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Picks and Pans Main: Song

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The stampede of country music gallops on. Here we lasso five promising-to-prominent recent releases.

Fresh Kick in the Formula

In a genre as ruled by tradition as country is, excellence lies less in innovation than in a special spark of energy and idiosyncrasy, a spin on the fundamentals—not even a great singer like George Jones messes much with the basics. Alan Jackson is the latest hat to find big bucks on the neotradionalist trail blazed by Dwight Yoakam. But Dwight’s his own man; Jackson is a clone. His half-dozen hit singles, including one (so far) from his new album, A LOT ABOUT LIVIN’ (AND A LITTLE ‘BOUT LOVE) (Arista), are interchangeable: He turns the traditional ingredients—fiddles, sturdy three-chord progressions and woeful tales—into fast food. He does have one fine moment in a tongue-in-cheek tear jerker called “Who Says You Can’t Have It All,” when a determinedly optimistic loser surveys his lonely room: “I’ve got a ceiling, a floor and four walls/ Who says you can’t have it all.”

But out of the speakers blasts Tanya Tuckers CAN’T RUN FROM YOURSELF (Liberty) : proof that you needn’t buck formulas if you can pump them full of passion, hard-won wisdom and tangy melody. Tucker’s got Mack-truck longevity (at age 13, in 1972, she had a hit in “Delta Dawn”). She’s got Mack-truck vocal power, too: The shameless catch in her throat as she pleads, “Tell me, is it so?” on “Don’t Let My Heart Be the Last to Know,” or the sob that ends “What Do They Know” are so affecting they hide the skill they require. T.T. is one-third tawdry, two-thirds talent; just the right proportions for a full-grown country diva.

Pam Tillis, 34, is a dual inheritor: of an illustrious name (her dad, singer-songwriter Mel Tillis, wrote one of Nashville’s greatest songs ever, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”) and of Mel’s classic honky-tonk style—doleful lyrics, pedal-steel guitar and bare-wire emotion. Tillis has a fine country voice. Reedy, nasal and sexy, it contrasts nicely with her hard-knocks lyrics. Though she’s drawn to the country pop of Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, her strength lies in Tammy Wynette’s oldfangled verities. Tillis cowrote half the tunes on her good second album, HOMEWARD LOOKING ANGEL (Arista). It’s got a few too many stock images (“She saw the ragged edge of nowhere from a fast moving train”), but when Tillis’s writing and song selection match her classy singing, she’ll truly be a sensation.

Talented Maura O’Connell doesn’t quite fit in this company—her three major-label album-constitute a new genre: chamber country. Like the first two, BILE IS THE COLOUR OF HOPE (Warner Bros.) has crystalline sound, unusual instrumentation (on “So Soft Your Goodbye,” she’s backed just by piano and bowed bass), piquant melodies and subtly deployed, star-studded backup singers: Roseanne Cash, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Alison Krauss. There’s nothing rural-American in O’Connell’s rich, throaty mezzo; she’s a pop songstress with strong traditional-music roots in her native West of Ireland. She’s exuberantly red-cheeked in concert, but records bring out her pensive side—eight of this addictive album’s 10 songs are about love gone bad.

You won’t find Radney Foster’s DEL RIO, TEXAS 1959 (Arista) anywhere near the top of the country charts, but it’s the best solo debut in a good long time. As a late ’80s duo, Foster and Lloyd (Bill Lloyd) were engaging but lightweight. Alone, Foster has caught fire. These 10 ardent songs were all written-or cowritten by the 33-year-old pride of Del Rio. “Hammer and Nails” is a blistering rocker; “Just Call Me Lonesome (Heartbroke and Then Some)” is a loping, dusty shuffle worthy of Buck Owens; and “Went for a Ride” is a revisionist lament for a black cowpoke. Foster has the tarnished-angel feel of the first great country-rock renegades, the Flying Burrito Brothers. He’s built to last.”