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March 1, 1995

Tulare Dust

Tulare DustTulare Dust: A Songwriter's Tribute to Merle Haggard (Hightone Records 1994) -- Long-time Bakersfield resident, Merle Haggard (who now mans the headquarters for Hag, Inc. in Lake Shasta), is the latest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In recognition of this honor, musicians Tom Russell and Dave Alvin assembled 15 artists for this aptly-titled tribute. As the artists reveal, there's a true poetry and journalism to Haggard's songs that make them unique among country music.

Now 30 years into his career, Haggard has long displayed a flair for storytelling and wry commentaries on the state of society. From songs like "Okie from Muskogee" to "Ramblin' Fever" to "They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down," Haggard has a unique and insightful way of exposing the trials and tribulations of modern life, especially from a simpler, more-countrified viewpoint.

Tom Russell feels it's a crime that Haggard has been ignored in recent years while Johnny Cash has enjoyed a major career renaissance. For example, Haggard's latest disc, 1994 (released by Curb Records), was a terrific but much-overlooked collection that looked both backward and forward at the same time. Says Russell, "We opened the trapdoor of Haggard's catalog and rediscovered a hundred great songs."

The artists on Tulare Dust, who include could-have-been-a-pop star Marshall Crenshaw ("Silver Wings"), honey-voiced Rosie Flores ("My Own Kind of Hat"), and country star Dwight Yoakam ("Holding Things Together"), truly capture Haggard's spirit.

Russell adds, "I'm confident this record goes beyond the boundaries that cripple most tribute records. You can listen to this album more than once [Randy's note -- Amen to that], and it might prompt you to search out those old Haggard LPs and remember the days when 'country' wasn't an embarrassing word. Haggard and Billy Joe Shaver are the last of a rare breed of country songwriters. Let us now praise famous men."

From the glorious opening cut by Tom Russell ("They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down"), which is about the changes Haggard discovered in his native Bakersfield following his release from prison, through country-rocker Joe Ely's get-down reading of the classic trucking song, "White Line Fever," to Iris DeMent's plaintive bluegrass version of "Big City," these 15 songs display what Haggard terms "the guy I'd like to be and the guy I am, and the somewhere in-between. In deep water, you know. Swimming to the other side."

There's a special appeal to Tulare Dust for those of us living in the Central Valley. With his country roots and strong storytelling technique, Haggard has always been able to touch local hearts. Find this tribute, and watch for the upcoming Tulare Dust show at Club Fred (date TBA); it's sure to be a treat.

No QuarterJimmy Page & Robert Plant, No Quarter: Unledded (Atlantic 1994) -- Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, half of the famed Led Zeppelin, finally participated in an outright "reunion" 15 years after the demise of the band. The result is this 75-minute "unplugged" disc, which was recorded on location in Marrakesh, Wales, and London. Though there's no explanation why member John Paul Jones wasn't also invited to the party, No Quarter features spirited reworkings of old classics, and shows that the magic's still there.

Led Zeppelin was always a ground-breaking group, and Unledded proves that Page & Plant have continued to evolve. Originally deeply steep in the blues, the band emerged in the early 70s as the prototype heavy metal act (or, as Robert Plant says, they were the kings of "cock rock"). Ever restless, the band expanded into world music by drawing in North African and other eclectic musical influences, which culminated in such classic releases as Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti.

Following the death in 1980 of bonzo drummer, John Bonhom, the foursome disbanded. While bass player John Paul Jones has primarily restricted his post-Zeppelin activities to production work, singer Plant and guitarist Page have enjoyed active (if somewhat erratic) solo careers, with Plant being the most active. Plant's last album, Fate of Nations, featured Francis Dunnery on guitar, and was a solid effort.

Obviously, the material on No Quarter is lodged deep in the souls of Page & Plant. For the album's 13 cuts, the pair recruited a new band, together with the assistance of an Egyptian ensemble and the London Metropolitan Orchestra. The songs sound fresh and lively, and show that the duo's musical collaboration has grown and matured over the years.

In addition to bluesy cuts like "Nobody's Fault but Mine" and "No Quarter," the album includes more rocking numbers such as "Friends" and "Gallows Pole." The highlight of the disc is a rousing, 12-minute version of "Kashmir" that's every bit as challenging and spirited as the original version.

No Quarter is a prime example of how a reunion show should be handled; gather talented musicians who still have a creative love for their songs, and turn them loose. No Quarter isn't the landmark work that was represented by 70s Led Zeppelin, but it's no slouch. Get it, and rock steady.

The Fountain of Inspiration -- "'Runaround Sue' was written about a chick named Dolores. She was the neighborhood whore. At the time I couldn't get anything to rhyme with it, other than Lavoris and clitoris, so we wrote it about Sue."

-- Randy Krbechek

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