Before everyone gets all bent out of shape about how the Dixie Chicks are jumping on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? mountain music bandwagon, it should be pointed out that the band actually has real roots in the bluegrass scene, having struggled for years as an indie act before breaking into megastardom at the end of the 1990s. Although true country fans may loathe the superslick, soul-tinged Nashville pop that the Dixie gals helped perfect, their new acoustic-based album, Home, is a welcome return to a sparser sound. Recorded in Texas rather than Tennessee, the tightly crafted but comparatively lean record is well suited to the band’s talents, especially the songwriting, which emerges more powerfully without the distracting musical bells and whistles that Nashville producers love to lavish on even the simplest of tunes. Home lifts the perky twang of bluegrass out of its purist confines, using fiddle, banjo, and mandolin as the framework for a surprisingly effective blend of old and new. In all likelihood, the Chicks will regress to Nashville for their next record, producing another florid, overblown pop smash, but for now we can marvel that the dyed-blonde threesome had such a good album hidden in their hearts.
A hick artist to keep an eye on for the future, though, is newcomer Elizabeth Cook, whose Hey Y’All is an open challenge to the glitzy overproduction of today’s Top 40 country. Her squeaky little voice draws swift comparison to Dolly Parton, a likening Cook eagerly welcomes, as heard on her clever tribute, “Dolly,” which humorously details the sleazy come-ons and not-so-subtle harassment a country gal must endure en route to a record contract. Cook aligns herself with old-school hillbilly holdouts like Porter Wagoner and Melba Montgomery who stuck to their rural roots in the 1960s, even as the rest of the country world got slicker and slicker. There’s a little hint of early-’70s countrypolitan in Cook’s work, particularly on tunes like the Lynn Anderson-styled “Everyday Sunshine” and the album’s irresistible opener, “Stupid Things,” but by today’s standards Cook is practically a musical Luddite. She might not top the Billboard charts soon, but folks who like their country music pure and simple might want to check out this disc. Cook is a new voice whose raw talent and confidence promise great things to come.