The latest freshman -- freshwoman? -- country music class assembled by L.A. radio station KZLA-FM (93.9) had all the personalities you'd find in any group of first-year high school or college students.
The station's all-female "Class of 2004" concert Tuesday at the Grove Theatre in Anaheim offered one sassy upstart ("Redneck Woman" Gretchen Wilson), three perky sorority sisters (the Jenkins mother-daughter trio), a winsome beauty queen (Jessi Alexander), the bubbly good ol' girl (Julie Roberts) and the sociable intellectual (Mindy Smith).
What is most refreshing, at a time when two solid years of male domination at the top of the country singles chart recently came to an end with Wilson's hit, is that in varying degrees all these women bring a welcome gust of individuality back to the music that's produced too many cookie-cutter stars of both sexes lately.
Smith weighed in as the valedictorian of Monday's show with a too-brief 20-minute set sampling highlights of her "One Moment More" album, one of the year's most striking debuts.
Her songs hit achingly close to the bone, particularly the title track.
She wrote it for, and dedicated it to, her mother, who died of cancer in 1991, but it also succeeds as both a beautiful farewell and a beacon of hope in the face of loss.
Aided only by mandolinist Les Price, the unlikely country-folk singer from Long Island pumped her four-song opening set full of enough commitment to capture the attention of a capacity crowd that still hadn't fully filtered in when she began. Fortunately, she's due at the Knitting Factory tonight where she'll have a chance to delve deeper into her acutely observed material.
In an oddly paced show that put its heart (Smith) and edge (Wilson) on first and second, Wilson arrived with a six-man band that gave musical muscle to match her lyrical punch.
Even though her album is just 2 months old and still sits atop the country album chart, she veered from it for a couple of new numbers that proved she's got more surprises up her sleeve.
Like Smith, Wilson knows what's on her mind and isn't afraid of saying it with the directness and authenticity missing from so much contemporary country songwriting. Rather than piling on cliches or resorting to generic sentimentality, Wilson boldly draws from real life, of which she experienced plenty growing up in Indiana trailer parks with her single mom.
In the witty new "California Girls," Wilson flipped the concept of the Beach Boys' hit inside out, singing, "There's nothing wrong with plastic surgery / But that Paris Hilton really gets to me.... Ain't you glad we ain't all California girls?"
She's not all hiss and vinegar, though, as she demonstrated with the ballad "When I Think About Cheating," a weeper in which consideration for her partner's feelings guides her safely through the minefield of temptation.
Tennessean Alexander has a seductively rich voice that lives up to the title of her forthcoming debut album "Honeysuckle Sweet." She writes or co-writes most of her classic rock-informed country-folk material, which isn't as deeply moving as Smith's nor as powerfully forthright and catchy as Wilson's, but she brought a sweet charm and spark of originality to her 20-minute set.
The Jenkins trio have a star-in-progress in 17-year-old singer Brodie Jenkins, the younger of matriarch Nancy Jenkins' two daughters who perform with her in the group. They elicit natural comparisons to the Judds, particularly their single "Blame It on Mama," not just because of the family dynamic but also because of their folksy, family-centered stories and Brodie's soulful, occasionally gospel-inflected delivery.
Their three-part harmonies are as skilled as those of the Dixie Chicks, and for the debut album arriving in the fall they've blended Nancy's Kentucky roots with the latent-hippie mind-set from the Northern California milieu where she's raised her daughters.
South Carolina native Roberts is as down-home as they come, sounding at times like the daughter Dolly Parton never had. Her eagerness to please, however, sometimes overshadowed well-chosen material from the new debut album that carries her name and includes believably world-weary songs by Jamie O'Hara ("You Ain't Down Home") and Lisa Carver ("Wake Up Older").
As a class, all earned more than passing marks, Smith and Wilson showing themselves more than ready to graduate to pop music's upper division.
Mindy Smith and Jessi Alexander
Who: Mindy Smith
Where: Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 7:30 tonight
Info: (323) 463-0204
Who: Jessi Alexander
Where: Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd., L.A.
When: 7 tonight
Price: Not available
Contact: (323) 461-2040