Deana Carter and Lee Ann Womack

Deana Carter
Everything's Gonna Be Alright
Capitol

Lee Ann Womack
Some Things I Know
Decca

FOR A NUMBER of reasons, record sales and public exposure chief among them, things have never been better for women in Nashville. But you have to wonder what it means to be a female country singer when Tammy Wynette is in the grave and the two most common prototypes are the walking wet dreams (Shania Twain and Mindy McCready) and crossover queens (LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill). From amid this landscape come sophomore records from Lee Ann Womack and Deana Carter, two of Music City's best hopes for uniting art and commerce.

Carter (pictured right) struck platinum in 1996 with her Farrah Fawcett looks and a surprisingly carnal single, "Strawberry Wine," on which she played a 17-year-old losing her virginity to an a older worker on her grandfather's farm. Much has been made of Carter's sexuality, but selling sex is not a new development in country music (hello, Dolly). Instead Carter is being shipped to a new, upwardly mobile target market that has transformed country music in recent years: Hip hop's South may be "Dirty," but country's booming Sun Belt base is downright disgusting--a land of SUVs, suburban expansion, and enough Republicans to fill the Grand Ole Opry every night until 2050.

Although "Strawberry Wine" was intoxicating in its own way, I was more struck by Carter's follow-up hit, "We Danced Anyway," where the protagonist dances and sings with her husband during a European honeymoon. Can you imagine Loretta "One's On the Way" Lynn singing such middle-class schmaltz? "We Danced Anyway" captured the burgeoning prosperity and worldliness of Nashville and the audience it covets. It may not have meant much to folks in Butcher Hollow, but I'll bet it struck a chord in Orange County.

Carter's new album is more pop than country. Yet where most of her contemporaries approach such crossover ventures wearing their marketing calculations on their designer sleeves, Carter's pop moves seem the product of her own genuinely catholic tastes. Which means that the ZZ Top and Skynyrd riffage on songs like "You Still Shake Me" and "Train Song" is more prominent than the middlebrow poetry of "Michelangelo Sky."

While Carter seems more at home on the Box than at the Opry, Lee Ann Womack may be the only woman in Nashville today with the potential to join the likes of Lynn and Wynette in the classic country pantheon. Her emergence last year as Nashville's commercial growth began to stagnate may be the most promising sign of an in-house reaction against country's Suburban Cowboy era. Just as the rise of homegrown neotrads like Randy Travis and George Strait heralded the end of the Urban Cowboy craze in the early '80s, Womack may be the first chapter in a new era.

Some Things I Know is like a country take on Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual: The first side is stone classic, every song distinct; the second side is plainer but gets by on a couple of memorable songs and a singer capable of redeeming clichés. On "I'd Rather Have What We Had," she laments settling down with the man she used to cheat with, realizing she preferred the excitement of stealing away to the monotony of a legitimate relationship. When's the last time anyone heard a pro-cheating song on country radio? And that gem is followed by the album's centerpiece, "The Man Who Made My Mama Cry," which sounds like a standard, but is in fact one of two songs on the record that Womack had a hand in writing. Directed at an absent father shortly after the singer's mother's death, "The Man Who Made My Mama Cry" starts off bitter, and--going against Nashville's prevailing feel-good grain--stays that way. A star is born.

 
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