december 2011

Janie Fricke: She wins.

A Bluegrass Road Leads Back To Country

Revisionist thoughts on a reissued gem

By David McGee

Janie Fricke
New Music Deals

Born and raised on a farm in Indiana, Janie Fricke was smitten by music at a young age, but she was most enthralled by the folk of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. In the ‘70s, when she began her country career as an in-demand background vocalist and made her first (and largely ignored) solo recordings, her mealticket in a changing country mainstream was her light, bright pop voice. In the ‘80s, after teaming up with producer Billy Sherrill, architect of the countrypolitan sound with its pop gloss and lush strings, Fricke dominated the charts, notching seven #1 singles between 1982 and 1986, twice winning the Country Music Association’s “Female Vocalist of the Year” award (1982, 1983) and even appearing as one of the bad guys in an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. However much the fans liked Fricke, some country music veterans and historians viewed her as a possible harbinger of traditional country’s doom. In the 1985 revision of his essential tome Country Music USA, Bill C. Malone worried that “country music’s future may well be in the hands of such entertainers as Janie Fricke and Lee Greenwood, the CMA’s choices in 1983 as the Female and Male Singers of the Year, both of whom came from non-country backgrounds and whose styles lie in the pop mainstream. The innovations represented by such singers may make country more commercial and more broadly appealing; they might also destroy it.”

Janie Fricke, live in 1982 performing her first #1 single, ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby. This was also the year she picked up her first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award. A new version of this classic is featured on Country Side of Bluegrass.

Greenwood is the worst kind of caricature of a country singer, but Fricke made a lot of good records with Billy Sherrill. Granted, these may well have laid the groundwork for succeeding generations of female artists nominally designated as country but advancing a decidedly rock-based musical hybrid, a path that leads inevitably to the operatic arena country of Carrie Underwood and the sloppy warbling and clichéd soundscapes of Taylor Swift. Considered in light of the current mainstream country trends, Ms. Fricke’s ‘80s hits sound deeply rooted in tradition.

Ms. Fricke has recorded sporadically since the ‘90s while spending more time involved in fundraising and charitable activities, as well as continuing the Janie Fricke Scholarship at Indiana University for members of the Singing Hoosiers ensemble in need of financial aid. In 2004, in a deal with DM Records, she went in a studio with some of the top bluegrass and roots musicians in the business (the likes of Luke Bulla, Randy Kohrs, Andy Leftwich, Mark Fain, Jimmy Mattingly, et al.) and re-recorded an album’s worth of her big hits (plus a version of “Ring of Fire”) in bluegrass style, four years before Ricky Skaggs did the very same thing. The Bluegrass Sessions received warm reviews, and was a reminder of the stellar work Fricke did in her commercial heyday.

Janie Fricke, live in 1986, performing one of her #1 singles from 1982, ‘It Ain’t Easy Being Easy.’ A new version of this hit is featured on Country Side of Bluegrass.

The 2004 album (produced by the estimable veteran Bill VornDick) is newly available as Country Side of Bluegrass, with a bonus DVD as part of the package. Fricke’s voice is still light and airy; it has none of the mountain ring that makes Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton credible as both country and bluegrass artists, but the odd thing about these revisited and revised numbers is how well they would have fit in with the New Traditionalist movement in the ‘80s before the bell tolled on it with the rise of Garth Brooks. Her plaintive cry in the brisk rendition of “I’ll Need Someone to Hold Me” is a tender wonder, and Kohrs provides a couple of evocative, flashy dobro solos to boot; the strength and sincerity she brings to “Goodbye Broken Heart” are the sounds of a woman reclaiming her life after a love affair goes awry, a triumph the bouncy, banjo-inflected arrangement suggests; “Don’t Worry ‘bout Me Baby,” her first #1 single (1982), is now a brisk, confident, self-affirming declaration, with a frisky vocal and spirited, striking solos by guitarist Johnny Hiland and fiddler Leftwich; and the rootsy version of “Ring of Fire” is a compelling cross of Johnny Cash’s hit and Anita Carter’s original mountain soul rendition, with Fricke delivering a beautifully modulated vocal subtly shaded to heighten the song’s drama, especially in the intense, singsong chorus.

From an undated performance in Norway, Janie Fricke performs the 1960 Hank Locklin hit penned by Don Robertson and Hal Blair, ‘Please Help Me, I’m Falling.’ Fricke’s recording was a #12 single in 1978 and was included on her debut album. A bluegrass version is featured on Country Side of Bluegrass.

Because he came into country with deep bluegrass roots, it wasn’t too surprising to hear how close to bluegrass were all those chart topping Ricky Skaggs country hits; Ms. Fricke had no such background in bluegrass, and her singing will never satisfy bluegrass purists, but the irony of her laudable effort on Country Side of Bluegrass is in the way its performances prove she was way more country than the pundits and hardliners ever gave her credit for back in the day. She wins.

Janie Fricke’s Country Side of Bluegrass is available at her website.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024