Sweethearts of the Jukebox: Parsons, Carpenter, Wainwright

Party Doll and Other Favorites. Mary Chapin Carpenter. Columbia.

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons . Various artists. Almo Sounds.

Social Studies. Loudon Wainwright III. Hannibal Records.

Meat-and-potatoes rock-and-roll is officially in the ICU. Tom Petty’s latest album peaked at No. 10 and plummeted; Springsteen and the Stones are touring as oldies acts; and John Mellencamp–that young, brash upstart–can be seen on a VH1 retrospective talking about his heart attack.

Interestingly, to fill the void, both NPR cognoscenti and the hoi polloi have turned to the same stopgap: country-folk-rock hybrid. For the NPR set, the mid-80’s troika of Dwight Yoakam, K.D. Lang and Lyle Lovett made twanging acceptable; more recently Wilco, Whiskeytown and Lucinda Williams have delivered intimate versions of the grit and yearning that Nirvana isn’t around to bang home.

In a parallel universe, the masses have made megamillionaires of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, acts that seem to use focus groups to calibrate just how much corn to put in the recipe to sate both country and rock fans. (For the European remix of her latest album, Ms. Twain muffled the fiddles, suggesting her allegiance is less to Stetsons than to Benjamins.)

Though not that far apart musically, the two camps remain distinct. Occasionally, cult folkies like Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin fluke into hit singles, but ultimately it tarnishes their cachet among the esthetes, who stop listening to music that plays on supermarket sound systems.

These three recent compilations all fall into the nebulous alt.country-folk-rock category, with three very different backgrounds: a multiplatinum artist; someone whose sole hit was 25 years ago; and a tribute to a long-dead legend who never had a hit but whose stock has steadily risen.

Though usually classified as a country artist, Washington, D.C., native Mary Chapin Carpenter has always seemed more like a female Springsteen, a singer-songwriter who’s a rock road warrior. In 1992, she wedded urban and rural on her fourth album, Come On, Come On (on which she covered Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses”) and sold 3 million copies. She didn’t really become a household name, but Ms. Carpenter went on to play on Sesame Street , at the Super Bowl and for the troops in Bosnia–and unlike Shania Twain, she did it all without the benefit of any navel-baring videos. (Ms. Carpenter’s looks are as refreshingly untweaked as her plain-spoken lyrics.)

But after Come On, Come On , Ms. Carpenter’s albums weren’t consistent; when I saw the song titles “Ideas Are Like Stars” and “What if We Went to Italy” on 1996’s A Place in the World , I passed.

So it was refreshing to rediscover her on her new career retrospective, Party Doll and Other Favorites , which she aptly describes in the liner notes as “less about hit-driven careers and more about what happens musically between those moments on the charts.” It’s a showcase for her soulful, playful singing, her excellent songwriting and canny covers.

Party Doll collates studio versions of hits with live renditions, a soundtrack song, a wonderful original lullaby from a kids’ album and a handful of new numbers. Ms. Carpenter proves herself equally capable of writing catchy line-dancing rave-ups (“I Feel Lucky,” in which she joshingly imagines Mr. Lovett and Mr. Yoakam flirting with her), lyrically substantive rockers (“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” about a woman liberating herself from a bad marriage) and heart-rending ballads (“Stones in the Road”).

Most impressive are her retoolings of her songbook. The opener, “Can’t Take Love for Granted,” from a performance on Late Show With David Letterman , rips off the roof; not remembering the original, I went back to the album it came from, Shooting Straight in the Dark , and heard a somber, almost colorless version. Ms. Carpenter does the reverse on her early “Quittin’ Time”; slowing it down and paring back the instrumentation to just guitar and piano, she plumbs its deep beauty. Though she deserves as much success as Shania Twain, Ms. Carpenter’s lucky that she never got so big that she became a joke; now that she’s out of the glare of the spotlight, she deserves reconsideration by the hipoisie.

Gram Parsons has been a hipoisie darling for most of the 26 years since he died at the age of 26. Parsons, born Ingram Connor III, was an unlikely savior for country music–a trust-fund, Harvard dropout who decked himself out in custom-made embroidered rodeo suits. But he was the first to rediscover meaning and purpose in country and fuse it with rock-and-roll spirit, and every recording he made in his short career is worth owning: his landmark album with the Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo , his subsequent splinter group the Flying Burrito Brothers, and his two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel , and a live album.

