd
While country-popster Twain gets downright down-homey on her inviting new album, Judd abandons her country roots for clumsy blues
Back during the big country boom of a few years ago, there was a lot of hopeful talk in Nashville circles about how the rest of the world had ”gone country.” For a while, there were so many cowboy hats at the top of the pop charts that it seemed only a matter of time before Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire would become crossover stars on the order of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
But country’s dip into the mainstream didn’t go quite as swimmingly as predicted. Sure, Nashville continued to send albums into the pop top 10, but many of them — particularly those by younger stars like Wynonna — were only a little bit country and a whole lot rock & roll. With a growing fondness for boogie licks, crunchy guitars, and harmonies that owed more to the Eagles than the Jordanaires, Music Row wasn’t waiting around for the mountain to come to it; instead, it had given up and gone to the mountain.
No album articulated that shift more adroitly than Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me. Produced by album-rock vet Robert John ”Mutt” Lange, it boasted the same hard-rock sheen he brought to Bryan Adams and Def Leppard, a sound that — combined with the boudoir feminism of Twain’s lyrics — spoke directly to the suburban contingent of the country-music market. It may not have been the way Hank done it, but it helped The Woman in Me move more than 9 million copies.
Maybe that’s why industry pundits expected Come On Over to further Twain’s push into the pop market. After all, if she could sell such numbers on the strength of a few videos on CMT, imagine what she’d do with MTV behind her.
But as the title suggests, Twain would rather the mountain come on over to her. Never mind the ”Spirit In the Sky” guitar riff growling beneath ”Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” or the ”We Will Rock You” beat that powers the verses in ”Honey, I’m Home” — deep down, these are all country songs at heart, and that’s precisely the way Twain treats them.
”Honey, I’m Home” is, in fact, a perfect example of how superficial Twain’s rock trappings are. Apart from some bluesy fiddle at the beginning, the hate-my-job verses are set up like a Def Leppard single, with the drums loud, the guitars hot, and the arrangement building tension so determinedly that by the time she gets to the chorus, you halfway expect her to roar, ”Pour some sugar on me … ” Instead, as she announces ”Honey, I’m home, and I had a hard day,” the band breaks into a sweet, simple two-step, all gitt-ar pickin’ and whining pedal steel. Though the contrast is disorienting at first, it’s not hard to get the point — it may be a big, brash, rock world out there, but home is where the twang is.
That isn’t the only way in which Twain maintains her down-home sensibility. Her songs are rife with Nashville puns (like ”Whatever You Do! Don’t!”) and heartland sentimentality, and she’s not above slipping into a drawl when a lyric demands. But at the same time, she’s sure enough of her footing that Lange has no need to countrify every arrangement for credibility’s sake. So even though her big duet with Bryan White, ”From This Moment On,” is as string-drenched and synth-heavy as any ’80s power ballad, it seems as suited to Twain’s neo-Nashville aesthetic as the high-tech honky-tonk feel of ”If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!” or the cajun-style ”Love Gets Me Every Time.”
Of course, it may simply be that making country music out of rock & roll is easier than trying to rock your way out of Nashville. Just look at the trouble Wynonna has trying to remake herself as a younger Bonnie Raitt with The Other Side.
As with Twain’s album, the title tells the story. This is Wynonna’s bluesy side, the one that never quite came across as she was being groomed for country stardom, and by pursuing it, she seems as determined to shed the Nashville sound as Twain is to reinvent it. Big mistake. Wynonna may be a lifelong pro, but she sings the blues like an amateur, relying more on bent-note growls than emotional credibility. It’s as if she thought the advice ”you gotta suffer … ” was meant for the audience.
Ironically enough, the only thing keeping the album from being utterly unlistenable is the quality of the arrangements. There’s enough boogie-guitar momentum to ”The Other Side” and ”The Wyld Unknown” to make the vocal overkill almost bearable, while Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s guitar solo in ”Don’t You Throw That Mojo on Me” almost compensates for how laughable the song itself is. Sure, cowgirls get the blues, but as Wynonna makes plain, they don’t always know what to do with them. Come On Over: B+; The Other Side: D