"Have you ever noticed that the most through and through country artists
inevitably have big, thick characteristic voices? (You thought I was going to
say boots, didn’t you?) You simply can’t get by with the corniest of lyrics,
the simplest of melodies, three chords, a twangy guitar and a stomp or two with
those flashy boots, if you’ve got the vocal pipes of Milli Vanilli.
There are some truly rare voices on this soundtrack performing some not so
rare bucolic melodies. Good, wholesome, honest, downhome tunes of the pure
country variety. But hardly rare, sophisticated or thoroughly accessible to an
Not all the country music we’ve been exposed to in recent times has been
particularly pure. All manner of hybrids have surfaced on the charts that are
less country and western than country with a pop sensibility. The top-40 radio
friendly tunes of Shania Twain and co. have a lot more gloss than the raw and
rustic numbers to be found here.
Willie Nelson, however, is one of those extraordinary artists who defy genre.
Even those who would generally rank ninety minutes of nails scratching down a
blackboard as a preferable listening experience to a full-on country music album
should be able to find something touching in the old warbler’s richly
communicative style. The Great Divide is an archetype of his inimitable
approach. Songwriter, singer and guitarist lose their lines of demarcation as
his minimalist arpeggios and seemingly careless yet poignant phrases drift out
with an immediacy that bridges the gap between composition and realisation. It
is as if he is improvising the song, right now, just for the listener. However
many times you listen to it, it will always seem the first.
Neko Case has a voice that couldn’t be more different to Nelson’s gruff
and mellow purr. But she too breaks the shackles of style with extraordinarily
clear, powerful and yodel inflected performances that strike at emotions with
unapologetic intensity. Here she has two contributions, Furnace Room Lullaby and
Pretty Girls that simply demand attention with their searing energy.
More particular to taste are the broad accents and straightforward singin’
and strummin’ of old classics from the likes of Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn
and Lee Hazlewood. All magnificent voices of course, which guarantees their
immortality however kitsch the ravages of time have rendered them. There’s
nothing subtle about the layers of twang and resonance in Hazlewood’s tone as
he monologues the infinite sentimentality of “it’s a town called trouble,
and trouble is a lonesome town”, or Lynn’s plaintive “honey, daddy can’t
ever come back to us, but we can go to him”. No, they ain’t subtle but the
performances sure are special.
There are also two brief extracts from Christopher Young’s score. Edgy and
dissonant yet absolutely engaging violins-a little reminiscent of Carter Burwell’s
work for the Coen Brother. Highly interesting but too short on this disc to be
Overall, a solid collection of trad and timeless tunes of American frontiers.
But not withstanding the genre-defying gems of Nelson and Case, best recommended
to those partial to an unalloyed rustic twang."
Published May 10, 2001