SAMMY KERSHAW; "Feelin' Good Train" (Mercury). * * * 1/2
Sammy Kershaw knows how to assemble an interesting mix. He serves up the slinky, slightly sleazy and thoroughly danceable "Third Rate Romance," then follows it with the gentle, lovely "If You Ever Come This Way Again."But the mix-master is barely getting started on "Feelin' Good Train," his latest album. His upbeat "National Working Woman's Holiday" combines a message with a fine sense of irony: "I'll call in sick and I'll be telling the truth, cause I'm sick and tired of how they're treating you."
Each song highlights a different instrument and sound, from the piano to the fiddle. But the most striking aspect is Kershaw's voice, which is full and distinctive. He doesn't let a syllable get away from him.
Good thing, too, because the album is packed with great imagery, like "If You're Gonna Walk, I'm Gonna Crawl" and "Better Call a Preacher": "My insides were shakin' like I'd caught the flu, better call a preacher cause a doctor won't do." It takes a lot of control not to dance to "If You're Gonna Walk, I'm Gonna Crawl."
"Southbound" is worth the price of the album. So is "Too Far Gone to Leave." Kershaw does a brilliant job of telling a story - especially if it's about heartache. "The Heart That Time Forgot" tops that list.
Kershaw closes out the album with the snappy, fast-paced "Never Bit a Bullet Like This," a duet with George Jones.
He doesn't claim to be a songwriter; he's a master of culling the best that has come from someone else's pen and making it his own.
THE MAVERICKS, "What a Crying Shame" (MCA). * * 1/2
Raul Malo, songbird for the Mavericks, has a voice that was specifically designed for country music.
Rich and steady, with a broad tenor range, it wraps itself comfortably around Bruce Spring- steen's bouncy "All That Heaven Will Allow" (which has just a touch of salsa sound) or the slower, melancholy tinged "Neon Blue," which comes equipped with sad-sack guitars. It doesn't hurt that Trisha Yearwood does background vocals on this one, either.
Malo also managed to write half of the songs.
"What a Crying Shame" is a pleasant album - a sort of "what's not to like" offering. But in the end, the sheer variety of sounds works against it. While it's not dull, it can't quite decide what it wants to be. Would you believe Bobby Darren meets Willie Nelson? I didn't, either.
The Mavericks, on this album at least, shine best when they're dishing up songs with good country dance rhythms, like "O What a Thrill" and "Ain't Found Nobody." But "Losing Side of Me" is a bright, toe-tapping surprise.
The album doesn't lack anything; it just doesn't get the listener cranked up very high.
KELLY WILLIS, "Kelly Willis" (MCA). * * *
Kelly Willis possesses the ultimate voice for country music. It's an alto that packs an emotional punch as she works her way through "Heaven's Just a Sin Away," "One More Night" and "Take It All out on You."
Then it becomes pure and sweet on "That'll Be Me," a duet with songwriter Kevin Welch. That song also features fine mandolin work by Michael Henderson. It's as rich and true as any voice on the country-music circuit today, thoroughly memorable for all the right reasons.
Pacing isn't everything, but Willis is certainly no slouch in that department, either. She picks up the pace with "Whatever Way the Wind Blows," then glides into the slow, let's-work-it-out "Get Real."
You can dance to it or cry to it. But if you love country music, you probably shouldn't miss it.
HANK FLAMINGO, "Hank Flamingo" (Giant). * *
The cover of this album hints at what's waiting inside. It shows a motley collection of mismatched dressers. One guy wears polyester and a baseball cap. Hank himself (one presumes, since he's center stage) sports a plain blue suit and a horrible red and yellow tie. The others are a mixture of cleancut and tangled-manes, Levi's and slacks.
But one thing is consistent: Flamingo has perfected the old country growl. His voice is warm tar until it abruptly turns to gravel on songs like "You've Got Me Where You Want Me."
There's a tendency here to rely on fast flash in place of fine instrumental work with songs like "White Lightning" and "Gooseneck Trailer." Besides that, many of the songs don't linger in the memory very long, perhaps because several in a row sound quite a bit alike.
But before it becomes a problem, Flamingo turns around 180 degrees with a very different sound on "Promised Land" or "Granddaddy's Place."
In the end, it's not the kind of album most people play over and over. But with the fast pace and driving instrumentals, it's going to be a blessing when chores demand a little get-up-and-go.