Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

White Country Blues (1926-1938): A Lighter Shade of Blue [Columbia/Legacy, 1994]
Columbia has mined its blues catalogue with an assiduousness that verges on exploitation--the thematic albums are dully inconsistent, the single-artist jobs find deathless art in every $20 take. But this one is fascinating and fun. By now the sound of half-remembered crackers co-opting, emulating, and creating 12-bar laments and 16-bar romps is more provocative than the sound of black "originals" that are often only versions themselves. It fleshes out our dim awareness that Sam Phillips's white-rebels-singing-the-blues had a long history in the South (and you thought Carl Perkins wrote "Matchbox" like the Beatles said he did). Breaching the borders of the status quo, these hillbilly troubadours hewed to the innocent escapism of small-time show business--they stole only the catchiest tunes, and when the jokes fell flat they pumped in their own. In the course of two hour-long discs, there's still the occasional irritating sense that three generations later, ordinary subcultural entertainment music has been declared good for you. But mostly it's just ribald rhymes and wrecked romance--sometimes pained, but imbued with a droll detachment that epitomizes rural cool. If late minstrelsy was anything like this, I'm sorry we haven't heard more. A-