Willie Nelson's "Rainbow Connection."

Songs you've got to hear.
March 4 2005 7:19 AM

Sturm and Twang

Lee Ann Womack's cheatin' heart; Willie Nelson's "Rainbow Connection."

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Kenny Chesney Be as You Are: Songs From an Old Blue Chair (BNA, 2004) Click here to listen to "Be as You Are," and here to listen to "French Kissing Life."

A few years back, Kenny Chesney was indistinguishable from dozens of other neo-traditionalist country singers in great big hats. Then, in 2002, he discovered the U.S. Virgin Islands, added some steel drums to his pedal steel, and became pop's most successful poet of debauched Caribbean tourism since Jimmy Buffett. Be as You Are, Chesney's chart-topping new release,is essentially a theme album about Club Med. Dark-skinned locals are nowhere to be found in Chesney's Caribbean; instead, it's packed with bartenders and beach bums who have decamped to a paradise where, as Chesney sings in lulling title track, "ambition fades with every wave." It's an essentially colonialist vision of island life, but if you can get past the politics, you might find yourself charmed by Chesney's melodies—and tickled by his stoner's beatitudes. "I'm French kissing life square in the mouth," he exults. "Floatin' 'round through the Gorda Sound/ With a cooler and a bong."

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LeAnn Rimes This Woman (Curb, 2005) Click here to listen to "I Want To With You."

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When we last heard from LeAnn Rimes, she was rather awkwardly angling for a place in the post-Britney dance-pop firmament. That was 2002; now Rimes is 22, she's titled her new album This Woman,and seems to have put aside childish things, including the delusion that her songs will work in clubland. Today, Rimes has country superstars like Shania Twain and Faith Hill in her sights, and they should be worried: Rimes is a stronger singer, and on This Woman she's struck just the right balance between country twang and brawny arena-rock. "I Want To With You" is typical. The verses lope along, to the earthy scrape of acoustic guitars; the choruses arrive with a raucous crash; and Rimes sings like a powerhouse throughout, mixing gospel-style melisma, rock 'n' roll growls, and just a hint of old the old girlish coyness.

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Lee Ann Womack More Where That Came From (MCA Nashville, 2005) Click here to listen to "More Where That Came From."

The cover of Lee Ann Womack's new album is a spot-on homage to the look of a late-'60s/early '70s country LP: a soft-focus image of the singer, glimpsed behind what appear to be amber waves of grain. The music is a bit of a throwback, too; after a couple overly slick releases, Womack, one of country music's finest vocalists, has returned to classicist production values and time-tested subject matter—drinking, cheating, broken homes, and guilty consciences. But there's a twist: Country's female singers have traditionally played the wronged woman, but Womack throws herself into the role of rogue, nipping in and out of bars and cheap motel rooms like a regular George Jones. See, for example, the album's title track, a ballad with all the old-fashioned Nashville trimmings—piano, fiddle, weepy steel guitar—and terrific performance by Womack, whose crooning evokes guilt, lust, and that toxic mix of the two.

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Chely Wright The Metropolitan Hotel (Dualtone, 2005) Click here to listen to "The Bumper of My S.U.V."

Chely Wright's new single is one of the odder musical responses to the Iraq war. The song begins with a traffic altercation: A "lady in a minivan" flips Wright the bird " 'Cause she don't like my sticker for the U.S. Marines/ On the bumper of my S.U.V." Whereupon Wright launches into a wacky support-the-troops narrative. We get a rundown of her family's military history (Grandpa won a purple heart in Normandy, Dad served in 'Nam), an aside about nonpartisanship ("I'm not Republican or Democrat"), and a surreal fantasia in which the singer strolls through Hiroshima, "the DMZ," and "the sand in Baghdad." As patriotic poetry goes, it ain't exactly "America the Beautiful," but country radio loves a flag-waving song, and Wright's mushy music—a few stately piano chords, and just a hint of down-home mandolin—is the kind of thing that shoots right up the charts.

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Willie Nelson Songs (Hip-O, 2005) Click here to listen to "Rainbow Connection."

Now that Ray Charles has left us, Willie Nelson stands alone: He is the last great American troubadour, a master of all songs, in all genres—honky tonk, standards, blues, whatever. Doubters need only consult the new "best of" collection, Songs, andNelson's rendition of "Rainbow Connection," a ridiculous piece of doggerel originally performed by Kermit the Frog, which Nelson turns into a ballad for the ages. Like just a few other master vocal stylists—Charles, Sinatra, Billie Holiday—Nelson is capable of redeeming the worst schlock, locating the kernel of real feeling in the most absurd material. Listen to him lagging teasingly behind the beat in "Rainbow Connection," and to the truly lovely succession of notes he hits singing the lines, "I know they're wrong, wait and see."

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.