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A February issue of Billboard magazine asked, "Is Nashville Ready for Bob Woodruff?" Sure, he's from New York, but he's not the fast-talking, big-city heathen such a query might imply. Woodruff is simply delivering country music so straight down the middle and true to his influences--guys like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings--that it almost feels like he's breaking a law in the New Nashville.
It's guilt by association, however. Woodruff is not a rebel by deed, but by borrowing a musical page from his heroes, he's automatically become dangerous. Such are the ways of Music City.
Needless to say, country-music delinquents aren't particularly in vogue these days. No right-thinking person in Nashville would want a 1974 version of George Jones walking into his office for fear he'd vomit all over the reception-room carpet. No smooth-running label would sign a self-destructive Hank Williams or Gram Parsons to its roster; it's tough getting new albums out of dead people. Why sign a renegade when you can get a Frankie Avalon in a ten-gallon hat instead? Only thing is, renegades made some of the best country music ever.
"There're too many people [in Nashville] worrying about what they can or can't write about," says Woodruff. "I think that can stifle creativity. I don't worry about it; I write about whatever I feel like. And if it's something hard or sad, those are the kind of songs that got me into country in the first place." His first album, Dreams and Saturday Nights (released last week), is filled with echoes of country's golden age, but this is no museum piece. And don't expect some kind of CBGB meets the Grand Ole Opry mutation, either; what Woodruff has done is far more subtle. The singer has reclaimed traditional country-music values, most of which have nothing to do with families. We're talking drinking, heartbreak and loneliness. What could be simpler?
"There's a sense among the writers in Nashville to keep things positive," Woodruff offers. "I think there's a backlash to songs that mention drinking. There's nothing wrong with positive or funny songs, but there's also a lot of sadness in the world . . . it's important to reflect what's going on in people's lives." Dreams and Saturday Nights does just that. The album is rich with story songs, and is populated with characters whose futures rarely look beyond Saturday night. It's not hard to imagine the young couple dancing at New York's Nightingales bar--from the title track--becoming the dysfunctional pair living in a trailer with a persistently crying baby in "Poisoned at the Well." Woodruff takes the voice of the alcoholic loser in "I'm Standing Here (With Both Knees on the Ground)," and the title of the first single from the album is "Hard Liquor, Cold Women and Warm Beer."
So if the guy is writing all this brave, authentic, outlaw music, why does play-it-safe Nashville want anything to do with him?
"As country has gotten more successful, it's become more conservative," says a spokesman from Elektra records, one of the most progressive labels on Music Row. "But the way Nashville became successful in the first place was by taking risks. Bob isn't your typical, groomed country artist--he's from New York--but the bottom line is that he writes good songs. And if Nashville can't handle good songs, then we've got a real problem."
Just because Woodruff grew up north of the Mason-Dixon line doesn't mean he's some kind of country poseur; he listened to his father's records of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams as much as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. "I was aware of country music pretty early on," he says. "I was listening to the Clash when I first started writing, but one of the earliest songs I wrote was a country song called 'Motel Afternoon.'"
For seven years, he played the New York club circuit with his rock and country band, the Fields. The group recorded some demos for a deal with Restless Records that ultimately fell through, but those same recordings gained the ear--and interest--of the folks at the newly reactivated Asylum Records. Woodruff dumped the band, headed for Nashville and began cutting new demos with seasoned vets like the legendary guitarist James Burton--who cut his teeth playing with Ricky Nelson and Elvis--and Emmylou Harris. Harris, years ago the main squeeze of one of Woodruff's heroes, Gram Parsons, sang on the poignant "I'm the Train." Those demos got Woodruff a record deal.
The "Hard Liquor" single garnered decent radio airplay in markets ranging from New York's WYNY right on up to Anchorage, Alaska. That includes Phoenix, where it was in rotation on the Buck Owens-owned KNIX, a station whose "keep-it-new, keep-it-young" format ironically excludes the owner's classic recordings. It's surprising that the single made it to the KNIX airwaves at all, given the station's usual fare: nonalcoholic ditties, with plenty of songs about mature breakups and patriotism--songs anybody's mama could approve of.
You don't get your single played by slagging radio stations in interviews, something the diplomatic Woodruff obviously is aware of.
"There's good stuff out there," he says cautiously, "but also a lot of music that sounds more like soft rock than hard country."
Perhaps that's why "Hard Liquor"--which stalled out at No. 71 on the Billboard Hot Country 100--met some resistance in its run on the charts. "There were a number of stations that felt the song was too country," he says with a small chuckle. Nashville has a strange way of rewarding innovative newcomers like Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang by labeling them "pop artists" and later disowning them, but Woodruff doesn't count himself among that crowd. He's not buying into the Billboard headline, or the fact that Music City may not be all that enamored of his back-to-the-roots approach. After all, he's just a simple guy writing music he loves, going by the rules set up by the artists he learned from. Woodruff's not the wild man--they were. He just writes about it. "I'm not quirky, so I don't see Nashville having a problem with me," he says evenly. "I feel I am a country singer.