Travis Tritt returns with ‘Set in Stone,’ but he doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.
The often-dubbed “class of ‘89” provides an interesting case study for career longevity.
Now, personally, I prefer the more varied, iconoclastic tendencies of the overlooked “class of ‘86” that helped give way, albeit briefly, to names like k.d. lang, Steve Earle, and Lyle Lovett, but when you think about how huge country music became in the 1990s, it all starts with a handful of performers that debuted just a year before the decade began.
And what’s interesting is, the names that have stuck around the longest aren’t necessarily the ones that were hugest in that era. Clint Black had the biggest start out of the gate … but never really ever recaptured the magic of his debut, either – commercially, artistically, or otherwise. With Garth Brooks, it’s more of a case study of shooting one’s self in the foot, though his reasons for retiring at the turn of the 2000s were legitimate. And if he embraced streaming or picked better radio singles (or better material in general these days), he’d still be successful than in more just the touring circuit. With Alan Jackson, his consistency has largely worked in his favor, even to the point of becoming a legitimate superstar in the 2000s and attaining an extra decade of success that his peers didn’t.
And then there’s Travis Tritt, who’s always seemingly and purposefully isolated himself from that crowd, thanks to his outspoken behavior, for better and worse. Now, for those throwing out the “outlaw” tag, I’d hold off on that. I mean, he contributed to an Eagles tribute project early on in his career, for crying out loud. But for the most part, I’ve always enjoyed his hard-driven approach to blending country and southern rock and his expressive howl that gave those singles – particularly his ballads – real urgency. Whether it was a case of stubbornness or standing his ground, though, he was also arguably the “smallest” of those names in terms of his stature, even if he did manage a career comeback around the turn of the 2000s. Nowadays … let’s just say he’s not the personality one likely wants to listen to outside of his music, and outside of that Real Country television show from a few years ago (sidenote: what happened to that show?), his name has cropped up in discussions for pretty much the wrong reasons.
But, hey, he’s working with Dave Cobb for his first album in 14 years, and given Cobb’s work with Chris Stapleton, the album title alluding to Tritt’s legacy is pretty much a full circle moment in its own right, especially with the ‘90s resurgence that’s popped up pretty much everywhere lately. Whether or not Set in Stone finalizes or adds to that legacy, however, remains to be seen.
And yet while I try to frame most review backgrounds and discussions about the time in between albums, this isn’t so much an album that speaks to that 14-year absence so much as it does Tritt’s legacy in general, and in painfully broad strokes that rarely ever makes this interesting for me. And for as much attention as this album has received thus far, I’m left here wondering why we couldn’t give Tracy Lawrence a better spotlight for his latest effort, which is also an album from a ‘90s veteran that addresses mortality in a much more nuanced way. In other words, Set in Stone is an album geared for a specifically older audience, and while one has to respect the influence Tritt has carried over the years, there are album releases this month alone that pull (or likely will pull) this sound and style off so much better.
Granted, part of that has to do with Dave Cobb, whose work in southern-rock-inspired country has always been shakier than his more straightforward productions. On a positive note, the tones are well-placed and contribute to some of the album’s best moments, like the thicker acoustic strumming against the organ on the title track that gives its hook some swell and potency. And the equally thick, dark strumming carrying “Open Line” might provide my favorite moment here in general. And if you want to hear Tritt recall sounds even earlier than his ‘90s work, there’s plenty of rougher pickups in the smoky pedal steel, ragged fiddle, and piano to recall those weathered edges of, say, the ‘70s or ‘80s. The problems come in the mixing and production, particularly in the southern rock moments that never have the chance to open up and explode. Part of this comes in a lack of good bass mixing to give these songs more presence and add more meat to their bones, and there’s plenty of moments here that should feel thicker and rougher but lack the heft to distinguish the melodic textures or grooves to do so, leading everything to compete in an overloaded midrange. Without a defining line to anchor these mixes, it can feel sloppy in a way that doesn’t always reflect the composition.
