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Etta James goes country

Love's Been Rough on Me
Love's Been Rough on Me
By Etta James

Private Music / Windham Hill Records: 1997

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It seems impossible that Etta James could still be on top of her game. Hasn't it been 42 years since she first topped the charts with "The Wallflower"? Thirty-six since "At Last"? Thirty-five since she recorded the definitive version of "Something's Got a Hold On Me"? Thirty years even since "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind"?

Answer "yes" to all the above questions, and yes to Etta still having her chops. Her newest recording finds the legendary soul queen in Nashville, with a definite country flavor and Barry Beckett (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ian Moore) producing.

But that country flavor isn't Barbara Mandrell; it's more the kind of country influence that Stax Records used to give rhythm and blues, a Booker T and the MGs kind of country twang. There's a nice five-piece horn section to punctuate Etta's vocals, some hot guitarists whose names will mean nothing (but who deserve recognition all the same: Brent Rowan, Dann Huff and Josh Sklair), and a pedal steel guitar. James sounds perfectly at home with the country material; then again, she was perfectly in control three years ago on her tribute to Billie Holiday, "Mystery Lady."

The songs here are prototypical Nashville: well-crafted tales of love and heartbreak (country and blues have always mined the same topical territory). James' vocal range has lost nothing since she first began belting 'em out some four decades ago; her ability to convey emotion has only improved with time. She remains one of the finest female singers in popular music, and her latest release is one of her best.