The short version: ‘Made In America’ sounds, for the most part, like what you’d expect from a Tracy Lawrence album in 2019.
- Favorite tracks: “Running Out Of People To Blame,” “Givin’ Momma Reasons To Pray,” “Nothin’ Burns Like You,” “First Step To Leaving”
- Least favorite track: “Just The South Comin’ Out”
- Rating: 6/10
- Recommend? If you’re a Tracy Lawrence, or ‘90s country fan, definitely. Otherwise, it might be more worth it to check out the highlights listed and see what you think afterward.
The long version: It’s weird to think how the events of 1989 are relevant to a discussion about country music 30 years later in the modern day.
But it is, after all, a familiar tale – the country music industry exercises a trend to death, and the genre becomes bland and mawkish before turning the tides back to what made it great in the first place. In 1989, we saw debut albums from the likes of Alan Jackson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Travis Tritt, Clint Black and Garth Brooks – not just bursts of talents from the independent scene, but real hitmakers who would go on to define what the genre sounded like for the next decade (well, maybe until around 1995 or so, but that’s still a long time in this industry).
Granted, what’s happening today isn’t exactly like that scenario, mainly thanks to a heavier gender bias and the performers not quite distinctive from one another in the same way as those aforementioned artists. Still, it’s a time that we often associate with those names. What that means, however, is that there are actually quite a few names from that era that have been forgotten, or, at the very least, don’t come up in the same breath as those aforementioned artists as much.
In that sense, I’d compare Tracy Lawrence to Mark Chesnutt, two Texas natives who certainly had the hits, but may have been slighted by not quite having the same impressive sales numbers, or who might have gotten too slick for their own good at points (Chesnutt’s Aerosmith cover stands out, in particular). Still, they have a solid number of classic hits, and while Lawrence is the one who enjoyed a slighter longer mainstream career, it’s no surprise to see both artists churning out their own music independently, today.
As such, when it comes to Lawrence’s newest project, Made In America, I can’t help but think of Chesnutt’s Tradition Lives from 2016. Both are projects from veterans that show neither artist losing any steam, and while I won’t say this album is as good as that one, this is still, for better or worse, exactly what you’d expect from Lawrence in 2019.
In essence, Lawrence isn’t doing much that’s different from your average ‘90s neotraditional country record, with more of a Texas influence updated for the modern age, especially instrumentally. The acoustic guitar cuts through with great texture, the electric guitars have warm, rollicking tones, and there’s plenty of bouncy fiddles, piano and pedal steel to be found. And while certain songs have some very basic structures, it doesn’t mean they don’t have solid hooks to back things up or take them in interesting directions.
There’s times like on the title track and “Chicken Wire” where the electric guitar tones can feel fairly gutless and mundane, but then you get to something like the closing track, “Stay Back A Hundred Feet,” which has a crunchy swagger to it in the vein of a 2000s Montgomery Gentry cut. And no, that song isn’t particularly good (we’ll get to why, later), but it’s a welcome fit of modernity.
There’s also some looser saloon piano to anchor tracks like “Forgive Yourself” and “It Ain’t You,” two tracks that, while perhaps offering shaky foundations, stick their landings through Lawrence’s charisma as an interpreter. Put it this way, if you don’t take them seriously, they’re actually a lot of fun.
But while Lawrence has the sort of goofball charm to carry tracks like that, it’s the warmer, more honed-in tracks that paint him in the best light. Perhaps it’s just that I’m a sucker for songs that play things more downbeat, but the warmer, rollicking interplay of acoustic guitar, fiddle and mandolin on tracks like “First Step To Leaving” and “Givin’ Momma Reasons To Pray” really nail the intimate atmosphere they’re both aiming for.
There’s rarely any outright surprises on Made In America, though “Running Out Of People To Blame” does seem like the kind of country song that should be a hit in 2019 – a track with breezier acoustics supplemented by a more modern-sounding melody and percussion that both work well here, admittedly. And “Nothin’ Burns Like You” is the kind of slow, sad country song that would have fit right into Lawrence’s catalog in the ‘90s, both instrumentally and vocally.
When we dig into the lyrical content of this album, though, this is one department that’s a mixed bag. Ultimately, there’s no pervading issues across this album, though there are several tracks that pale in comparison to others, with the second half offering more than a few low points. The title track is the kind of cloying, pandering track you’d expect from the title, though it comes from a sincere place. And at the very least, it’s better than “Just The South Comin’ Out,” which is the kind of southern pandering track coasting on bravado, and is another boring ode from a singer trying to prove he’s country (the music will be the ultimate judge of that). And for as much as the closing track carries a lot of muscle to it, telling a woman who’s interested in you to “stay back a hundred feet” because you’re possibly crazy and reckless would end the track a lot sooner than you’d think (in the song, she continues pining after him, which really just paints a grimmer picture than what anyone would like to imagine in that scenario).
Again, though, Made In America may be inconsistent thanks to some bad apples in the bunch, but the highlights truly stand toe-to-toe with Lawrence’s best work in the ‘90s. “Givin’ Momma Reasons To Pray” is a stone cold country ballad speaking to a familiar theme of making parents worry, but it also comes with the implied notion that, for as much as he’s made his mother worry with his dreams of being a country star, she’s ultimately happy he didn’t listen to her. And while I don’t care for the presumptuous notion of how this woman will just magically come back to this man in time on “First Step To Leaving,” it’s sold with the kind of warm empathy that Lawrence has always succeeded at, especially when he’s just a third party member in this situation looking to console a friend.
And again, on melody and delivery alone, respectively, “Running Out Of People To Blame” and “Nothin’ Burns Like You” are enjoyable and great in their own right. Even for as admittedly corny as “Forgive Yourself” is, it’s the kind of jaunty breakup track where Lawrence is fine being the bad guy, if only because they’ll both move on in time anyway, carrying a deeper subtext than it’s really given credit for. It’s certainly better than “Work On My Willie,” which surprisingly doesn’t go for the obvious penis metaphor (you know, like all of the other songs in this vein … ), but also doesn’t really offer more than a few clever odes and references to Willie Nelson songs either; it’s not bad, but it’s certainly not an essential cut.
But to reiterate a previous point, Made In America is essentially what you’d expect from Lawrence in 2019 – a solid, enjoyable country album that, while heavily inconsistent, does boast a few choice cuts. It might be a tad too lightweight overall to evoke serious conversations surrounding critical acclaim, but Made In America is an enjoyable album in its own right.
(Decent to strong 6/10)
Buy or stream the album.