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Sweethearts of the Rodeo : "Rodeo Waltz" : Sugar Hill

January 13, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

In commercial terms, the Sweethearts of the Rodeo could be seen as heading in the wrong direction. After establishing a track record on the country charts, the harmonizing sister duo of Kristine Arnold and Janis Gill has signed to the small, independent, folk/bluegrass label, Sugar Hill, at a time when mainstream country is booming.

The move pays off artistically, though, as the sisters exercise the freedom a small label grants to choose varied material from out-of-the-mainstream sources, and to render it with tradition-steeped directness and simplicity.

But small label doesn't mean small potatoes in terms of hired help. The featured instrumentalist is Stuart Duncan, one of Nashville's top fiddlers. Duncan's forte is sweetness and lyricism, which makes him a perfect foil for the sisters' lovely close harmonies. Gill's husband, Vince, is now the big mainstream country star in the family, but here he is just the gittar-player, snapping out some excellent solos that recall the days when he was known for his bluegrass-inspired picking more than for his crooning. Sam Bush, one of the flashiest mandolin players around, shows he can handle a more circumscribed supporting role with taste and aplomb.

The material moves from old-line honky-tonk and country classics (a good, springy treatment of Johnny Cash's rockin' "Get Rhythm") to contributions from contemporary country songwriter Don Schlitz.

The Sweethearts also rope in some good ones from the rock and folk field. They cover Jesse Winchester's memorable convict-on-the-lam lament, "Brand New Tennessee Waltz," and the Gordon Lightfoot homecoming song "Steel Rail Blues" before closing the otherwise earthy record with an urgent reading of Robbie Robertson's epic-scale ballad of spiritual romance, "Broken Arrow."

Occasionally they go in for the utter schmaltz that clutters mainstream Nashville output: "Jenny Dreamed of Trains," by Vince Gill and the usually more hard-headed Guy Clark, is a treacly supernatural fantasy, while Schlitz's "Things Will Grow" trades in routine country sentiment about the sweetness and continuity of family life. Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike and therefore not the most fruitful ground for artistic endeavor; God knows country music is larded with too many sound-alike songs about the verities of home and hearth. The thing is, the Sweethearts handle the schmaltzy stuff so winsomely that you find yourself giving in to the sentimentality against your will.

Dangerous seductresses, these.

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