First time I read the word "countrypolitan," it was Ray Charles' landmark collection of country and western classics, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (from whence came his distinctly stamped covers of "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me"). As used to describe Charles' 1962 LP, the term suited the man's urbane blend of big band sounds with the likes of Hank Williams & Don Gibson, though it would later morph into a catch-all label for a blander brand of Nashville pop. Fortunately, those rascally camel-walkers in Southern Culture on the Skids have come along to revitalize the term with Countrypolitan Favorites (Yep Roc), a covers set that (as with Ray Charles) even includes a Gibson classic.
As a group, SCOTS have historically worn their influences openly – redoing Slim Harpo in Spanish on an early EP, name-checking Tony Joe White in another track, brazenly slathering Creedence Clearwater guitar work on a slew of tracks, jokingly blundering through a raucous cover of the Louvin Brothers' atom aged cautionary – so a Moondog's Café worth of countrypolitan faves was probably inevitable. To be honest, I wasn't initially sure if this was the best tack for the band to take: to my ears, a big part of SCOTS' appeal has long rested in their comically detailed original lyrics. But, bottom line, Countrypolitan Favorites proves a whole lotta fun.
One of the keys to the new disc's success is the greater prominence devoted to bassist Mary Huff's vocals - where previous albums typically contained one Huff track to guitarist Rick Miller's twelve, Favorites puts the group's female voice up front more often. Whether tackling risqué Wanda Jackson (the undeservedly obscure "Funnel of Love") or an incendiary track by John Fogerty's prototype Golliwogs ("Fight Fire"), harmonizing with Miller on a T. Rex track (a sweetly woozy "Life's A Gas") or a George Jones invitation to spouse-swapping ("Let's Invite Them Over"), she remains the band's sultry center. Miller is the whiz with the guitar (check that rollicking break on "On Lonesome Me") and can be a witty drawler in his own right (even approximates a Ray Davies moan on "Muswell Hillbilly," though he also goes a bit broad on this great Kinks track in places), but Huff is the real deal. Just listen to her snatch Joe South's "Rose Garden" away from simpy ol' Lynn Anderson and you'll know what I'm talkin' about.
Per the SCOTS credo, Favorites mixes pure and impure country and blues faves (nice psychedelic blues remake of Harpo's "Te Ni Nee Ni Nu") with garage-stained remakes (a strongly respectful version of the Byrds' "Have You Seen Her Face," a CCR-indebted remake of the Blues Magoos' great "Tobacco Road" being among the highlights of the latter) – no surf instrumentals, but then I s'pose it's a major squeeze to try and cram that under the "countrypolitan" umbrella. Unlike too many cover sets, Miller and company don't fall into the trap of attempting to replicate the originals at the expense of their own sound: as with Ray Charles' (remember him?) groundbreaking Modern Sounds, each track is burnished with the band's unique sonic stamp. Only time they arguably fall down is on the finish, a bluegrass remake of the Who's "Happy Jack" that comes across more a novelty than a fully realized song. But that's only a small misstep in an elpee that's already provided more genuwine country rockin' than you'll hear in a month o' mainstream radio. True Alt Countrypolitan.