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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 07/12/2011

Go tough or go home: New albums from Ashton Shepherd, Eric Church, Blake Shelton and Chris Young

Ashton Shepherd, Blake Shelton, Chris Young and Eric Church all rel
In a recession that just won’t quit, country music gives us options. Escape to the Cabo San Lucas of your mind with Kenny Chesney. Find strength in hearth and family with Brad Paisley. Or, if you follow the singers trying to scrap their way onto Nashville’s A-list, buckle down and get tough.

With a bundle of releases dropping this month, the tough-talkers stand out. Ashton Shepherd’s “Where Country Grows” and Eric Church’s “Chief” are far and away the two strongest country efforts of 2011, each brimming with blow-ups, kiss-offs and a few salty tears between the sneers.

Smooth-talkers Blake Shelton and Chris Young — who both drop anticipated albums on Tuesday — could learn a few moves from Shepherd and Church: talk tough, act tough, espouse tough.

Shelton actually espoused tough back in May when he married Miranda Lambert, the fiery country superstar whose lyrics about unloading a 12-gauge on her paramour have presumably forced her to empty her gun rack to make more room for awards trophies.

Lambert lends her voice to the title track of Shelton’s sixth album,
“Red River Blue,” but her pluck hasn’t rubbed off on him. A decade into his recording career, Shelton sings with such cool confidence, his most rollicking stuff feels a tad ridiculous.

“Get Some” cartoonishly outlines a bender from the bar to the toilet to a bucket of fried chicken and back again. And there’s also the song “Hey,” where a dim pick-up line — actually a pick-up syllable — somehow leads to a fortuitous roll in the “hay.”

Fittingly, the best drinking song here, “Drink on It,” isn’t about raising roadhouse hell, it’s about falling for a stranger in the bar with a heart more bruised than yours. But will you still love Shelton in the morning? “I’ll be your honey bee,” he chirps on the dopey, chart-topping “Honey Bee.” And later, on “Good Ole Boys,” he boasts of going to the drugstore to pick up some “feminine products” for his lady.

Funny. But not tough!

Young’s songs aren’t as clever as Shelton’s, but the 26-year-old’s voice
is equally handsome. On the “Nashville Star” alum’s third album, “Neon,” he forgoes toughness for a tenderness you can hear in the mellow burn of “Tomorrow” and the soft jounce of “I Can Take It From There.”

But when Young pulls on his boots for “Save Water, Drink Beer,” that resonant baritone fizzles off into anonymity. He sounds like another pretty voice being forced to sing another rowdy song he didn’t write about another crazy Saturday night he never lived.

Church, on the other hand, makes every waking moment sound like last call.

When he sings, he zings: “Bossman can shove that overtime up his can / All I want to do is put a drink in my hand.”

That’s the 34-year-old on “Drink in My Hand,” one of the many songs on“Chief” — which lands on July 26 — that finds him stomping through the recession with his chest puffed out.

On “Jack Daniels,” he sings with greater sensitivity — so not to upset his pounding headache from the night before. “I’ve thrown a punch or two and gave a few black eyes,” he confesses. “But Jack Daniels kicked my [bleep] again last night.”

Beyond the one-liners, Church knows how to tell a story. “Homeboy” finds him begging his estranged brother (“Tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth”) to come back to the homestead. “Springsteen” is a mash note to the Boss. And “Country Music Jesus” bridges Southern rock and gospel as the singer prays for the second coming of Johnny Cash.

Shepherd’s “Where Country Grows” doesn’t have as much lip as Church’s “Chief,” but it’s got plenty of heart. And lungs.

The sophomore outing for the Alabama native finds her singing well beyond her 24 years in a voice that’s both nimble and huge. She over-enunciates her words as if she’s bullying her lyric sheet — the notes always outnumber the syllables in a Shepherd chorus.

It can feel overblown at first touch, but repeated listens give the impression that she’s lived in every single of corner of these songs, from the scorned-lover screeds (“Look It Up”) to the tearful nostalgia trips (“Rory’s Radio”) .

Across 10 lean tracks, “Where Country Grows” is exquisite with detail. It doesn’t just transport you to Shepherd’s Alabama, it transports you to Shepherd’s kitchen, where she’s just plunked down her wedding ring on the table during the final couplets of “That All Leads to One Thing.” As the song simmers and fades, you can almost hear the creaky screen door slamming behind her.

That’s tough, for sure.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 07/12/2011

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