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New Weird Americana 

Country in the Bush of ghosts

Country is amidst another aesthetic splintering in the wake of the 1990s hat-act heyday. Curiously, twang's malleability makes it a primary mode of expression for both older, conservative traditionalists who side with the

America über alles spirit of the current administration and younger would-be radicals who simultaneously reject the past while looking for a buffer in it against the 21st-century unknown.

In the ex-urban belly of this red state, Concord's Avett Brothers would appear to fall into the latter category. The trio's new Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (Ramseur; Rating: ***) shows the band's form of punk-grass still on the upswing. Once again, the Avetts will wow 'em at Merlefest in the spring and -- Charlotte hopes -- continue to garner the group a wider audience beyond our borders. Now, anyone old enough to have enjoyed the Violent Femmes' seminal 1983 debut on the first go-round may not be overly impressed by the Avetts. Yet the trio's rambling spirit is apparently best experienced live, as their recent New Year's sellout of the Neighborhood Theatre attests. So catch the Charlotte-spawned wave before it rolls out through the Great Plains beyond your reach.

At the other end of the twang spectrum is long-established CMT regular Clint Black. A holdover from the aforementioned 1990s New Country apotheosis, Black is nothing if not a company man as regards Music Row. Offstage, he and rumored Yokel Yoko wife Lisa Hartman Black don't strain to jibe with the nation's prevailing sentiments; they effortlessly embody them. However Black's latest disc, Drinkin' Songs And Other Logic (Equity Music Group; Rating: **), shows the multiple CMA award-winner striving to keep pace with the Freak Parade zeitgeist. In pulling a Faith Hill, Black comes up with nothing so showy and unctuously effective as that diva's "Mississippi Girl," but he does deliver something as transparent in his "Longnecks & Rednecks." Problem is, Black doesn't really sell this. What's more, there's no Hill-esque image revamp to accompany the Trailer Fabulous gambit he's dipping his toe into.

On the CD cover, something about Black's pose and smile is too reminiscent of this nation's Head Texan-in-Charge and the barely-there shot glass does nothing much to dispel this -- or to hot up Black's image. The singer obviously thinks his chart-topping reputation stands for itself and serves as a mainline into the hearts of the sexy tractor set, yet he really ought to be mulling the problem that ascendant badass/sexy beast Trace Adkins came up with "Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk" first. Indeed, he seems to be at war with himself in these songs. (See the minor chord-drenched "Undercover Cowboy" and the tellingly titled "Too Much Rock.") A pity nothing here approaches the potential masterpiece early Travis Tritt could've made of the CD's great title.

Another veteran, Martina McBride, who's attained one-name diva status according to her CD cover, successfully engages with the same issues as Black. On her recent self-produced disc Timeless (RCA; Rating: ***), Martina looks backwards. She may not have gone for the retro fashion of album guest Dolly Parton's Those Were The Days, but the flocked wallpaper design definitely gives up the ghosts -- among them Johnny Cash (Parton collaborates with McBride on his "I Still Miss Someone"). With Wurlitzer and pre-1968 mics in tow, McBride also takes on Harlan Howard ("Heartaches by the Number"), Hank Williams ("You Win Again") and every good ole girl's apparent fantasy, Kris Kristofferson ("Help Me Make It Through The Night").

Timeless is a fine project, refreshing in this era of bland Music Row gate-keeping. Still, one wishes McBride had taken more chances with the hallowed material, really going for it as Parton did in her new version of "Me and Bobby McGee." And Bakersfield legend Buck Owens' liner notes (far less welcome than Marty Stuart's) do McBride no favors on the path to universality, as he claims: "If one could see Martina's heart I'm sure you'd find it to be red, white, and blue. Our kind of music, present and future, is in good hands ..."

Luckily for serious Americana aficionados, Kentucky's Jim James is also starting to have the whole world in his hands. James' country-rock band, My Morning Jacket, may have more currency in the converted pastures of Bonnaroo than the wannabe slick streets of Nashvegas, but those who care about "our kind of music, present and future" really oughta be checking for MMJ's recent CD Z (Ato; Rating: ***). For this critic, who's gaga over James' departed guitar hero Johnny Quaid and is still most attuned to the band's It Still Moves (2003), Z has been a slow burn. However my esteemed colleague Tim Davis nailed it when he declared Wilco's alt-country, demigod-turned-pop prince Jeff Tweedy should be nervous about the triumph of Z. Truly, Z's better, wilder shores of pastoral pop do sound like the next logical progression after Wilco's great Being There. James continues to redefine the language of twang, with a healthy assist from Neil Young's pioneering spirit -- and apparently from Daryl Hall, per the feedback highs of Z's magnificent sissy-soul-meets-surf-music tracks like "Wordless Chorus."

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