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Outlaws & iniquity 

Outlaws up, New Country down

Country outlaws are a (literally) dying breed. Many of today's artists favor a painless payday rather than walking the hard line of such icons as the late Johnny Cash. Thus the 10th anniversary reissue of The Road Goes On Forever (Capitol; Rating: ****) by the Highwaymen -- Cash with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and the late Waylon Jennings -- is a most welcome reminder of total commitment to the tougher "gravel road." The original album permanently established these four friends on alt-country's Rushmore. Augmented by a DVD, the reissue underscores what country's in danger of losing.

And so it's more than fitting that Jennings' widow Jessi Colter, the long silent first lady of the mythic outlaw movement and key precursor to Gretchen Wilson, should choose this moment to reappear. Supported by her musician son Shooter Jennings and producer Don Was (who's made something of a cottage industry out of working with Nashville outsider-icons; see Kris Kristofferson's latest), Colter channels her confessional voice through both the blues and twang on Out of the Ashes (Shout! Factory; Rating: ***). Including gospel ("His Eye Is on the Sparrow") and Dylan ("Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"), this CD works the abiding tension between Colter's personae as widow, outlaw and lady.

Sadly, while Colter shows how femme country-pop should be done, younger musicians continue to aspire to the Music Row assembly line. One such cornfedbot is last season's American Idol winner Carrie Underwood. Were it not for the overexposure afforded her by this nefarious popularity contest, the bland blonde imaging and MOR treacle of Underwood's debut, Some Hearts (Arista Nashville; Rating: *) would probably have landed her in many a slush pile. I guess in the era of Toby Keith's retreat from jingoistic boot-in-ass anthems to nostalgia over his good ole golden rule days on Honky Tonk University, there needs must be a tastefully sexualized cheerleader counterpart to grace the racks. Hence the ubiquity of Keith's fellow Sooner Stater Underwood and this lackluster disc.

If only these striving Nashvillains had some semblance of a point of view (and a pulse). But then that would defeat the purpose, wouldn't it? And one could hardly expect a singer who welcomes American Idol fame to be a maverick; the closest the contest came was Alabama's promising runner-up to Underwood, Bo Bice. While I eagerly wait to see whether Bice ultimately vindicates himself (and my Southern rock jones), my message to Ryan Adams is: don't fear the reaper. With the gloomily covered 29 (Lost Highway; Rating: *** 1/2), Adams has once again rushed headstrong into the breach. 29 shows what can be achieved when a younger artist has too much sense and sensibility. This is by no means a slight, since at this point I'd rather hear from even "My ex is a wanker" Adams than the molded Maypo that is Underwood. Besides, despite Adams' editing problem, he's lately gone from strength to strength, 29 further justifying the unlimited power Lost Highway affords him. His danse macabre with the end of precocious genius adheres to Americana tradition far more than Underwood's work -- but 29 harkens to the Southern gothic of Poe, Robert Johnson and GP instead.

29 is Ryan Adams' finest collaboration so far with producer Ethan Johns, the disc where at last Adams' musical identity emerges to make meaningful connection with his listeners through its revelations of his interior and exterior Southern landscapes. Perhaps it's significant that in staring down mortality and the loss of youth, Adams' Southern voice reasserts itself after long seasons of his defection to Yankeeland and the far West. The question lingers whether 29 is the preface to self-immolation or a herald of resignation. Moving from the rockabilly of the title track through the epic psychedelia of "Nightbirds" and on to the minutely focused small-town narrative of "Carolina Rain," this stripped-down, dark affair chronicling Adams' twentysomething blues at last elevates him to the heights of his heroes.

Other than Adams' extremely personal work, the most radical artifact of pop Americana to emerge this season is Ang Lee's great film Brokeback Mountain. Reduced by the Christian right, assorted critics and different sectors of the public to being a "gay cowboy movie," Brokeback Mountain is actually one of the best westerns ever made and a keen redefinition of both the cinematic genre and American masculinity. The film's soundtrack (Verve; Rating: ***) is both graceful and subtly subversive, enveloping the many provocative issues of the narrative with songs ranging from Willie Nelson's "He Was a Friend of Mine" to a sly re-reading of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" by Rufus Wainwright & Teddy Thompson, as well as Wainwright's lachrymose "The Maker Makes." Of course, '70s country rock cheese like Linda Ronstadt's "It's So Easy" appears too, achieving period verisimilitude. Argentine Gustavo Santaolalla's lilting, twangy instrumentals are haunting, immediately restoring the Wyoming mountain's pastoral majesty for listeners.

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