The Melting Pot is a new (but also revived) series where I offer thoughts on a variety of past albums, songs or events, with a specific focus in mind.
Author’s preface: The italicized blurb at the top is meant to offer a quick overview for feature installments of this series, so let me explain its meaning (or, if you’re just here for thoughts on the albums pictured above, scroll down below). ‘The Melting Pot’ was originally a short-lived series on this website (it lasted for around two weeks in April 2018), in which I offered random thoughts on music I had recently listened to, whether it was old or new material. In essence, my goal for it was to offer a look into my listening habits outside of my reviews, but I basically took away the only way I listened to music for “fun” and turned it into more work. It was disorganized, hence why it was scrapped fairly quickly. Still, I had always liked the concept behind it; I just needed to tweak it. So no, this isn’t the same series as before – this series is still mostly randomized, though the discussion points clustered together will have a specific theme in mind. For example, for the first edition, I’m going to discuss artists who impacted my childhood and helped foster my love for country music by discussing one album of theirs. This is intended to be another lighthearted feature, and one where I offer a more personal overview of thoughts rather than a straight-laced critical view. Truthfully, it’s a messy feature that I know may sound vague, but I think I have a better handle on it than I did two years ago. Basically, it’s a journey, and it’s a nice break from other features that require more time and planning.
Anyway, as previously mentioned, today’s focus is on artists who shaped my early love for the genre. They, of course, aren’t the only examples (I might even dedicate a few parts of this series solely to childhood favorites), but they’re the ones who stood out to me, for whatever reason. So without further ado …
Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
I mostly credit my grandfather for making me love country music. He was an old-soul at heart, with his top three likely being Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and George Jones. Still, I could never get a read on him; he could count the number of “modern” country songs he liked on one hand, including Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train,” Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy” … and Brad Paisley’s “Ticks.” Of course, now I’m reminded of the time he picked me up from school and had that song blasting on the radio me while I opened the door, at which point Paisley sang, “I’d sure like to check you for ticks.” I just hopped in; no point in looking back.
And that leads us to Paisley, an interesting discussion point in country music history, if only because he’s either incredibly humorous or incredibly corny, depending on one’s point-of-view. Intentions do matter, though, and whether Paisley stretched a joke too far or not, there was always a naive, good-natured rub behind it all. Basically, by pulling from the same well as, say, Bill Anderson, Roger Miller and Little Jimmy Dickens, Paisley was able to attain respect from older country fans as well as appeal to a kid like me, even if I didn’t yet understand the influences at that point.
That’s also what makes Time Well Wasted a perfect discussion point for Paisley, an album that found him at his commercial peak and, arguably, his artistic peak, and one I count among my favorite Paisley records. At 16 songs, it’s a behemoth of an album that, despite its length, only rarely feels like it’s, well, … time not well wasted. It does take awhile to get good, if I’m being honest. If humor and instrumental chops were signature assets of Paisley’s repertoire, so were love ballads like “The World” and “She’s Everything,” both of which feature Paisley’s warm charisma but not his unique charm to bolster them any higher than average status. But “Alcohol” shows how Paisley could take one of the most frequent topics in country music and turn the perspective completely on its head. There’s still, however, a formula to how Paisley operates, meaning that listeners always have a general idea of what to expect – lighthearted, often fun tracks that don’t take themselves too seriously even at their seediest turns, a charismatic performer with a ton of distinct personality, and some damn solid instrumentals and production to boot. For Paisley, it’s often just about finding the right give-and-take. Sure, he does play around gender stereotypes, but it’s often to make fun of them to begin with, like on “You Need A Man Around Here.” Actually, the sometimes self-deprecating nature of his own work is usually what’s to like about Paisley – he’s in on the joke and is aware he’s a goofball. It’s what makes something like “Flowers” stand out that much more, or give the right amount of bite to “I’ll Take You Back,” especially with its sharper guitar line. But Paisley’s never been an outright comedy act, if only because he also knows when to shove the cornball humor aside for something more serious. This is the same performer, after all, who took a chance on recording Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” and has one of the most gutting country songs ever in “Whiskey Lullaby.” And as for why tracks like that don’t sound like odd fits for Paisley, it’s because, again, he’s a likable, capable performer – humor is just his main routine, not his only shtick. “When I Get Where I’m Going” isn’t as dark as those aforementioned serious cuts in Paisley’s discography, but it is filled with the same child-like innocence and wonder that colors his best work. It’s a dash of hopeful optimism that Paisley manages to sell without coming across as preachy, a sentiment that also extends toward the ending title track. And as for the “Cornography” series, well … again, make of some of Paisley’s work what you will. Again, there’s a few weaker cuts sprinkled throughout, but Time Well Wasted is likely the best showcase of why Paisley was a country music A-list act throughout the 2000s. His drive for greater artistic ambitions while still keeping the core of what made him great would take its toll on him in the 2010s, but it’s not hard to see why he was one of the best ambassadors for the genre a couple decades ago, especially for a kid like me. (Light 8/10)
Alan Jackson, Drive
I’m not sure there’s a voice that symbolizes what I love about country music more than Alan Jackson. Warm, full of charisma and personality and yet touched by a dash of wisdom and experience, Jackson’s material is oddly timeless. He emerged at just the right time in his career with the class of ‘89 and managed to ride that success for two decades, all while mostly staying true to his signature sound. Now, that comes with the inevitable criticism that Jackson always stuck with what worked, but when that’s one of very few criticisms one could ever levy at him, that’s not too bad, even if the criticism isn’t wrong; consistency, however, is still a valuable trait to come by. But that also leaves another point to be mentioned – Jackson’s music has never been “cool.” It’s simple, straightforward neotraditional country performed with a ton of heart, and Jackson always followed his own muse rather than let opportunities and trends get the better of him, even as country music headed in a very different direction from the ‘90s into the 2000s. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” bolstered his upcoming Drive album and somehow launched the superstar into even more prominent territory. It shouldn’t be, but it’s a tricky song to discuss because of that. Yet unlike other songs of the time that aimed to capitalize on the moment rather than offer something profound, Jackson’s song scanned more as an honest reaction from a common man to a horrible event (even if the stream-of-consciousness in which it was written leads to another criticism that certain lines haven’t aged well).
