Weepers and War Brides

Talk about mud flaps, country girls got 'em, but some break down in a different machine

Gretchen Wilson's recent admission that she does not in fact know all the words to every Tanya Tucker song should come as something of a hollow relief to Julie Roberts. Gretchen was the biggest bait-and-switch of the year: "Redneck Woman" sold an outlaw grrrl picking bones with the Nashville establishment, but the rest of her debut revealed one of the most conservative talents to hit the town in some time—remarkably gifted, nominally outsiderish, eager to assimilate. In her new video, for the elegant ballad "When I Think About Cheatin'," she and mentor John Rich (of Big & Rich) break into the Ryman and perform amidst holoscanned-in Opry legends. Rinse off those mud flaps, Ma: The circle remains unbroken.

What a shame for Julie Roberts, who made 2004's best Nashville album that didn't pretend to be anything but. Earnestness was a bad look in country this year, and the struggles of Roberts, who makes Martina McBride look like Jessi Colter, were educational. Though women-on-the-verge anthems—Chely Wright's pensive "Back Of The Bottom Drawer"; Rachel Proctor's domestic abuse narrative "Me And Emily"; even Sara Evans's glib "Suds In The Bucket"—were everywhere, Roberts could get no traction with her debut single "Break Down Here." The lyrics sound like Music Row doublespeak for a woman struggling with a decision to abort a child fathered by an unreliable mate—"Something smoking underneath the hood/It's a-banging and a-clanging/And it can't be good"—though, when she played Fez in October, she cheerily informed the crowd that the song was, you know, about a car.

The rest of her set was aggressively chipper too, with theatrics worthy of Branson or, worse, Kelly Ripa. It's as if, despite her voice's weepy elegance, she couldn't face the impossible sadness of her songs. Seven of her debut's 11 tracks are tearjerkers ranging from excellent ("Rain On A Tin Roof," "Wake Up Older") to perfect (the gently loping "Unlove Me," the stark "I Can't Get Over You"). But even her transparent radio play—"The Chance," a simple retread of the Lee Ann Womack crossover hit "I Hope You Dance"—hasn't emerged from the bottom of the charts.

Earnest, educational Julie Roberts
photo; Mark Abrahams
Earnest, educational Julie Roberts

So much for contemplation, then. Female exuberance—note Terri Clark's spectacularly rote and wildly popular "Girls Lie Too"—shouted it down. In a year where even Shania Twain had a hit song about a booty call, Roberts lost for never once simmering over. In contemporary country, that type of silent pain only seems to befit a war bride, and it's a note the three Magna, Utah, sisters of Shedaisy nail on the expertly paced lament "Come Home Soon." Despite echoes of "Somewhere Out There" and '60s protest folk, the sisters' penchant for sun-dappled harmony makes even weepers about not dying alone sound like fiercely optimistic lullabies.

Shedaisy have long suffered for being less interesting, less political, and less talented than their closest structural analog, the Dixie Chicks. "A Woman's Work" captures the difference neatly. The Chicks turned "Goodbye Earl," about offing an abusive husband, into an embraceable, jubilant hit. Shedaisy have no such verve. What might have been a Thelma and Louise tale of redemption through the gun is instead a sterile story about a freakish loner—"Ruby's got a government that rules inside her head"—who inspires not a whit of sympathy.

Sweet Right Hereis Shedaisy's darkest album, but that's not saying much. If not always cheery, they're vigorously scrubbed, and almost monotone in their commitment to the adult-contemporary middle. Riddled with plangent guitars and the occasional regional linguistic quirk, this is country only in the most nominal sense. With nods to Wilson Phillips harmonies, Sister Kristyn co-writes every song, and every now and again, an odd lyrical flourish pokes through the haze. "The alarm still rings at 5:15," the girls moan on "Love Goes On." "The day goes off like a rifle." But where Roberts might have made this a proclamation of stabbing hurt, Shedaisy don't so much as linger on it. Greener pastures await, somewhere far from the battlefield.

 
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