Country-pop thrush Trisha Yearwood and Appalachian-gothic revivalist Gillian Welch would never be mistaken for sisters under the skin, let alone all dolled up. (Elegant Yearwood abandoned the hayseed look right after her 1991 debut, in favor of crushed black velvet and cosmetics endorsements; elegist Welch favors gingham dresses, as if she might be called up on active dust-bowl duty or to pose for Andrew Wyeth.) But these two talents do hold a few things in commona Nashville address; the certainty that no matter what the trend, we will never, ever see either of their navels; and a good claim on being country's premier female ballad singers of the late '90s.
That's if you can even deign to describe their respective versions of country as a remotely common genre. Welch's idea of a swell slow dance is a good old-fashioned murder ballad: She's the ghost of country past, determinedly bringing hellfire, questions of mortality, and exceedingly modest production values back to the ranch, even if it means not having a ghost of a chance of selling a hundred thousand units or getting on radio anywhere besides the minuscule Americana format. Multiplatinum Yearwood is a pretty vision of country's gossamer future, spinning retro-pop lamentspenned by such mainstream tunesmiths as Diane Warrenin which lost love is murder enough, though it probably won't kill you. They're sisters in misery-milking, at least.
Sad songs didn't always say quite so much for Yearwood, whose earliest hits were split between feisty honky-tonk charmers and what turned out to be her preference for all things lovelorn and languid. Increasingly, she's worn her heart like a wheeluh, make that "Heart Like a Sad Song" (from the new album)on her sleeve. Her seventh batch of new material in as many years, Where Your Road Leads nearly dispenses with rockers altogether for the lush life. If anyone could or should aspire toward updating the Ronstadt approach, it's Yearwood, whose pitch perfection duplicates La Linda's emotional throb without the formalism. And who's to argue she should emphasize the twang when it's the tenderer tunes that trap the full range of one of Tennessee's more precious natural resources?
But Linda Ronstadt never evidenced the timidity Yearwood shows in picking material, and the comeback Yearwood has enjoyed since last year's Warren-written "How Do I Live" hasn't emboldened her. The worst of the new ballads is another Warren swooner, "I'll Still Love You More," which has its singer insist she can outperform her mate's devotiona beautiful sentiment for everyone who thinks of love as a big ol' contest. And don't be lured by the false promise of a new "duet" with Garth Brooks in the title song, a piece of overorchestrated mush barely aided by Brooks' barely audible background vocal. Most of the rest is fine in its classy, laid-back fashion, including "There Goes My Baby," a cheerful weeper that, with its pre-Beatles classicism, could be an outtake from Yearwood's husband's band, The Mavericks, ratcheted up for multi-octaval potential. But why is a singer this grand and this professedly in love with dark balladry expending herself on such functional stuff when she ought to be out in search of a song that could actually break our hearts?
If Yearwood's album is on the bloodless side, it could have gotten a transfusion from Welch's Hell Among the Yearlings, which, if anything, may suffer from a surfeit of plasma. In the opening "Caleb Meyer," Welch offers us a heroine who slits a rapist's throat with the broken bottle he tossed aside. How do you follow that for laughs? Well, a few tracks later, in "One Morning," a mother watches her prodigal son approach on horseback, stiff and riddled with bullets. Not everyone goes so violently; some just go tiredly ("I'm Not Afraid to Die") or druggedly ("My Morphine") or get yanked into the netherworld ("The Devil Had a Hold of Me"). Yee-ha!
Hell lives up to its title a little too effectively, lacking the variety of Welch's stunning '96 debut, Revival. Sun creeps into these rain sessions just once, with the under-two-minute rockabilly rave "Honey Now"; the rest is an extreme venture further into a neo-traditionalist funk, with just her and boyfriend/collaborator David Rawlings pickin' and decidedly not grinnin'. The anachro-misery might seem all too precious if Welch weren't just a brilliant mimic but nearly psychic; you'd swear she was channeling the unwritten greatest hits of the Stanley Brothers. Welch's album isn't better than Yearwood's because it's more "traditional" but because each improbably catchy elegy has a saving specificity of character and emotion attached to the tribulation. It's proof that an excess of balladry doesn't have to be murder. Your Road: C+ Yearlings: A-