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Various artists

Gathered from a series of 1999 shows that featured a who's who of contemporary pickers and twangers, this benefit album is most satisfying when performers address the theme of the concerts indirectly, if at all. A case in point is Patty Griffin's "Mary," which laments both the Virgin Mother's loss of a son and the thanklessness of her lot afterward as she "stays behind and starts cleaning up the place." Likewise Terry Allen's "Wilderness of This World" paints a portrait of loss and loneliness through images such as a single shoe found on a highway. In a similar vein, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings's laconic "Morphine" uses yodeled choruses to capture the bitter turn of a relationship with the title opiate. Emmylou Harris, who masterminded the landmark performances, also turns in a characteristically heartbreaking composition, "The Pearl," which strides the line between spirituality and sermonizing. Guy Clark (backed by guitarist Verlon Thompson) turns in a craggy and hauntingly cryptic rendition of "Cold Dog Soup," and John Prine's untutored vocals lend rustic charm to "Big Ol' Goofy World." Equally spirited but less successful is Kris Kristofferson's "Shipwrecked in the '80s," in which he does a better impression of Ramblin' Jack Elliott than Elliott himself does these days. This collection's greatest flaw, however, can be attributed to Bruce Cockburn, who no doubt thought his pretentious "The Mines of Mozambique" would provide the evening's highlight, but the Canadian crooner wears his heart so squarely on his sleeve it makes this listener wish Harris had called Gordon Lightfoot instead. Still, if that's the worst fault of a disc released to raise money for mine victims, Harris and her cohorts have done themselves proud.
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John Jesitus

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