Reseeding familiar ground
Why did two noted singer/songwriters get together to record an album of mostly classic country tunes penned by other artists? Who knows? The important thing is that the duo sounds like it is having a good time and pleasurably reinterpreting the material. Austin fiddler Carrie Rodriguez knows how to wrap her voice around a tune as well as let her instrument wail, weep, and laugh in accompaniment. And Romantica’s Ben Kyle understands the importance of keeping the music earnest, even deadpan, no matter how serious or silly the song. Together, the pair complement each other’s strengths and make each track worthy of belonging on a honky tonk jukebox.
There is something lightweight about the nature of the endeavor, which endows the disc with a beguiling charm. Part of this may be due to the album’s brevity. The eight songs clock in at less than 30 minutes. But it’s also due to the nature of the material. Their duet on John Prine’s “Unwed Fathers” brings out the dry humor wrapped in the pathos of the story of a boy whose girl has to run away to a home for unwed mothers because he won‘t own up to his responsibilities. The narrator feels sorrier for himself than for the trouble he caused. You can almost taste the tears in the beer he’s too young to buy.
On the other hand, the duo’s original composition, “Fire Alarm”, comes with a tune that seems almost plagiarized from Prine’s comic duet with Iris DeMent, “In Spite of Ourelves”. Rodriguez and Kyle count down each other’s faults (“he snores all night/ his teeth are crooked” versus “she ain’t that tall/and she talks kinda funny”) but join together to croon how they “turn each other on like a fire alarm”. You get the feeling they are right for each other simply because they are too eccentric for anybody else—just a couple of oddballs who found the right mate.
When the two get more serious, such as on Chip Taylor’s (Rodriguez’s former musical partner) “Big Kiss”, the effect bristles with electricity because the intensity is turned down a notch. They perform the song at a slow, steady pace that understates what they’re feeling. This makes their surprise at finding out the other person may love them more of a shock than a foregone conclusion.
This sincerity also comes across on Townes Van Zandt’s classic “If I Needed You”, and makes the oft-covered song fresh again. They keep the singing simple and allow Luke Jacobs’ pedal steel guitar playing, Kyle Kegerreis’ upright bass thumping, and Ricky Fataar’s brush drumming carry the melody forward and decoratively weave in and out of the forefront of the mix.
While any country duets album begs to be compared to the masterpieces of the past by such notables as George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and June Carter, etc., the duo beg the question here by singing Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts” almost note for note like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris used to do. It’s no insult to say Rodriguez and Kyle do not surpass the past masters. The intent seems more to pay tribute to their forbears. Which again begs the question, why would two noted singer/songwriters put out a record of other people’s songs? Who knows? The important thing is that the disc offers plenty of pleasure and enjoyment, and the pair sounds like it had a good time making it. No new ground may be broken here, but as Neil Young used to wryly sing, “In the field of opportunity, it’s plowing time again”. We Still Love Our Country offers the occasion to enjoy good country music, and that’s reason enough to reseed familiar ground.