'Red Hot' has country, but little focus

Good intentions cover a multitude of faults, but they're not quite enough to make "Red Hot + Country" (Mercury 314 522 639, arriving in stores today) the success it ought to be.

Conceived and coordinated by the folks responsible for "Red Hot + Blue" and "Red Hot + Dance," "Red Hot + Country" is an all-star album intended to raise money for AIDS-related charities nationwide. Like the other "Red Hot" projects, it boasts an impressive cast of contributors -- Johnny Cash, Kathy Mattea, Brooks & Dunn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Carl Perkins and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, to name a few -- and an eclectic blend of styles.


What it lacks, though, is focus. Unlike the other "Red Hot" albums, which were built around a specific theme (dance music for "Red Hot + Dance," the songs of Cole Porter for "Red Hot + Blue"), "Red Hot + Country" is literally all over the map.

Ostensibly, the album is about roots -- that is, music that was central to the musical development of these artists -- and some of these selections provide a revealing glimpse into the musical personalities assembled here. For instance, it's wonderfully instructive to hear Jimmy Dale Gilmore tackle Willie Nelson's "Crazy," particularly when Nelson himself joins in. It's not often two generations of Austin eccentricity intersect like that.


Likewise, hearing Suzy Bogguss, Alison Krauss and Kathy Mattea join Crosby, Stills & Nash for a beautifully-harmonized "Teach Your Children" says more about the relationship between So-Cal rock and contemporary country than any critic ever could. And it would be hard to imagine a better way of understanding where the fire in Marty Stuart's vocal approach comes from than listening to him sing the gospel standards "Up Above My Head/Blind Bartimus" with Jerry and Tammy Sullivan.

But it's pretty hard to hear much James Taylor in the sound of Sammy Kershaw -- and considering how completely Kershaw oversings Taylor's "Fire and Rain," it's not hard to see why. (Could he be the Michael Bolton of country music?) As for Carl Perkins' remake of "Matchbox" with Duane Eddy and the Mavericks, are we to assume that Perkins was influenced by himself? Or was the song just an excuse for this crew to rock out in the studio?

For a collection called "Red Hot + Country," rock and roll crops up quite a lot. It isn't just Bogguss, Krauss and Mattea singing CSN, or Kershaw copping from James Taylor; there's also Mattea's duet rendition of "Rock Me On the Water," with Jackson Browne, and Johnny Cash doing Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." Add in Nanci Griffith's rendition of "If These Old Walls Could Talk" -- cut with that noted country singer Jimmy Webb -- and what emerges is an album that stretches the bounds of country music a little farther than they normally go.

Is that reason enough to avoid the album? Not really. Especially when there's so much the collection does right, like giving Mary-Chapin Carpenter a forum for the touching "Willie Short" or letting Dolly Parton have at the old George Jones number "You've Gotta Be My Baby."

Though "Red Hot + Country" may have its flaws, they're not impossible to overlook. Besides, if charity is supposed to begin at home, the stereo is as good a place as any to start.


To hear excerpts from "Red Hot + Country," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6176 after the greeting.