Out There

I sing the body electric
Blessed or Damned
Dale Watson
HighTone Records

Semi Crazy
Junior Brown
Curb Records

Somewhere out past the countrypolitan glow of big-city lights, past even the Fogelberg-fertilized fields of Young Country, there's a place where the beer lights shine preternaturally bright and the pool balls send off blue sparks whenever they collide. It's a place where everybody, even Al Jourgensen, looks good in a cowboy hat and drives a mid-'50s Chevy pickup. It's a place of heightened country, and it's called Electric Leftyland in honor of Mrs. Frizzell's boy and the good ol' boys who came after him.

There are many heroes in Electric Leftyland, and two of their acolytes, Dale Watson and Junior Brown, step up with two very different releases unified by a sense of guitar twang as sharp as the bite of a tenor bullwhip. Watson's Blessed or Damned continues his homage to Bakersfield a la vintage Merle Haggard: the wishful thinking of a guy living the straight life ("Truckin' Man"), love thwarted by circumstances that just cannot be mitigated ("Sweet Jessie Brown," Watson's "Irma Jackson" without the racial angle), and the usual heartbreakers, buckle-polishers, and trucker's favorites. Like Haggard, Watson possesses a simple--but hardly simplistic--literacy that pays off first in images, then in connectivity; unlike Hag, there's no ugly side to his country pride.

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Junior Brown continues to confound those who would write him off as a one-trick pony--a phenomenally entertaining, awesomely accomplished one-trick pony, yes, but still a guy who nonetheless sounds the same each time out--with Semi Crazy, another dose of Ernest Tubb-loving attitude from a wry smartass with Hendrix chops. In between his standard "Gotta Get Up Every Morning" and show-closing crowd-pleaser "Surf Medley," Brown continues to sharpen his wordplay ("Venom Wearin' Denim"), celebrate the working man ("Joe the Singing Janitor"), and resuscitate the odd novelty (Hoagie Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues").

He joins truck-drivin'-genre king Red Simpson for a duet on the title track, acknowledging that there's more to life (or country music, if they're indeed two different things) than ol' E.T. And if the ever-present danger in vying for the hearts of those who dwell in Electric Leftyland is that you overplay your hand and come off like some computer-generated, theme-park overstatement (see Marty Stuart), then Brown and Watson know that sure and subtle aren't mutually exclusive. For those who like their young country to mind its elders, this is where the rubber truly meets the road.

--Matt Weitz

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