Nashville now

Can Music City save country from Music Row?

If the roll call of the new Music City seems heavily laden with testosterone, fear not. Just as it's been the women in country during this decade who have generally made the more interesting and adventurous commercial country albums--I'll take Shania over Garth any day--it could also be the women bubbling under in Nashville's new country scene who take the day. Former major-label singer Joy Lynn White's The Lucky Few on Little Dog Records, Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson's indie, was a criminally overlooked gem packed with winning material sung with awesome authority. It fulfilled the promise of earlier country work by Rosanne Cash and step-sister Carlene Carter, and marked White as the logical '90s successor to Linda Ronstadt's country-rock mantle of the 1970s.

This year's South by Southwest offered a first preview of a singer who may be the great white, red-haired, and gorgeous hope for some kind of paradigm shift on Music Row: Allison Moorer, who can currently be heard on the brilliant, brand-new soundtrack to The Horse Whisperer. The sister of Shelby Lynne (and the secret sauce on much of Lonesome Bob's LP), the 24-year-old Moorer reiterated with awesome force in her all-too-short set the simple yet potent merits of the great singer and the great song. With nary a concession to modern country-pop showmanship (which often tends to be of the most ingratiatingly tacky kind), she would lean into the mike, close her eyes, and the deliver her self-penned tunes--modern carvings from the sturdiest old country-music oaks--as though they were prayers of redemption. With her pipes and material, she just may have the power to slip through to the mainstream on artistic power alone (and her good looks certainly won't hurt that process).

Moorer hopes that her admiration for older, quality country can find its place in the Nashville commercial pantheon. "We love that stuff; we live and breathe that stuff," says Moorer, speaking for herself and for husband and co-writer Butch Primm. "If we can reflect the spirit of that music, part of our job is done. We really do feel an allegiance, and I sort of feel a responsibility to keep that spirit alive, because country music is sort of a beautiful, pure form. That's what I like, and that's why I choose to do what I sing and write.

"I feel like people in Nashville are ready for something fresh, not that I think I'm it at all. I've never considered myself to be fringe, but I guess I am," she laughs. "I feel like my music is just as straight-ahead as anything can be."

But then, all you have to do is tune in to country radio to start singing again that same old refrain: Nashville sucks. The tightly controlled, overly cozy, and almost cult-like rigidity of the major-label Music Row system is still a major part of the problem with country music today. But the solution may well be right there in Music City, outside their back doors, on the other side of the alley.

Cheri Knight performs April 16 at the Dark Room. 6 String Drag performs April 17 at the Dark Room, and the V-Roys open for Junior Brown the same night at the Gypsy Tea Room.

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