DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who is off this week.
Janie Fricke was one of the most popular country music vocalists of the 1980s. Between 1982 and '84, she scored six number one hits. Since then, her career has dimmed. But now she's back with an experiment in rearranging some of her biggest hits with bluegrass instrumentation.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says the collection, "Country Side of Bluegrass," is occasionally very successful.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T KNOW LOVE")
JANIE FRICKE: (Singing) You don't know the meaning of uncontrolled desire. You were always hanging just above the fire. Now and then you come close enough to just get warm and you think that you win 'cause you never give in and you never been burned. Oh, but you're going to learn that you don't know love till it's...
KEN TUCKER: 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. It sounded like this...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN TO MY LAST BROKEN HEART")
FRICKE: (Singing) Well, I've been down to my last dime. Down to the last dance. Down to the last time. Down to my last chance. Well, I've been down to nothing, left at all a time or two. This time I think I'm down to something I can't afford to lose. I think I'm down to my last broken heart. I think I'm falling in love with you. I'm just afraid to start until I know for sure our love won't fall apart. 'Cause I think I'm down to my last broken heart.
TUCKER: Now, decades after her last big hits, Fricke has moved on to bluegrass territory, rearranging some of her most well-known music on the album "Country Side of Bluegrass." And so this is what "Down to My Broken Heart" sounds like when you sing it with fiddle and banjo behind it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN TO MY LAST BROKEN HEART")
FRICKE: Well, I've been down to my last dime. Down to the last dance. Down to the last time. Down to my last chance. I've been down to nothing left at all a time or two. This time I think I'm down to something I can't afford to lose. I think I'm down to my last...
TUCKER: 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 number one hits, "Tell Me a Lie."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME A LIE")
FRICKE: (Singing) Tell me a lie. Say I look familiar, even though I know that you don't know my name. Tell me a lie. Say you just got into town, even though I've seen you here before just hangin' around. Ooh, tell me a lie...
TUCKER: That song "Tell Me a Lie" is an interesting one when you listen past Fricke's pretty vocal to focus on the lyric. She's picking up a guy whom she knows is married, but she's lonely and 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 developing a more prosaic theme - falling for a more available guy who she knows is going to dump her, but she still can't resist that temporary thrill, as she does on "He's a Heartache."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S A HEARTACHE")
FRICKE: (Singing) Well, you can't deny how good he looks. Couldn't find another on the cover of a book. Believe me. Well, I've almost loved him once or twice. But don't be fooled by his innocent smile. He's clever as a devil and just as wild. He's crazy. But a little crazy's kind of nice. Well, he's a heartache, looking for a place to...
TUCKER: The weakest aspect of this album 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. And Janie Fricke uses the urgency she feels to sustain her career to flood her bluegrass with compelling emotion.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed Janie Fricke's new album, called "Country Side of Bluegrass."
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