By some weird stroke of fate, alt-country underdog Jim Lauderdale is releasing two purposefully generic-sounding new albums, Bluegrass and Country Super Hits Vol. 1, on the same day that mainstream pop-country band Emerson Drive is releasing an album called Countrified. It's like two factions of a culture war, issuing competing mission statements. Is this what country music is? Or is it this?
To Lauderdale, "country" means simple music that anyone can make with just an acoustic guitar, and maybe some friends with fiddles. Bluegrass plays the genre straight, using the traditional string-band approach to good effect on witty, wistful songs like "Time's A Looking Glass" and "Who's Leaving Who." Country Super Hits is a little rowdier, but in the safe-for-radio, every-hair-in-place way of classic country. Lauderdale even wrote a couple of catchy new standards: the pithy "Single Standard Time" and the buoyant "She's Got Some Magic Going On."
Meanwhile, Emerson Drive believes "country" is more a state of mind, to be conveyed by yokeled-up vocals and maudlin Middle American sentiment. Typical Countrified tracks include "A Good Man," with the opening line "I don't need a whole lot of money / But I wouldn't turn the lottery down," and "Everyday Woman," with lines like "You're an angel to me" and "I'm gonna love you." (Is that last part a promise, or a warning?) At the end of the album, Emerson Drive serves up a pointless cover of Charlie Daniels' "Devil Went Down To Georgia," complete with a random instrumental quote from Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." There's hardly a note on the record that doesn't pander.
But honestly? The same could be said of Lauderdale, who started his career as a retro-minded original, but has become something of a dry theorist. It's easy to overrate Lauderdale because he sounds more "authentic," but on Bluegrass' "Don't Blame The Wrong Guy," he clumsily weaves banjos and fiddles into a song where they don't really fit, and on Country Super Hits' "I Met Jesus In A Bar," the lyrics are so cloying that they must be conceptual. Lauderdale is a good alternative to Emerson Drive, but at the moment, he's nowhere near as good as his influences.