Time was -- and not all that long ago -- when country music writers routinely described Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis and George Strait as "neo-traditionalists." But with the recent arrival of Clint Black, Garth Brooks and other latter-day honky-tonkers, all of them influenced to one degree or another by George Jones, Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell, the term could just as easily apply to yet another wave of singers.
Clint Black: 'Put Yourself in My Shoes'
Black couldn't have wished for greater success than the sort he enjoyed last year with his debut album, "Killin' Time." All told, the record spawned five No. 1 singles (an unprecedented feat for a country music debut), achieved double-platinum status and established Black as a major concert attraction and heartthrob. His new album, "Put Yourself in My Shoes" (RCA), is likely to rack up similar sales, thanks to the catchy title track and other cuts that capitalize on current honky-tonk and western swing trends, but overall it's not nearly as consistent as "Killin' Time" and clocks in at a mere 31 minutes.
Not surprisingly, the instrumentation is the same -- lots of dobro, pedal steel and electric guitar, fiddle and harmonica. The title track, in fact, benefits from Black's flair for bluesy harmonica licks and is clearly modeled after the crowd-pleasing version of "Ain't Misbehavin' " he performs in concert. The western swing arrangements are also a vibrant plus, especially the one that propels the infectious "One More Down Payment."
The album does hold some surprises, though. For one thing, the songwriting, most of it by Black and guitarist Hayden Nicholas, is more ambitious this time around. The results, however, are mixed. While "The Goodnight -- Loving," the Civil War narrative that caps the album, is certainly several cuts above what most of the competition is turning out these days, other collaborations, including "This Old Man" and "Where Are You Now," seem more than a tad contrived when compared with "Killin' