Funny how quick people are to crown Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell as the kings of honky-tonk, that crossbred country-goes-to-city sound that was born in the scant handful of years before Elvis ripped open a hole into an alternative universe. But where's Webb Pierce in this party? Pierce had 13 No.1 hits, and sold 65 million records from 1951 to 1982.
Even so, that's not what made Pierce great or even important -- nor was it his huge gaudy Pontiac studded with silver dollars, guns and cattle horns, his fondness for Nudie suits louder than his cars, or his guitar-shaped pool that pissed off his neighbors, among them Ray "Ahab the Arab" Stevens.
What made Pierce significant was his ability to spot great songs, add the first real tonnage of chrome-shiny pedal steel guitar, and sing the hell out of them. When Pierce's voice and that steel took after songs like "There Stands the Glass," nothing could dull the sound, not grinding gears, air brakes or rubber on asphalt. His music rode higher than any breaking glass or barroom scuffle.
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Which is to say that this tribute CD is way overdue, and that Pierce, who died in 1991, is being honored by a number of people who range in age and experience from his wizened contemporaries, among them George Jones, Charley Pride, and Willie Nelson, to many younger contributors, such as Dwight Yoakam, Robbie Fulks with Joy Lynn White, Alison Moorer (a very sweet version of "Back Street Affair"), and Emmylou Harris, with her ghostly take on "Wondering."
Gail Davis, who launched the project, has managed to bring together 23 diverse talents on 17 tracks, including Pierce's daughter Deborah (with Kevin Welch), Dale Watson with a Blasters-flavored version of "In the Jailhouse Now," and "No Love Have I," by Pam Tillis, whose father, the g-g-great Mel, wrote or co-wrote five other songs on the disc.
What's true about Pierce is true about this tribute disc: Morning or darkest night, these songs can take you to the end of the road with the high beams on, and that's saying a lot.