So yes, Drive is likely Jackson’s most recognized album, but it was also a progression of the straightforward honesty that peppered his best work up to that point. Still, I’ve always counted it as one of Jackson’s weaker efforts as a whole, if only because it’s one instance where I agree that, while it’s consistent with one would expect from Jackson, he’s done better before. I mean, “I Slipped And Fell In Love”? Really?
Regardless, it’s still a good effort, and Keith Stegall further emphasizes the poise of Jackson’s sound – plenty of liquid steel guitar, rollicking crunchy grooves, understated bass work and percussion and subtle acoustic textures that shine on every strum and note from the strings. And after just having talked about Brad Paisley, it’s easy to see who he looked to for contemporary influences, especially when Jackson’s “Work In Progress” plays to that same cornball sentiment, even if it’s just an average cut overall. And that’s the worst thing to say about it – it’s good, just not Alan Jackson good. “A Little Bluer Than That” and “That’d Be Alright” skate by on checklist deliveries, and the final half of the album never rises above decent, clichéd love songs, including “First Love” which, lyric-for-lyric, opts for the same sentiment as the title track and doesn’t come close to achieving its same punch. And “Designated Drinker,” with George Strait, is a disappointing duet, if only because the two singers choose to just be two voices singing from the same perspective instead of indulging in the easy, friendly camaraderie of the bar setting.
But Drive also houses some of Jackson’s best material: the aforementioned “Where Were You … ,” the title track, which showed Jackson’s gift for pulling off nostalgia with real detail behind it, and especially “The Sounds,” which brilliantly manages to stretch out its hook to flesh out a great country song right in Jackson’s wheelhouse. And even if they’re just decent lyrical cuts, songs like “A Little Bluer Than That” and “Bring On The Night” showcase Jackson’s knack for placing a great melody at the forefront. At any rate, Drive was another example of how Jackson could pull from the same traditions of his musical heroes while managing to just be himself, and that’s all we could ever ask of him or any artist, really. (Light 7/10)
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
I remember loving “Last Call” as a kid, even if I didn’t fully “get” it at that point. At any rate, Womack’s voice was also one my favorites in the genre, and still is to this day – huge in terms of pure power and emotive presence, it was immediately recognizable. But Womack’s mainstream country career is a fascinating study to view in hindsight. Her commercial output is largely impressive, but it always came with the lingering dissent between what she wanted and what MCA Nashville wanted for her; she aspired to be a classic country singer, but the winds of country music favored smooth pop vocalists in the 2000s. Beyond the blame one could place on her record label, too, Womack struggled early on when told by radio programmers that her singles were “too country.” If Alan Jackson emerged at the right place and time, Womack was the polar opposite – a pure country singer forced to follow in a different direction. Sure, from her pop-oriented material came “I Hope You Dance,” but that was an example of the song connecting with audiences, not the sound (with all of the proof evident in how her followup singles failed to reach the same commercial heights).
A blessing and a curse, really; Womack’s destiny as a pop-country superstar was not to be, but at least she had the freedom to pursue her original ambitions, albeit with lower commercial stakes. There’s More Where That Came From, released in 2005, was an artistic rebirth for Womack, but only a slightly better commercial achievement than Something Worth Leaving Behind. As such, it puts 2008’s Call Me Crazy in a slightly awkward position. For Womack fans, it’s a mixed effort that doesn’t reach the heights of her best work, though I’ve always enjoyed the album’s moodier tendencies. Still, objectively it’s a compromise. It was the first time Womack worked with producer Tony Brown, but the results essentially tell the tale of Womack’s entire career: a mix between traditional and pop-country sounds that never quite settles on a consistent stylistic lane. Some songs, like “Last Call,” which uses its liquid touches of guitar and pedal steel to craft a moody, atmospheric blend, turn out nicely. Others are just begging for better low-end support or production balance, like “Solitary Thinkin’,” which places Womack too high in the mix and features a clunky, underweight blues-inspired groove.
