Despite the infectious but empty little ditty about an achy breaky heart that captured the nation’s teeny-weeny attention span this summer, an increasing number of country performers today embrace what might be called Nashville’s New Realism. Rejecting gimmicky tunes for lyrically strong songs packed with power and emotion, they also, for the most part, shun glitzy stage presentation and manufactured image for superlative musicianship.
Foremost among these are 28-year-old Trisha Yearwood, who with her second album, Hearts in Armor, announces herself as one of the finest interpretive singers ever to grace the genre, and Vince Gill, 35, an exceptional singer-songwriter-guitarist whose sixth album, I Still Believe in You, reprises the precise, celestial tenor vocals and gut-wrenching songs that won him a Grammy in 1990.
Probably no one would call Yearwood and Gill soul singers, but that’s what they are — performers who strip the protective hide off the heart to expose the devastation of loss, the humiliation of romantic deception, the anguish of being unable to love, and the yearning for spiritual fulfillment. To carry these sentiments, both singers rely on the drive and instrumental fire of bluegrass, the ensemble performance of country, and the freewheeling energy of blues and rock.
The more surprising album comes from Yearwood. Last year her solid, self-titled debut spawned four hit singles, including ”She’s in Love With the Boy” and ”The Woman Before Me,” both of which soared to No. 1. The album made no secret of Yearwood’s expansive soprano, but Hearts in Armor showcases her voice as the first record never did, revealing a purity of tone and pitch and an ability to wrench the utmost emotion from a lyric — talents clearly influenced by the early Linda Ronstadt. The songs on the new album may not be as radio-friendly as those on Trisha Yearwood, but they are stronger musically, particularly Beth Nielsen Chapman’s cathartic ballad ”Down on My Knees.” To anyone who lives in fear of losing a cherished lover, this is a shattering performance; to anyone who recently has, it is a switchblade to the soul.
Pain beyond tears is also a specialty of Gill, who offers his most focused record yet. He expands his bluegrass and progressive country repertoire with mixed results on the Sam Cooke-ish ”Nothing Like a Woman” and on an old-fashioned-sounding country shuffle, ”Say Hello.” But he again mines his most significant lode with two aching ballads, ”I Still Believe in You,” and ”No Future in the Past,” a quietly intense song of the unending torment and perpetual upheaval of tortured love, beautifully laced with a Floyd Kramer, slip-note-style piano and a heart-stopping bluegrass-harmony vocal rise with Alison Krauss.
If today’s country music is indeed luring pop and rock fans, what will keep them there is not the hip-shaking swagger of a Billy Come Lately, but the honest truths of life and love and the emphasis on romance over sexuality that country has always espoused. The genre has never been so commercial, but the New Realists will likely make sure it has never been so enduring. Hearts in Armor: A+; I Still Believe in You: A