Five years ago, on her 30th birthday, country singer Kathy Mattea checked her phone messages and learned that a friend had died of AIDS. She was shocked: He had never told her he was sick. ''The idea that AIDS was something you have to hide from your friends and family,'' she said later, ''well, it just broke my heart.''
Soon Mattea began brainstorming ways of fighting both the disease and its social stigma. The result is Red Hot + Country (Mercury), an uneven but often extraordinary album that rallies some of the biggest names of multigenerational mainstream and alternative country, from Nashville veterans (Johnny Cash), to young dance-club stars (Brooks & Dunn), to traditional hat acts (Mark Chesnutt), to assorted folkies (Nanci Griffith). And to make a point about the influence of '70s singer-songwriters on today's country music, Mattea also lined up rock stars Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose presence sends a metaphoric message about the need for communities of all kinds to come together and raise AIDS awareness.
In choosing songs for Red Hot + Country the fourth album produced by the Red Hot Organization since 1990 (Red Hot + Blue, Red Hot + Dance, No Alternative) to benefit AIDS charities performers were asked to pay tribute to the musicians who helped shape their style. In doing so, some acts teamed up with their mentors, while others simply performed their songs. Predictably, some pairings work better than others. ''Teach Your Children,'' where Suzy Bogguss, Alison Krauss, and Mattea join Crosby, Stills & Nash, comes off as pretty, but varies little from the familiar arrangement. Likewise, Mattea's duet with Jackson Browne, ''Rock Me on the Water,'' conveys a spiritual quality but never quite works musically: They don't sing well together their phrasing is so different and Mattea's vastly superior vocals seem to put Browne at a disadvantage. And the coupling of Jimmie Dale Gilmore with Willie Nelson one can't stay on key, the other can't find the beat on ''Crazy'' is the musical equivalent of nails scraping a blackboard.
In contrast, the rockabilly rave-up of Carl Perkins, '60s guitar legend Duane Eddy, and the Mavericks on ''Matchbox'' is sublimely inspired. Nearly 40 years after Perkins first recorded the much-covered classic, this rendition, with Perkins, Eddy, and the Mavericks' Nick Kane trading high-wire guitar solos, shimmers with vitality, and erases generational lines.
Perhaps the most surprising remake is Sammy Kershaw's ''Fire and Rain.'' Known more for his cheeky sense of humor and sly sexuality than for troubadour ballads, Kershaw infuses the James Taylor song with palpable sadness and grief. In customizing the melody with a few new soaring high notes, he gives it a slightly country spin, only to come down to a wail that speaks a soulful blues.
Several choices, like ''Forever Young,'' the Bob Dylan song elegiacally covered by Johnny Cash, take on a stunning new poignancy when set against the AIDS backdrop. Yet only one song, ''Willie Short,'' written by John Jennings and recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter, hits the AIDS issue head-on. Written in the folk storytelling tradition, the song takes the point of view of a person with AIDS. Carpenter's understated reading, Jennings' ominous acoustic guitar lines, and the lyrics about dignity in the face of physical suffering (''No one can take this heart from me/No one can scatter my soul/But it's hard, mister, dying by inches/Of something I cannot control'') make ''Willie Short'' absolutely chilling.
Red Hot + Country works best on songs that look back on life, such as Patty Loveless' ''When I Reach the Place I'm Going,'' which weds a forlornly beautiful Appalachian melody with a spiritual quest. The album's least compelling moments come in a stretch of songs from Dolly Parton, Radney Foster, Mark Chesnutt, and Billy Ray Cyrus, whose selections may demonstrate their musical influences but prove wholly inappropriate for the project (like Foster's rendition of the Buck Owens chestnut ''Close Up the Honky Tonks'').
Contemporary country music may have been slow to address the century's greatest health plague, but it now seems to be picking up the ball that its rock counterpart has all but dropped. With this album's striking music and stirring humanity, a sense of community is stretching across America's plains and reaching into its mountain hollers. And not a minute too soon. A-