For the most part, however, I’d defend this as a great album, and a metaphor for where Womack was at in her career if I were to read farther into it; the album’s main themes are burnout and starting anew, after all. “Either Way” and “If These Walls Could Talk” are two similar yet equally great cuts about acknowledging when a love has died out. The latter cut features a more nuanced lyrical hook, but the former shows Womack’s fantastic emotive subtlety, especially with how she delivers the cutting admission that she won’t care if her lover stays or goes. On the other side of the thematic arc, “New Again” and “Have You Seen That Girl” essentially spell out her frustrations with straying from who she is, though the former cut is a nice song in its own right about how great memories always win out over temporary material items.
Beyond being moody, too, Call Me Crazy is also a lonely album, where Womack gets philosophical on “The Bees” and lays out her plans ahead on “The Story Of My Life.” And “I Think I Know” is one of her best songs in any capacity, but on an album that finds Womack understanding her frustrations with the industry and herself, trying to understand the mindsets of fallen country legends hits on a much harder level. The album also has its odd moments, like the generic empowerment anthem “I Found It In You,” which features more than a few unfortunate comparisons to get its point across, and the “OK” George Strait cover of “The King Of Broken Hearts” that comes right after her duet with him on “Everything But Quits.” The latter cut may be cheesy, but the dreamier swell of strings, fiddle and piano works surprisingly well. This was Womack’s final album for MCA, and for some listeners, the writing was on the wall when listening to this album; but underneath the frustrations and compromises is a set of some of Womack’s most beautifully underrated cuts. (Light 8/10)
Gary Allan, Tough All Over
Gary Allan was my favorite artist all throughout high school, and even now is still somewhere within my top ten. I had always admired his unique standing as an artist who seemed to work just outside of the industry and whatever trend of the week prevailed. Perhaps it was the benefit of adoring a rebellious fallacy (how could I really know?), but there were very few artists who got away with selling moodier material in the 2000s, let alone did it as well as Allan. It wasn’t until I got older that I read about the background to his mid-to-late 2000s work, which put things into unfortunate perspective. Allan’s Tough All Over, released in 2005, is about as close to a masterpiece as I’ve ever heard, but it was birthed out of the pain and agony Allan felt in the wake of his wife’s (Angela Herzberg) suicide. It’s a grieving process in which Allan wrote or co-wrote four of the 12 tracks here, and it should as come as no surprise that they’re the most gutting cuts on the album. Even the other tracks take on entirely new meanings when placed in the context of this album, the most obvious example being the Vertical Horizon cover of “Best I Ever Had,” in which just a few changes to the bridge completely makes the song Allan’s own.
It goes without saying that there’s a certain degree to which we’ll never understand Tough All Over, if only because it was Allan’s way of trying to understand his own grief. Sure, it has its moments of hope in “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful,” but it ends with “Putting My Misery On Display,” where Allan both loves and despises the music-making process, if only because living the life of a celebrity means this album is the only real chance he’ll have to deal with that pain head-on. It’s a brutal note on fans and the constant demands and pressures we place on our favorite artists (including trying to understand their art), but it’s honest; after all, he’s been mad at everyone, “including God and you” on “I Just Got Back From Hell.” And the instrumentation and production is as nasty and cutting sometimes as the album’s content. The outro of the title track is like a descent into the abyss on its own, but there’s also the creaking interplay of the sharp guitar line and organ on “He Can’t Quit Her” or the ending of “Putting My Misery On Display,” an instance where, on an any other album, I’d call that guitar solo cathartic. And yet it’s those moments that also say more about the album than what may initially appear. “Ring,” for example, is an oddly jubilant-sounding track for an otherwise bitter song, but that also goes to show how, on paper, it’s a cool twist on an otherwise conventional breakup song. Here, though, it’s another example of hitting too close to home for Allan. And if anything, “No Damn Good” is a reminder that pain is not a necessary prerequisite for great art. It’s the oddest cut here and sticks out like a sore thumb, but it also goes to show how Tough All Over should have been a very different album than what it became. Even Allan says at the beginning, “just record one and just use it,” knowing this tale of a sordid character would have fit Alright Guy or See If I Care quite well, but is too “lighthearted” for this album.
That’s not even to mention the middle portion of Tough All Over, like how much “Promise Broken” says about all of us as it does about Allan. And considering this album is all about him finding that will to move on, it’s telling that he looks to Johnny Cash’s near-death experience on “Nickajack Cave” for inspiration. And that might be the best summation point for Tough All Over – it’s not all engrossed in the anger of “I Just Got Back From Hell,” nor is it Allan acknowledging how everything will be alright on “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” – it’s an in-between album that captures Allan at his absolute best, even if no pain is worth it to get there. (10/10)