Janie Fricke has had a long, winding career. She started out as a singer of TV commercial jingles, warbling for Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Red Lobster, among other clients. She then moved on to singing back-up vocals for stars such as Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Taking another tentative step toward the limelight, she began singing duets with established male stars, including Merle Haggard, Johnny Duncan and Charlie Rich. Finally, she recorded a solo hit, "Down to My Last Broken Heart," in 1981.
Now, decades after her last big hits, Fricke has moved into bluegrass territory, rearranging some of her best-known music on the album Country Side of Bluegrass. She's still singing hits like "Down to My Broken Heart," but now there's fiddle and banjo behind it.
At her 1980s peak, Fricke was very much a pop-country singer. She benefited from smooth, creamy production work by Billy Sherrill, and she always wanted to reach beyond the core country audience by putting bounce in her ballads. On Country Side of Bluegrass, however, she sounds as though she's riding a covered wagon singing one of her '80s No. 1 hits, "Tell Me a Lie."
"Tell Me a Lie" is interesting when you listen past Fricke's pretty vocal to focus on the lyric. She's picking up a guy she knows is married, but she's lonely; she just wants him to lie, to say he's single, and take her to her place for the night. It's a rather bold variation on country music's perennial theme of cheating with or without much guilt. The bluegrass versions of her greatest hits work best when she's working out a more prosaic theme — falling for a more available guy who she knows is going to dump her, but she can't resist the temporary thrill, as she does in "He's a Heartache."
The weakest aspect of Country Side of Bluegrass resides in some of Fricke's vocals. All those years of singing commercial jingles and accommodating duets with other stars smoothed over the edges in her voice, and she can sometimes sound merely slick. This is a move to regain some attention at a time when middle-aged women have a difficult time competing in the current Taylor Swift/Carrie Underwood universe. Janie Fricke uses the urgency she feels to sustain her career to flood her bluegrass with compelling emotion.