The moments that do work usually excel for other reasons, like the confrontation of mortality in a surprisingly vulnerable way on the title track that can add potency where the production really can’t. And despite the blasts of harmonica never quite contributing the intended groove on “Way Down in Georgia,” I like it as a fun way of nodding to both the cultural and musical influences that started that journey for Tritt. And even if I desperately wished “Open Line” opened up more the way it tries to in the latter half, I can buy the stomping attitude carried toward casting aside old demons.
Granted, part of that also has to do with Tritt himself, who remains an expressive presence behind the microphone but has also lost a bit of his edge over the years. It’s not so much an issue of tone as it is range, and I’m left with another comparison to Alan Jackson for an entirely different reason, in that Tritt’s voice has gotten noticeably rougher, deeper, and arguably richer to reflect a veteran’s poise. But that also means it’s rough trying to hear him stretch for higher notes he can’t quite reach like he used to on “Smoke in a Bar” or “Southern Man.” Of course, I also wish Cobb didn’t abuse live vocal pickups so much, either, especially when Tritt never feels like he’s placed right in the mix to add a real bite required of these tracks. Again, I point to tracks like “Stand Your Ground,” “Ghost Town Nation,” and “Southern Man” as moments that are trying for that harder rocking swell in the rougher guitar pickups, but also serve to fight against Tritt in the mix to get there. When things get a little looser and more fun, like on the shit-kicking “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That No More” that’s mostly goofy but works in a fun way off that blast of jaunty keys, organ, and electric guitar that recalls his take on “T.R.O.U.B.L.E.,” he’s fine. And a track like “Open Line” makes me wish they aimed for darker compositions more often here, because it’s an excellently isolated moment with real bite to it that only reminds me how watered-down some of these compositions and sentiments come across here.
And on that note, if there’s an element that really needed to come together to salvage this album, it was the lyrics and themes, and they’re arguably the weakest element of this entire project. To be fair, those familiar with Tritt’s work know what to expect thematically: odes to a blue-collar lifestyle galore, the aforementioned notes on legacy and the passage of time, plus a few ballads thrown in for good measure. But if you’re looking for differentiating details that separate this from the pack or even Tritt’s other work in general, this never really gets there. For as much chest-pumping and bravado as he delivers about himself here through tracks like “Stand Your Ground” and the corny “Southern Man” that require knowledge of his background and history to really connect, it’s telling that the title track is the one moment to get it right, if only for its complex dive into exploring mortality while knowing and hoping you still have something left to offer the world. The self-aware vulnerability makes for a sad listen, sure, but also something with more emotion than a more tepid cut like “Ain’t Who I Was.”
Granted, details aren’t always welcome here, either. I get what “Smoke in a Bar” was going for in noting how progessivism alone doesn’t always lead to actual progress, but it doesn’t help that they picked the worst comparison to frame the hook around, and that most of the other ones used are completely asinine in trying to frame a possible “downfall” of society. I saw another critic note this as a “boomer” album, and … yeah, nail on the head there. You’ve also got your apocalyptic, nonsensical first single in “Ghost Town Nation” right before it. Elsewhere, “Leave This World” is a fine love ballad, if a bit sleepy, given the aforementioned recording and production issues, but “Better off Dead” is paradoxically overwrought the way it is and supremely under-cooked in its composition and construction for what could have been a really dark, complex look at the inner human psyche, especially coming a little before “Open Line.”
And that’s mostly where I’m left with Set in Stone as a whole – a long-awaited return that feels undercooked and sloppy in ways that contradict its best elements. It does have its moments – the title track, “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That No More” and “Open Line” being the best songs here – but for an artist who once said that artists need to put some drive into their country music, I wish that happened more here.
(Very strong 5/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Set in Stone,” “Open Line,” “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That No More,” “Way Down in Georgia”
- Least favorite tracks: “Smoke in a Bar,” “Southern Man”