Times Staff Writer

If Jimmie Rodgers, the original Singing Brakeman of the 1920s, is considered the father of country music, then slick, pop-oriented hitmakers like the Oak Ridge Boys and Exile would be country's third cousins--twice removed.

Teamed with the Judds' more traditional style, the triple bill at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Thursday (following a sold out show Wednesday at Universal Amphitheatre) provided an insightful lesson in the effect that commercialism has had on country music.

In their effort to be all things to all people, the Oak Ridge Boys turned in a 90-minute headlining performance overflowing with melodic hooks, hummable choruses and three- and four-part harmonies. Everything was as meticulous and professional as if it had been programmed by computer--and just as heartfelt.

High tenor vocalist Joe Bonsall, dressed in a new wave blue suit, bright yellow shirt, matching headband and white running shoes, raced back and forth across the stage during most of the performance with the boudless energy of a high school cheerleader. Like Alabama, the multi-platinum role model for outfits such as the Oak Ridge Boys and Exile, these contemporary pop country acts seem to think that kinetic energy can replace musical spirit. Judging from the howls of approval from the crowd, many of their fans would agree.

But stripped of the fancy duds, special lighting effects and fog machines, the Oak Ridge Boys' performance was virtually devoid of the raw emotion that characterizes the best country music.

Another problem facing the quartet is that it has painted itself into a corner with its limited musical palette. Although the group has built a string of hit records from standard three-chord songs with repetitive choruses, strung together in concert they took on a deadly sameness and reinforced the suspicion that hit records don't die, they just get recycled.

Much of the same applies to Exile, a band that got its start in 1978 with the pop-disco hit "Kiss You All Over" and has continued with the same song formula on the group's '80s country hits like "Woke Up In Love." Although the eight songs in Exile's set may have sounded like anonymous Top 40 pop, the fact that the band members hail from Kentucky apparently is enough to get their records played on country radio.

In any musical genre, what separates the cream from the crop is a performer's ability to put a personal stamp on his or her music. Firmly entrenched within the crop, Exile and the Oak Ridge Boys could exchange repertoires with no appreciable difference in sound.

That could not be said, however, about the mother-daughter Judds, whose opening 40-minute set projected more of country's true spirit because it emphasized substance over style.

The duo's strength is lead singer Wynonna Judd's exceptionally versatile and colorful voice, which in one instant produced tones as soft as Georgia peaches and in the next turned as thick and zesty as gumbo. Often swooping from a scream to a whisper, Wynonna skillfully varied timbre and phrasing to make even routine lyrics seem special. Should Wynonna and her mother, Naomi, ever come up with material that is equal to their delivery--perhaps some John Prine or Merle Haggard songs--they could be invincible.

Since their debut in 1984, the Judds have carted home a wagon load of "best new artist" awards and racked up several country hit singles. More significantly, their "Why Not Me" album even made a respectable showing on the pop charts, suggesting that country music doesn't have to be diluted until the flavor is lost to be palatable to pop audiences.

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