Country music lives, breathes and grows mainly in perpetual cycles of neotraditionalism. Several new nonmainstream country discs (no, I did not say alt-country) approach tradition in peculiar ways. Looking for some cohesion, I've rated some of these neotraditional country discs with an Olympic-like overall score for their performance in country's core themes of drinking, rambling and heartache.
Willie Nelson, 'You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker' (Lost Highway) Nelson likens this lovely, knowing tribute to Stardust, his 1978 collection of American pop standards. Walker was the first woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; she wrote countless Western swing, honky-tonk, and cowboy film standards for stars like Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb. You do know her songs: "Blue Canadian Rockies," "Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me," "I Was Just Walkin' out the Door," "Dream Baby," "You Don't Know Me." Neotraditional rating: Four light beers, four long and restless nights, and four Texas dance floors loaded with heartache.
The Little Willies, 'The Little Willies' (Milking Bull) This side project of pop-jazz pianist Norah Jones features a hot band and prime-cut material, featuring the likes of Townes Van Zandt's "No Place to Fall," Willie Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk" and Bobby Bare's "Streets of Baltimore." The whole affair is loose and rollicking, but it fundamentally smacks of hip Yankees (note the smart-aleck original "Lou Reed") who are, well, not exactly slumming in country, but who primarily want to show off their good taste and strut a sense of fun. Neotraditional rating: One Manhattan, one Long Island iced tea and one whiskey sour. Light rambling, zero heartache.
Hank Williams III, 'Straight to Hell' (Bruc) The son of Hank Williams Jr., Hank III personifies tradition, but that tradition isn't always breathing. This is like a crusty cartoon, with "hillbilly hellraiser" Hank asserting that his drinkin' 'n' druggin' highway to hell runs through Dixie and makes roadkill of pop-country. He's genuine, but the disc is a Rebel Yell on cue, so perfectly outlaw-authentic that it's not genuinely rebellious. At least the bonus disc, a turgid 45-minute solo-acoustic prison/death abstraction, is weird. Neotraditional rating: Six shots of Jack Daniels, eternal rambling and heartache from the bowels of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Shelby Cobra, 'Solid Country Gold' (Sacred Art) Here's the real deal for outlaw flair and bad-ass populism. Cobra is a guttural but gold-hearted Oakland tattoo artist, working here with members of Santa Rosa's outlaw revivalists One Horse Town. His sense of humor is reckless but warm, and it's refreshing compared to the dryness that stifles Hank III. You've heard these folk melodies and tough sentiments a thousand times, but with music this crisp, and with Cobra so present and forcefully at ease, it sounds like you're hearing it all from scratch, live in your living room. Neotraditional rating: Heartache? Screw it--let's ramble to the minimart for three more 12-packs.
Neko Case, 'Fox Confessor Brings the Flood' (Anti) Case's latest sounds less clearly country than her earlier records, but she's never written conventional country songs. Her art smarts tell her there's more to country than 6/8 time, reverb and rural roots; she employs those country essentials instead as a frame for an imagistic postmodern mysticism. Ultimately, her most country trait isn't about music form or style; in her obtuse, arty way, she has a powerful sympathy for working-class uncertainty and grief. Neotraditional rating: One dry martini, one collection of short stories about rootless unease, one museum with oil paintings depicting tragic isolation.
Van Morrison, 'Pay the Devil' (Lost Highway) It's no stretch to imagine Morrison doing a honky-tonk covers album, or to guess that he seamlessly fits three new originals in the set. Country music's Appalachian roots link directly to British Isles troubadour and instrumental traditions, so this is almost familiar territory for his folk-rock-Celtic-jazz-blues stew. As a genre tribute, this is understated in the same way Nelson's tribute disc is stately; but for Morrison, that often means the dramatic, bluesy material is underperformed. Neotraditional rating: A bottomless pint and sympathetic bartender at every damn pub in the world.