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Better by a country mile

Looking for a good pop tune?

Cultural conservatives who pursue happiness by searching for signs of intelligent life in the pop-music universe sometimes have to defend the pursuit against those who consider it a frivolity. If we're sharp, we remind our accusers that holding low culture in disdain is not so much "conservative" as elitist, and that just as one can enjoy the English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis J. Childs without indulging in intellectual slumming, so one can--in theory, at least--legitimately enjoy the best that pop music has to offer.

The problem is that the best pop music has to offer ain't what she used to be. So one turns more and more to country music, where the possibility of being pleasantly surprised by a clever couplet, a poignant melody, and a clear voice still exists.

Nothing, of course, is as surprising as finding the entire package embodied in a teenager. LeAnn Rimes, whose debut album Blue has been among the top-10 bestselling albums for the past month, has become the biggest country-music story since Garth Brooks in part because she is all of 13 years of age--or 20 years younger than the song that has propelled her to the top.

"Blue" was written by Bill Mack, a Dallas DJ, and submitted to Patsy Cline in 1963, shortly before her death. The popularity of Miss Rimes's recording has less to do with the singer's age than with her voice, which not only bears an eerie resemblance to Miss Cline's but also reflects a level of self-control unusual in a young singer.

None of the other 10 songs on Blue partake of the title track's instant-classic aura, but several of them ("I'll Get Even with You," "Fade to Blue," "Hurt Me") find her as comfortable with contemporary lovelorn ballads as she is with nostalgic ones. And although the suspension of disbelief required to go along with a teenager's accounts of love's ups and downs makes unusual demands on the listener's imagination, Miss Rimes's vocal precociousness and her album's tasteful production often make the attempt at such suspension as easy as it is enjoyable.

Like LeAnn Rimes, Harlan Howard owes part of his fame to Patsy Cline. Her 1961 recording of his song "I Fall to Pieces" helped to solidify his stature as one of the top Nashville songwriters of the '60s.

All Time Favorite Country Songwriter, originally issued in 1965 and recently reissued by Koch Records, features a 36-year-old Mr. Howard performing "I Fall to Pieces" and 11 other songs of his made famous by artists such as Ray Charles ("Busted"), Buck Owens ("I've Got a Tiger by the Tail"), and Burl Ives ("Mary Ann Regrets"). The variety of performers who've interpreted these clever, concise songs is itself a testament to Mr. Howard's ability to express universal sentiments.

The album succeeds not as a vocal showcase; if Mr. Howard, now 67, had been a first-rate singer, he wouldn't have needed other singers to make his songs famous. It succeeds instead as evidence that even an average singer can, with the help of sympathetic production and the right material, create an affecting recording. And it reminds us that, despite the relatively high standards of contemporary-country songwriting, Nashville seldom writes material this right anymore.

Neither, for that matter, does Willie Nelson. During the '80s, the long-haired, bandanna-wearing, Farm Aid-founding minstrel looked indefatigable. Album after album yielded hit after hit, from the sublime ("Always on My Mind") to the ridiculous ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before"). So eager to record with him were singers of every variety that he eventually released an album of duets unforgettably titled Half-Nelson.

But the '90s have not proven nearly as Nelson-friendly. These days, even with the burden of his much-publicized IRS debt finally discharged, he seems to find the burden of reversing his recent hitlessness too much to shift. On Spirit, his first album for Island Records, he sounds downright fatigued.

Not that each of his new songs suffers from exhaustion. "I'm Not Trying to Forget You Anymore" serves as a sequel of sorts to his 1985 hit, "Forgiving You Was Easy" (in which "forgetting seem[ed] to be the hardest thing"), and both "Too Sick to Pray" and "I Thought About You, Lord" offer glimpses into the redemptive nature of suffering.

But the cumulative effect of Mr. Nelson's languid singing and the absence of both uptempo songs and a rhythm section deprives the album of get up and go. In the context of the music, the cover photo, which shows a haggard old hippie gazing forlornly into the camera, seems to symbolize the dis-Spirit-edness of the album as a whole.

Starlite Lounge, the new album by David Ball, suffers from no such ennui. Despite its failure so far to yield as many chart-topping singles as Thinkin' Problem, Mr. Ball's platinum 1994 debut, Starlite Lounge is the better recording.

In contrast to his first album's rawboned, honky-tonk approach, Starlite Lounge boasts a deeper sound and edges that aren't so much softer as brighter. And in contrast to his debut, almost all of which was haunted by the memory of love gone bad, the new album consists mainly of songs that celebrate the joys of love gone good.

The best one, however--and the only Starlite Lounge song that Mr. Ball didn't write--deals with the middle ground. "Lately it seems like our ship is sinking / and the only way out is overboard," he sings in "Hangin' In and Hangin' On." "But if this love goes down, / then I'm going with it / 'cause I still believe in us." In addition to showcasing Mr. Ball's piercing tenor voice, the song also represents one of country music's clearest pleas for "tough fidelity" since Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."

"The first time I heard it, I thought it was really different," Mr. Ball told WORLD, "and I think that's important because the complaint that everything sounds alike in country music comes from the fact that there's not enough newness. Well, here's 'Hangin' In and Hangin' On,' which is new country music but which is not influenced by cheesy '70s pop music. It's rooted in tradition, but it's brand new. It's like Hank Williams meets the '90s."

The reason, of course, that Hank Williams can't really meet the '90s is that he drank himself to death in the '50s and thereby proved that not all traditions are worth being rooted in. The music of LeAnn Rimes, Harlan Howard, and David Ball, however, suggests that sometimes a good tradition is the best kind of anchor.