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3 SINGER-SONGWRITERS RISE ABOVE THE CROWD

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A playwright would probably visualize it something like this:

Boy to his father: "Daddy, I want to be a songwriter when I grow up."Father to his son: "But Johnny, can't you chase higher dreams, like being a garbage collector or junkyard manager or street sweeper?"

Sad but true, songwriters are a dime a dozen. (How many songwriters does it take to change a light bulb? About a hundred. One to write the song about it and 99 to sit around and say "I could do that.") A sadder truth is that really good songwriters are often lost in the tidal wave of mediocrity that has accompanied the resurgence of the singer-songwriter genre.

Unfortunately, for every Tracy Chapman or Suzanne Vega who makes millions, there are a hundred others all but forgotten a year later. Finding a good singer-songwriter is harder than ever, but it is still possible to find that diamond in the rough.

Pat Alger is always a good bet. An unassuming, feel-good kind of songwriter, Alger has long been a favorite of the country-folk set, including Kathy Mattea and Nanci Griffith. Alger hit the big time, sort of, when in 1990 he co-wrote "The Thunder Rolls," which became a huge hit for Garth Brooks.

Alger's latest album, "Seeds," offers his own quieter rendition of that tune, complete with backing vocals by Trisha Yearwood. Other songs feature Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, Tim O'Brien and more Yearwood.

Alger has a knack for pleasant songs draped in simplicity and subtleties. He sings about people and overcoming adversity and being true to love and those who love you. He is clearly a man at peace with himself, his relationships and the road he has traveled.

Particularly good is "Unanswered Prayers," about how he and his wife bumped into his high school girlfriend and he recalled how he had once prayed to God to make her his forever. She "wasn't quite the angel I remembered in my dreams," he sings, adding "Just because he don't answer doesn't mean he don't care, 'cause some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

Religious imagery is also evident on the title track: "We're all just seeds in God's hands, we start the same but where we land, is sometimes fertile soil and sometimes sand, we're all just seeds in God's hands."

Also exceptional is the new release by Ted Hawkins, a one-time Venice Beach street musician who embodies the spirit of traditional blues and folk. He doesn't just try to sound like Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly or Blind Willie Johnson. He has lived and breathed and touched the very things that first nurtured the country-blues movement.

As jaded as Hawkins could have become with all the twists and turns in his life, his music nonetheless exudes a quiet peacefulness of inevitability and self-assurance. It is powerful, palpable and entirely believable.

The sheer emotional power of his voice is as remarkable as the words he shares. His smoky voice creeps into the subconscious, discarding metaphor in favor of matter-of-fact realities that define troubles, pains and dis-ill-u-sion-ment.

"The Next Hundred Years" lacks that sparse, acoustic feel of past Hawkins recordings, but that is not all bad. The electric guitars and pedal steel are kept in the background just enough to complement the simplicity of Hawkins acoustic guitar.

Particularly good are "Strange Conversation" and "Groovy Little Things" (which contains the Robert Johnson-esque line "My baby tastes like good gravy").

And "The Good and the Bad" is a masterpiece of internalized pain: "Living is good, when you have someone to live with, laughter is bad, when there's no one to share it with, talking is bad, if you've got no one to talk to, dying is good, when the one you love grows tired of you."

"Afraid" has a classic country feel with weeping guitars (Roy Rogers could have done backup vocals). "Green-Eyed Girl" is the story of a black man fantasizing about a white girl, and "Ladder of Success" is a "message" that to get to the top of the ladder you have to know somebody. A tired theme in folk music, but one that works with Hawkins voice.

Not as well known as Alger, Hawkins is an American treasure whose music will undoubtedly survive long after he's gone.

Pierce Pettis' "Chase the Buffalo" is also quite good but not up to the standard set by Alger or Hawkins. Saddled with studio production that is just a little too slick, "Buffalo" wanders a bit between folk and pop.

There are flashes of brilliance, as on the seductively beautiful "Natchez Trace," a 1985 tune inspired by writer Eudora Welty. And "No More Sad Songs," co-written with Jonathan Edwards, and "Appalachian Bloodlines," a riveting story about coal-blackened faces, weekend football games, going to church on Sunday morning and 16-year-old brides.

Lyrically, Pettis has John Prine-like talent for twisting words and phrases, as in phrases like "The presence of your absence follows me" and "the silence of your voice deafens me" from the exceptional "You're Not There." Vocally, the comparisons to John Gorka are inevitable.

Even when average, as he is from time to time here, Pettis still a far cry better than the 99 other songwriters out there who listen to Pettis and say "I can do that." They can't.