Sound Advice 

The Flyer's music writers tell you where you can go.

Twentysomething singer-songwriter and classically trained musician Clare Burson is a onetime Memphian now based in Nashville. But don't let the Nashville connection give you the wrong idea about what she sounds like. Burson's folky, acoustic-driven songs don't really have much of a country feel. Musically, she has as much in common with indie-rock busker Mary Lou Lord or English alt-folkie Beth Orton as with alt-country twang fetishist Gillian Welch.

The In-Between, Burson's debut album released last spring, showcases a lyrical style that is smart and elegant but still refreshingly plainspoken. And the songs are put across by unabashedly pretty singing that contains just enough sandy ache to give it character.

As a rootsy female singer-songwriter, Burson traffics in a familiar and overstuffed subgenre, but this world also consistently produces new stars, such as Kathleen Edwards last year. Judging from The In-Between, Burson clearly has the talent to break out as well.

Burson performs at Otherlands Coffee Bar Saturday, January 17th. The performance is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., and tickets are $8.50.

At the opposite end of the rootsy singer-songwriter spectrum in almost every way, country icon Merle Haggard returns to the area this week with back-to-back shows at Horseshoe Casino Thursday, January 15th, and Friday, January 16th.

For all the hype and attention that the recent work of the sadly departed Johnny Cash has gotten, it's worth pointing out that the Man in Black wasn't the only contemporary country veteran to find artistic rejuvenation outside of mainstream Nashville. Willie Nelson has been as prolific over the past decade as at any point in his career, and Nelson's frequent duet partner Haggard made perhaps the best studio album by a vintage country star in the past decade with If I Could Only Fly, his 2000 debut for punk-identified indie label Epitaph.

Haggard, best known for such '60s and '70s hits as "Mama Tried," "If We Make It Through December," and the tongue-in-cheek Silent Majority anthem "Okie From Muskogee," is arguably the most significant country songwriter since Hank Williams. If I Could Only Fly testified that Haggard was not only still a commanding writer, the jazzy dexterity of his voice and the easy swing of his Bakersfield-style sound remained intact. And Haggard's latest, late 2003's Like Never Before, released on his own Hag Records, proves that his comeback was no fluke. The album's linchpin lead single, "That's the News," drew plenty attention as a rare progressive sentiment from a male country star in a year of Toby Keiths, Darryl Worleys, and Lee Greenwoods. What was missed in the minor media scrum over the song is that it may have been the sanest political statement made by an American popular musician in the past year.

Haggard doesn't really take a position on the war in Iraq on "That's the News." He merely asserts that if we're going to blow another country back to the Stone Age, sacrifice innumerable lives, put American military personnel in harm's way, and bust open the national treasury, then we might want to have a public discussion about it. Imparting information about the war should probably take precedence over a random missing-person's case in California. Now, what about this did Bill O'Reilly find controversial?

But there's much more to Like Never Before than "That's the News" (including Haggard and Nelson dueting on a Woody Guthrie title), just as there's more to Haggard than "Okie From Muskogee." Horseshoe is advertising the hits, but hopefully Haggard will dig deep into his plentiful catalog. --Chris Herrington

So you want to know what it's like to father twins? You can either ask me (if you can wake me up) or you can go check out Nashville's finest powerpoppers, The Features, when they play Young Avenue Deli Friday, January 16th, with Snowglobe and Jetpack. The Features' The Beginning, a poignant bit of Elephant-6-style psychedelia, is lead singer Matt Pelham's account of double daddyhood that begins with his observing one unborn twin kicking the crap out of the other during his wife's first ultrasound examination. Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel (or, for that matter, Snowglobe) will be pleased by Pelham's eccentric, extremely personal songwriting. Jetpack seems to be the odd band out on this triple bill, playing synth-friendly guitar pop circa 1982. -- Chris Davis

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