Album Review: Rodney Atkins – ‘Caught Up In The Country’

The short version: On paper, ‘Caught Up In The Country’ is actually quite good. But it’s immediately hampered by bad production and mixing choices as well as Rodney Atkins’s poorly aged vocals.

  • Favorite tracks: “Waiting On A Good Day,” “All My Friends Are Drunk,” “Burn Something,” “Figure Out You (Riddle),” “Everybody’s Got Something”
  • Least favorite track: “Caught Up In The Country (w/ the Fisk Jubilee Singers)”
  • Rating: 5/10

The long version: I have to say, of all the artists making comebacks this year, Rodney Atkins isn’t one of the names I expected to be among them.

And the weirdest part is trying to figure out why. After all, this is an artist who scored four No. 1 country singles in a row at the height of his career, and this was back when this was actually a surprise distinction for new male artists! Between that and his likable personality, Atkins wouldn’t have been a bad ambassador for country music superstardom back in his day.

But with the winds of country music constantly changing, Atkins didn’t quite transition over all that well. First, some poor single choices in the late 2000s caused his momentum to decline. Even despite nabbing a huge hit in 2011 with “Take A Back Road,” Atkins has remained relatively quiet this past decade. He didn’t even attempt to take a stab at bro-country or the Metropolitan sound.

Now, with his first studio album in eight years, it’s hard not to see how much country music has moved on from Atkins. This may even be the first time I’ve ever felt bad reviewing an album, because while it’s a surprisingly decent album on paper, it’s brought down heavily by poor modern production choices and a lack of focus.

Again, I can’t stress enough how much this album actually works on a fundamental level. The writing is  rarely ever stellar, but it’s framed in a grown up, mature perspective that feels comfortable to Atkins. He himself is still the same charismatic, likable performer as before, and there’s moments here that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on previous projects. But with that in mind, almost every track is immediately knocked down a peg for unneeded production and vocal elements that unfortunately plague the entire album. In other words, Caught Up In The Country tries to bridge a gap between Atkins’s familiar, homespun neotraditional sound with a sense of modernity to it, and the overall results are unfortunately quite poor.

In the 2000s, Atkins was most comparable to Tim McGraw, vocally. However, unlike how McGraw has settled into a richer timbre, I don’t know what happened to Atkins. It doesn’t help that certain songs force him to sing in a lower register like on the  awful title track, but his voice is much raspier than before. That can work given the right material, but when you’re trying to sell commercially viable material, that hoarse tone doesn’t quite ever stick the landing. It’s no surprise that Atkins is showed up on numerous occasions by his wife and fellow artist, Rose Falcon, whose warm, rich drawl fits the ballads quite well. And heck, the Fisk Jubilee Singers are what save the title track from being a complete dumpster fire.

On the other hand, to repeat a previous point, Atkins remains a likable performer, which is why the Achilles Heel of this album doesn’t lie in this department. No, instead, that honor goes toward the instrumentation, production, and mixing. I said before that this album tries to bridge a gap between traditional and modern sounds, which is why it ultimately ends up pleasing no one. Pretty much every track here begins with some fake-sounding drum loop before eventually adding a plethora of other instruments. Sometimes the additional help is just to see what’ll stick, but what’s all the more frustrating is when some of these songs just adopt real drums anyway. It doesn’t help, for example, to hear the Jason Isbell cover of “Cover Me Up” be neutered by a starting computerized drum beat.

The absolute worst example of all of this, however, is the lead single in the title track, which blends a boring synthetic beat with piano, steel guitar and banjo pickups that don’t even sound like real instruments. Like many tracks here, the atmosphere feels gutless and hollow, trying to cram too many elements to try and please everyone. Between the digitized percussion and choppy electric guitar line too, “What Lonely Looks Like” doesn’t sound much better.

But again, that’s how the tracks start off. Some tracks, like “Figure Out You (Riddle),” “Burn Something,” and “Waiting On A Good Day,” actually manage to sound more organic by the time the first chorus kicks in. The mix is usually nothing more than supple acoustics, pedal steel and (faint) fiddles, but it creates a warm, enriching atmosphere that’s certainly more welcome than most tracks here.

Even going back to the McGraw comparisons, with the way “Thank God For You” is carried by the slicker, chugging electric guitar melody, it’s hard to not just think of that as a modern McGraw cut anyway. Granted, that is a compliment, but it’s still an odd fit for Atkins. “So Good” represents the other big problem with this album, and that’s overdoing songs to the point where there’s no sonic cohesion. Sure, the sentiment is nice and all, but the strings and piano matched against Atkins’s offbeat flow and slightly quicker tempo don’t match the track at all.

If this album is going to win any points, it’s in the lyrical content. Not to beat a dead horse at this point, but thankfully the list-style of country clichés in the title track is the outlier here, lyrically. For as much as the country landscape has changed, Atkins at least mostly acts his age on this album. Most of the tracks either center on traditional love ballads or other topics you’d expect to hear from an older artist.

Granted, it’s not like there aren’t some other faint outliers. “What Lonely Looks Like” stands alongside the title track by featuring generic lyrical content, as does “Thank God For You.” Also, the hook and premise of “Young Man” is fairly predictable for mainstream country these days.

On other hand, I give credit to Atkins for actually giving some character to some of these stories. “Figure Out You (Riddle)” didn’t necessarily need to be a duet, but it’s an old school country song where the chemistry between the two performers gives the track some grounded sincerity. Then, of course “Cover Me Up” is going to get mentioned by default for this category, but in terms of best original tracks here, “All My Friends Are Drunk” is the track that surprised me most. It suffers from the numerous aforementioned production problems, but underneath the clutter is a rare perspective you don’t see in country music these days. Chris Young toyed with the idea in a humorous manner on “Aw Naw,” but this is a track where the narrator doesn’t want to be at the bar with all his friends trying to forget someone. Instead, his friends forced him to be there and ditched him, leaving him to wallow in his misery, and it’s surprising just how dark Atkins is able to paint that picture. Again, his technical ability is essentially shot, but he still remains a convincing performer and likable personality.

True to most mainstream country albums these days as well, the closing track, “Waiting On A Good Day” is another strong track, weaving a comparison between a failed harvest and the strain it puts on an already rocky home relationship. “Everybody’s Got Somethin’” is another track that benefits from Falcon’s presence, and it shows how both sides of the broken relationship tend to their own vices to keep going, which frames the track not as a pity party, but as a genuine portrayal of what this kind of aftermath would look like.

If anything, that’s what makes this album incredibly frustrating. There’s a good album here, but you have to cut through a ton of clutter to find its gems, let alone stick around long enough to see if it ever actually gets better. And when even the best tracks are immediately bogged down by bad vocal or production elements, it’s hard to ultimately root for this album. Atkins is trying to play to both lanes with this album, and that’s understandable. But when you cast that net out to the widest possible demographic, you’d be surprised at how many people you don’t ultimately attract. With “Waiting On A Good Day” and “Figure Out You (Riddle),” Atkins still knows how to make a damn good country song, but those moments only show up in bits and pieces here and there on this album.

(Decent to strong 5/10)

The good:

The bad:

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