Sharp Blessed Men


Hooks-laden, woman-(ec)centric (not too intimidatingly enlightened), unimpeachably Texan, yet too dang messin’-with-the-boogie for some (especially re CD mixes of hallowed vinyl), the ZZ(aftig) Top legacy is a good bet for Pop-Goes-the-Country’s dude rodeo. Recent (if not Late) Hat has a lot of rock-metal-blues in its closet—on its sleeve, even. With generations of lamination having been sandbagged by Soggy Bottom Boys (O Brother, indeed), what the heck. Thus, NashVegas ubersuit Joe Galante and ZZ’s personal mogul Bill Ham hereby negotiate Sharp Dressed Men: A Tribute to ZZ Top.

None of the resulting tracks are bad, but some just aren’t greasy enough (duh), and where my girls at? Didn’t dare hope for Madonna in her albino Muff Daddy chaps, lookin’ for some “Tush.” But imagine Dixie Chicks, strapping on “Cheap Sunglasses” to go out and meet the masses. Or Dolly P, Shania T, ooo-wee (Babeh).

Howsomever. Montgomery Gentry’s “Just Got Paid” is sung and played with a surging tension. These solos ain’t nobody’s “breaks.” They got paid today; somebody’s next in line: “Black Sheep Black Sheep have you any wool? Yes I have, three bags full.” Perhaps overly encouraged by the dogged drama of his hit “I’m Tryin’,” Trace Adkins has lately sung schlockier stuff with too tight a jaw, as if resisting it, or trying to chaw into something worthwhile after all. Here, he discovers an awesomely euphoric tension: This is where he belongs! In the temple of “Legs.”

The way ZZ told it, the suave “Jesus Just Left Chicago” disappeared into a sweaty little guy “Waitin’ for the Bus.” Hank Williams Jr. and his Bama Band milk the medley for big bottom kicks, and maybe that little guy would too, if he could. Hank III’s “Fearless Boogie” is a Top-notch cartoon, with his Elastic Man twang scrolling and tumbling all through the locoweed locomotive-breath beat. Willie Nelson’s Western Swinging along, thinking out loud about a certain someone who makes nice to him just ’cause “She Loves My Automobile” (no complaints).

But the best thing about tribute (or any) albums is the (rare) Billy Bragg & Wilco Effect: when people you’ve written off suddenly rise to the occasion. Several flare-ups here, but the finale kills. Courtesy of none other than Alan Jackson, who’s usually so humble that he apologized “for humblin’ you to death” at a recent awards ceremony (and thus got us again!). But as soon as he launches into “Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell,” we know he’s going to honor one of the most unfiltered, plain-as-the-water-on-your-face ZZ ballads ever. And you can’t get too humble if you’re gonna be that plain. See, right in the eye of this dust—it’s a hoedown. YEEEHAWW—OBrotherland Security busts a mood! Unforgivable! An outrage! Ah, but then, then: Alan starts singing again, right through each and every sinus cavity in his head (how many are there?), out-countrying these faux-po’-mountaineers, squeezing every bit of blues out of bluegrass, riding and guiding that fickle fiddle down into the cold’s groove, the rain’s groove. These notes can’t break, they can only bend some more.

Speaking of fiddles, and guitars for that matter, why isn’t Charlie Daniels on this thing? There’s a very metal-fistic “Sharp Dressed Man” on his ’98 Tailgate Party, and the Charlie Daniels Band certainly helped unroll the Interstate of pop-rock-country crossover. The CDB hitched a surefooted, rollcalling (own-namedropping) “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” (do what? “It”? Mercy!) to the otherwise often unwieldy new Southern Rock bandwagon. “South’s” stitched a “Symphony Sid” jitterbop riff through Allmanesque flow, showing even Les Brers how to get real concisely gone for a change!

But Chazz doesn’t just run up a musical flag or lay out a picnic blanket (although that pre-ZZ beard’s a sparkling white napkin, across his crimson-cowboy-shirted belly). No, the good licks speak in many tongues, especially to each other. His latest, Redneck Fiddlin’ Man, is a bit off its feed, fave rave “My Baby Plays Me Just Like a Fiddle” notwithstanding. Yet even Redneck‘s thinned-out dancefloors do sometimes get prowled by cinch-gutted riffs (shades of his ol’ Volunteer Jam/talk-radio buddy Ted Nugent), and coiled/”laidback” ones too. The latter bring to mind ’75’s supposedly glazed “Long Haired Country Boy,” talkin’ blues, cash, and other trash (he’s still with us, on the well-named Live Record: Now he’ll “tell a joke,” not “take a toke,” but one’s as dry as t’other).

On The Ultimate Charlie Daniels Band comp, whole flotillas of crap, like “Simple Man” and “What This World Needs Is a Few More Rednecks,” get an answering salvo from the angry world-populism of “American Farmer,” the multikulti mini-saga of “Talk to Me, Fiddle,” a brief-lived fiddle-and-mandolincarnation of the ever elusive (Persian-fairy-tale-named) “Layla,” and the “multi-colored junkyard” expanses of “Honky Tonk Avenue.” Which leads to a “Funky Junky,” for more crass sand in your pearl, Merle.

Not bad but certainly nationwide, Charlie’s got all this stuff he has to carry around. Stuff he sees from the stage (as in “All the world’s a . . . “), while insatiably touring. Maybe that’s what he really kneejerks (and sometimes headbangs) against. Also on Ultimate is “Trudy,” in which a sweet, green gambling table detours into an avalanche of details. After which the narrator’s attention span is equally split between the distant Trudy and a certain missing high roller. Our boy can’t sort this out, but he done, son. So the music rocks on through his cell block, and into the jigsaw skies.

Meanwhile, Rev. Dylan’s old sideman/student Bro. Charlie just keeps rebuilding some jigsaw soapbox, planing and playing over all its creaks and leaks. Sometimes the spirit finds its own level, even so. Like on 1999’s Road Dogs, where rapneck-grabbing powerchord purgatory finally exhales “The Martyr.” This song, about Cassie Bernall, who said “Yes” when asked “Are you a Christian?” and was then killed at Columbine, could’ve been the most horrendous (or mere) kitsch. Instead, he imagines her last moments, quietly reminding me of a “mushroom cloud” we were shown in school (actually more like a rose, in that case). A rose in this case slightly dampened by proximity to “Wild Wild Young Men,” his first whiny scolding ever.

But not his last. Tighter than Ultimate, early 2002’s Live Record‘s band-as-fiddle dynamics ultimately clunk into the (studio) rant “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” (“and we don’t wear it on our heads.” Actually, We do; check your current audience, CD). Less snarlin’ than gnarlin’, “Rag” gets drowned out by “The Last Fallen Hero” ‘s solitary drum on Redneck Fiddlin’ Man (parade’s end, but no rest). “Amen,” sez the fiddler, sawing a blues out of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And, on How Sweet the Sound‘s (2001) Elvis-brushed hymnbook, Charlie tends to send us way up yonder in a minor key. And that’s alright now, Mama. It’s the gospel truth.