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Dolly PartonDolly Parton, The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill Records 1999) - Dolly Parton achieved big success with her strong vocals and friendly persona. On The Grass Is Blue, Dolly returns to her Appalachian roots to deliver a 13-song bluegrass collection.

The musicians on The Grass is Blue are a strong lot, including Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Sam Bush on mandolin, Barry Bales on bass, Jim Mills on banjo, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. Joining Dolly as guest harmony vocalists are Rhonda Vincent, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, and Dan Tyminski.

Dolly PartonThe end result is a subdued set. The album includes four songs written by Dolly herself, as well as tracks written by Lester Flatt ("I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open"), Johnny Cash ("I Still Miss Someone"), and Hazel Dickens ("A Few Old Memories").

Yet despite the strong playing and clean vocals, the album tends to drag. There's too much focus on an authentic bluegrass sound, and too little focus on Dolly's endearing personality. In the end, The Grass Is Blue is less than it could have been.

Night and DayWillie Nelson, Night and Day (Pedernales Records 1999) - Night and Day is an all-instrumental collection from the under-appreciated Willie Nelson. With 10 tracks, framed by Willie's distinctive guitar sound, Night and Day is a user-friendly collection.

In my book, Willie Nelson gets but a fraction of the acclaim that he deserves. Now in his mid-60s, Willie is one of America's best stylists, who has helped define the Texas troubadour genre much as the great Bob Wills helped define Western Swing.

Willie NelsonNight and Day has an effortless feel, almost akin to jazz stylings. Says Willie, "I always love these songs. When I was playing every night in Texas you had to play a lot of these tunes, the folks wanted to hear them . . . sometimes twice a night."

The tracks on Night and Day include "Honeysuckle Rose," a fine version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," and the classic, "Night and Day" (by Cole Porter).

Also included are a couple of tunes associated with the Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhard, "Vous Et Moi" and "Nuages," which lead off the album. Says Willie, "I think that Django was the greatest guitarist that ever lived. I love the music and really tried to do him justice. He was just incredible, the things he could do, and with just two fingers, you know."

The bandBacking Willie on the album are Mickey Raphael on harmonica, sister Bobbi Nelson on piano, Jody Payne on acoustic guitar, Bee Spears on bass, Billy English on percussion, and Paul English on drums. Also appearing is legendary fiddle player Johnny Gimble. Says Willie, "Johnny and I go back a long, long way. He's from the same part of Texas that I'm from and we played many, many nights together when we were coming up."

Willie Nelson deserves a lot more respect than he gets. Listen to Night and Day.

Chris GainesChris Gaines, Greatest Hits (Capitol 1999) - Confused? Uncertain? Yes, I am. Because country superstar Garth Brooks has adopted a soft pop persona as "Chris Gaines," complete with fictitious biography.

That's right. Despite selling 95 million records (a staggering total, second only to the Beatles),
Garth Brooks has donned an alternative persona for his new album, which was produced by Don Was. Chris Gaines is said to be a tie-in to a feature film in production for next year (thus, the album is subtitled, "The Pre-Soundtrack to the Movie 'The Lamb'").

One of the hitsAccording to the liner notes,
Chris Gaines is an Australian recording star, with numerous albums to his credit during a 15-year career.

Gaines, like
Brooks himself, has enjoyed large success, including an alleged Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and a 1990 release (Fornucopia), which is fictitiously-stated to have debuted at No. 1, and "spent a combined 18 weeks on top of the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart."

Greatest Hits, Garth worked with songwriters Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and Tommy Simms, the trio who wrote Eric Clapton's Grammy-winning "Change the World."

Who is this?The three musicians built their reputation in Nashville's contemporary Christian community, and the core of the
Chris Gaines band - Kennedy, Simms, and drummer Chris McHugh - played in the late 80s lineup of Christian rockers White Heart.

What to make of all this?
Greatest Hits is soft pop, circa late 70s Kenny Loggins. Despite Gaines' dark appearance, the album is smooth pop throughout, with synthesizers and strings. Acknowledges Brooks, "Strange stuff, I know. But you have to hear the music to understand."

Will the real Garth Brooks please step up?One of the catchier songs is "Right Now," which combines elements of the
Youngbloods' mellow classic, "Get Together," with a spoken-word rap taken from Cheryl Wheeler's "If It Were Up to Me" (which received airplay after the Columbine High School shootings). And "Digging for Gold" is passable, drawing from the Fleetwood Mac sound of Tusk.

Brooks has stated that he will not perform live as Gaines, nor will he sing the new songs at his concerts. Argues Brooks, "Truthfully, this is acting. This is hard. The other stuff, the Garth stuff, it just happens, it's fun. This is work."

Garth in dragWhile tracks like "Snow in July" are well-crafted pop numbers, there's something
different here. Says Brooks, "I stayed out of the studio on all the sessions, let the musicians do their thing, then I'd just go in and sing. I'd have somebody else sing the vocal rough so I could see if that's the style we agreed on, or if they wanted to take on that style. In addition, the musicians cut everything in keys way above my range. A lot of this was a stretch for me."

And for the audience. In the end,
Greatest Hits remains an enigma. Garth Brooks is a huge star, and has enough clout to release anything he pleases. Maybe it will all come together when we see the film, but for now, Chris Gaines is a pleasing but forgettable package.

- Randy Krbechek © 1999

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