Somewhere in Nashville, there may well be a record promoter or marketing specialist who grimaces whenever K.D. Lang's voice filters through the air.
The singing itself wouldn't be to blame for the sour look on the hypothetical country music insider's face. That would be impossible, since Lang possesses one of the most confident, presence-filled and unambiguously splendid voices in pop music today. No--the grimace and sideways head shake would come from the thought of how out-of-sync the woman behind the voice is with the country music image machinery, and how much more money she might generate if she could only be made to fit a more readily salable mold.
If Lang's voice came in a conventionally glamorous sweetheart-of-the-rodeo package, there is a strong possibility that country superstardom would be hers. But instead of feminine cowgirl dresses, flowing tresses and the other trappings usually associated with country divas, Lang favors an androgynous, short-haired appearance closer to punk-influenced alternative-rock fashion than to Nashville's idea of how a star attraction should look.
"I'm sure Nashville would want to see me go country," Lang, who plays Tuesday night at the Celebrity Theatre with her band, the Reclines, said in a recent phone interview. "If I abided by their rules, they're sure I could sell a lot of records. They'd like to see me co-write with a Nashville songwriter, and have a contemporary Nashville producer produce me in Nashville. They're very incestuous."
Not that Lang's music has been a commercial flop. Her current album, "Absolute Torch and Twang" had a solid run in the Top 20 on the country album charts, and it broke into the Top 100 on the Billboard pop album chart.
Lang's music shows fealty to country's musical traditions with swinging honky-tonk stylings and spacious, big-sky atmospherics full of sighing steel guitars. But on a song like "It's Me," from "Absolute Torch and Twang," she uses country musical conventions to declare her independence from conventional Nashville style:
Might not be all you want
But it's all you get, it's me.
On them shiny pages, all that hairdo
It ain't me.
"I'm not averse to the style of Dolly Parton, but I have to be natural to myself to put the best art out that I can," Lang said. "If (listeners) don't accept the way I look, they'll never understand the music totally."
Image may be the most apparent way Lang, 28, differs from performers working comfortably within the country music system. The differences that crop up in her music are subtler.
Lang and the Reclines' first major-label album, "Angel With a Lariat," had elements of kitsch and spoof in its rambunctious, rock-flavored assault on country style. Still, the excellence of the singing and playing made it obvious that the musicians also had serious regard for country music.
In 1988, Lang answered any questions about how authentically interested she was in being a country singer by recording "Shadowland," a tribute to the classic Patsy Cline sound in which she teamed with Cline's original producer, Owen Bradley.
With "Absolute Torch and Twang," Lang said, "I sort of marked my coming of age as a songwriter and an artist with her own direction--being rid of the Patsy Cline obsession, and coming into her own style."
Hearing Cline's music at the age of 20 had a near-mystical effect on Lang, who was raised in the tiny town of Consort, Alberta. Performance art was Lang's genre when she came across Cline as a result of playing a country singer in a musical in Edmonton. Cline's music struck her so deeply that Lang began to entertain mystical thoughts that she and the late country star might be spiritually linked. For the first time, Lang considered country music as a creative outlet.
"I was a performance artist. I was at totally the opposite end of (the spectrum from) country music. For me to explain country to my art friends was kind of scary. They said, 'Yeah, you're going to make fun of it, right?' I said, 'Yeah, kind of, but not totally.' I have this kitsch side of me, but I also have respect for it."
With "Shadowland" and now "Absolute Torch and Twang," Lang dispensed with the kitsch and positioned herself as an unabashed country singer. But if Lang seems comfortable enough now with country as a form to use it straightforwardly, she also has an idea of how to work subtle changes that give it her own outsider's stamp.
Some of her songs include touches of abstraction and unorthodox word placement--self-consciously artful elements that depart from country's usual directness and colloquial, conversational style.
In "Nowhere to Stand," a song about child abuse, Lang takes what would be a reverential catch phrase in most country songwriting--"a family tradition, the strength of this land"--and twists it around to deeply ironic effect. By labeling child-battering "a family tradition, the strength of this land," Lang obliquely calls into question the sentimental, uncritical attitude that runs through much of the Nashville establishment when it comes to the portrayal of traditional values. From that conservative viewpoint, such buzzwords as "family," "tradition" and "strength of this land" would represent something inviolable. But Lang's song makes the point that a tradition such as unchallenged parental authority can foster evil from generation to generation.
Lang's mixture of reverence and restlessness for traditional country forms leaves it open as to where she will go next with her music.
"We're six months into a one-year tour, so I kind of have blinders on till the end of May," she said. "I'd really like to be on Broadway. I'd love to do "Annie Get Your Gun." But I think my ultimate goal is to be established as a songwriter and be known for developing my own style as a singer."
Lang said she handpicked her opening act, Ranch Romance, an unsigned, all-female group from Seattle that she describes as "sort of like the Roches meets Sons of the Pioneers. They opened for me in Seattle, and I fell in love with their sound."
K.D. Lang & the Reclines and Ranch Romance play Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway in Anaheim. Tickets: $20. Information: (714) 999-9536.