When is country music not country music?
That's the question raised by Wynonna Judd's new album, "Tell Me Why" (MCA 10822), arriving in stores today. It looks country, what with contributions by Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Naomi Judd and producer Tony Brown. And it's surely going to be sold as country, particularly after the triple-platinum success of her last album, "Wynonna."
It just doesn't sound particularly country.
Granted, a lot of what comes out of Nashville these days doesn't sound particularly country, but what's going on here runs a bit deeper than merely mixing a few pop tunes in with more typical country fare. What you get with "Tell Me Why" is pretty much a steady diet of R&B;, gospel and blues, with nary a two-step or honky-tonk lament in sight. One song, the Carpenter-penned "Girls With Guitars," even includes a smidgen of "Smoke on the Water" -- not exactly standard repertoire for country pickers.
But if "Tell Me Why" marks Wynonna Judd's break with the conventions of country music, that's the only sense in which the album is a departure. Because no matter how much her sense of style might have changed, her basic approach remains as it was on "Wynonna."
Listen to the album's title tune, for instance, and what you'll hear is essentially the same kind of singing that energized the likes of "A Little Bit of Love." Likewise, "Rock Bottom" rides along on the same sort of Memphis groove that drove her 1992 hit, "No One Else on Earth." And the only real difference between the sound of last year's "My Strongest Weakness" and this year's "Is It Over" is instrumentation. Otherwise, she handles these ballads with the same blend of soulful expression and intensity.
In other words, she hasn't lost anything in the transition from country to pop. But she has made gains -- both as a singer and as an artist. For one thing, she really understands how to exploit the power of her voice, whether by raising it in a joyful gospel shout for "Baby King" or by pulling back just enough to reveal the sorrow beneath a song like "I Just Drove By."
Even better, she's not afraid to take chances. That's why "Yesterday" stands out as one of the album's most exciting moments, for not only does she wring every drop of anguish and venom from the song's you-done-me-wrong lyric, but she
delivers those lines with a bluesy fervor that recalls Robert Cray's best work -- an unexpected association but completely appropriate for the song.
So to get back to our original question: When is country music not country music? When it's sung so distinctively and so well that the usual pigeonholes no longer apply. And that's definitely the case with "Tell Me Why."