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"IDON'T want to be a star. I just want to be a real woman."
No, Pete Townsend didn't write those words.

Rosanne Cash did, on the best country album of 1990.

It's funny how two short lines can so perfectly summarize the musical approach that makes Johnny Cash's daughter the early favorite to become the country music artist of the 1990s.

Real emotion and raw, honest music -- that's what makes Cash's Interiors one of those rare, treasured albums that gets better with each hearing.

Cash's music has grown at an astonishing rate in the past few years since she learned a simple lesson: In the recording studio, less is often more. With "Interiors," she has fashioned a dark, introspective set of songs that nicely complements the more upbeat "King's Record Shop," her breakthrough effort of 1987.

Despite the success of that record, she has generally avoided the usual glitzy trappings of stardom over the past three years. Cash tours only sporadically, preferring to spend most of her time at home, raising her children and sharpening her music.

As the New York Daily News recently put it,"Rosanne Cash should teach a new music course called 'Crossover 101,' which would teach both country and rock singers how to correctly meld the two idioms without compromising their integrity."

As its title suggests, "Interiors" is truly a look at one woman's deepest fears and feelings.

"In every woman and man lies the seed of fear," she sings on the stunning "Dance With the Tiger."

"Of just how alone are all who live here./Denying the fear is the name of the game./To stare at the fear is going insane."

In "This World," she sings about fearing a world that is "spinning out of control." This revelation comes after she reads a newspaper story about a 9-month-old baby beaten to death by the baby's father.

You won't hear a weeping steel guitar or a string section on any of the 10 songs here. The arrangements are straight-ahead and spare, built on the bedrock rhythms of drummer Eddie Bayers, bassist Michael Rhodes and guitar wizard Steuart Smith. An extraordinarily weird bit of acoustic guitar by veteran folkie John Stewart flavors "Dance With the Tiger." On "Real Woman," Cash's husband, Rodney Crowell, joins in on the chorus.

Overpowering in its simplicity, "Interiors" is Breakthrough No. 2 for Cash. Who knows? Gutsy, chance-taking songwriters like her, John Hiatt and Mary Chapin Carpenter may take country in a new, better direction in the decade to come.

Rating: *****

When I look at Dwight Yoakam's album covers, I'm reminded of what bothers me about him.

On the back cover of his latest, If There Was a Way, there's handsome Dwight, wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans. But wait -- a closer look reveals a large hole has been expertly ripped at the right knee of his jeans. You know, the kind of jeans that cost you $50 or more in some fancy boutique. This is a cowboy who has his clothes made by a tailor on Rodeo Drive.

Like his clothes, Yoakam's music doesn't always ring true. But the man does have talent, and his guitarist, Pete Anderson, is one of the best.

His new album lacks a showing of much real emotion, but there are some very good moments in the 14 songs here. "Since I Started Drinkin' Again" is a jaunty little number, driven along by a fine group of bluegrass players. Despite its bitter message, "You're the One" is a very believable song, written from the point of view of a jilted lover who is being wooed again by the woman who broke his heart. "Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn It Loose" has a great Duane Eddy-style guitar lick.

By the way, when's the last time you heard of a country singer with a bass player named Taras Prodaniuk? If you like Yoakam's brand of L.A. country, this one will tickle you.

Rating:** 1/2

What to make of Steve Earle and the Dukes?

No doubt, Earle is a gritty, brave and independent artist, but is his loud brand of smash-face country powerful or just nasty?

Earle's cutting edge sharpens with each new outing, and The Hard Way is no exception. This guy doesn't play a song, he bludgeons it, with screaming vocals, sledgehammer guitars and lyrics that read like the devil wrote them.

Even a tune with an innocuous title like "Country Girl" turns out to be a sordid tale about a cocaine-snorting waif who left her rural home to find the party life in the big city.

"If her daddy could see her now," Earle snarls.

Earle scores points for daring to be different, but really, who wants to listen to this stuff?

Rating: **

Nashville churns out way too many Christmas albums every year, but when artists like Skip Ewing and Steve Wariner are involved, a little overdose of holiday cheer is acceptable.

Wariner's Christmas Memories is probably the best Christmas album we've heard since the Judds' effort of a few years back. Wariner's record is a pleasure because it's different.

Wariner contributes three new songs to the set, and those marvelous Irish music makers, Paddy Maloney and the Chieftains, lend their unique sound to "I Saw Three Ships" and "Past 3 O'Clock." Nice stuff.

Rating: ***

Ewing's Following Yonder Star is almost as nice, with a jazzy medley of old favorites and a pretty remake of Ewing's "It Wasn't His Child," a thought-provoking tale of St. Joseph which is the most poignant new Christmas song we've heard in years.


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