But his fame is mostly through association. Parsons’ plaintive vocals and personal songwriting inspired Keith Richards to write “Wild Horses” and strongly influenced the Eagles (“Desperado,” not “The Long Run”). He discovered Emmylou Harris, who started out as his backup singer; U2 called its hit album The Joshua Tree because Parsons’ remains were cremated at that national monument after his death from assorted controlled substances.

So he’s the perfect artist for the tribute format–in fact, there’s already been one mediocre tribute. But now his ex, Emmylou Harris, has supervised a better attempt, Return of the Grievous Angel , enlisting many who cite him as an influence, including Sheryl Crow, Beck, the Pretenders, Elvis Costello and the Cowboy Junkies. She also snared Flying Burrito Chris Hillman (dueting with Steve Earle) and Byrd David Crosby (dueting with Lucinda Williams), the Gen-X version of Parsons and herself (Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield) and the aforementioned Wilco and Whiskeytown.

The best cuts don’t stray very far from the originals–the album is carried more by the familiarity of the voices than any artistic achievement. Of the two radical rethinks, the Cowboy Junkies’ “Oooh Las Vegas” is impressive–but, ultimately, it’s just another Cowboy Junkies tune; and Wilco’s rave-up of “One Hundred Years From Now” seems strained.

Some of the songs here aren’t as good as covers previously recorded: Why not include Mr. Costello’s version of “Hot Burrito #1 (I’m Your Toy),” from his Almost Blue , which blows away the Mavericks’ overproduced faux-Roy Orbison version of the same song? Or Mr. Yoakam and Ms. Lang’s “Sin City,” which outstrips Beck and Emmylou’s?

Reviewers’ copies of the album came with a companion CD of Parsons’ originals of the same cuts; I wish Almo Sounds had gotten permission to do the same with the commercial release, so newcomers could get past the celebrity aspect and hear the real thing.

It’s hard to believe that when Parsons died, Loudon Wainwright III had already had a huge hit record, and yet here he is, a generation’s worth of albums and touring later, and the hyperliterate acoustic troubadour is still playing one-night stands at the Bottom Line.

It’s not fair; I recently listened to the re-release of his early album, Attempted Moustache , and realized that Mr. Wainwright is one of the few artists who has actually gotten better as he’s gotten older. His voice has deepened and gotten more soulful (listen to his wonderful lead on Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” from the recent family album, The McGarrigle Hour ) and his songwriting has gotten less gimmicky and more honed.

He’s endured the misfortune of scoring a novelty hit with “Dead Skunk” in 1972, obscuring the depth of his best work; and, more recently, of being eclipsed by his son Rufus Wainwright, who was named “Best New Artist” last year by Rolling Stone . In the interim, Loudon has reliably cranked out countless cranky, catchy albums of amusement and torment.

His latest, Social Studies (Hannibal Records), runs the risk of being an entire album of novelties. These are songs ripped from the day’s headlines originally written and performed for National Public Radio over the past 15 years. (Anybody remember Tonya Harding? Jesse Helms?) In almost anyone else’s hands–though who else would even try this?–these songs would be the kind you’d listen to once and never again, like a comedy album.

But Mr. Wainwright is so remarkable a tunesmith and wordsmith that the songs outlive their subjects. I cringed at the thought of a song about O.J. Simpson at this late date, but his chorus won me over:

There’s blood and mud and tears and gloves and coverage never stops

Experts, next door neighbors, sex and drugs and dogs and cops.

The NPR songs may not be as compelling as Mr. Wainwright’s best navel-gazing work–about his multiple divorces and flings and midlife crises–but he’s a deft observer of the world, whether it’s on the aging of rock (“Gerry has a pacemaker …”), smokers congregating outside (“The new street people”), or waging war via CNN. On the prophetic “Inaugural Blues,” written about the Clinton era, he wrote the line, “Hope we grow up before we’re old.”

Mr. Wainwright has made a blatant attempt to score Dead Skunk II with “Y2K,” a sort of funked-up talking-folk song about computer doomsday. But musically, he’s trying too hard to be hip, and lyrically he comes off too crotchety (“But we used to imagine, question and dream/ And now all of our answers come up on some screen”) to achieve the ubiquity of, say, Baz Luhrmann’s Internet-driven hit “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen).”

Though Mr. Wainwright’s record label is pushing “Y2K” as a single, the only deejays I’ve heard play it are Meg Griffin on WFUV-FM and Vin Scelsa on his terrific Idiot’s Delight show, Sunday nights on WNEW-FM.

No matter. I bet Rufus hopes he’s doing this well when he’s in his 50’s. Sweethearts of the Jukebox: Parsons, Carpenter, Wainwright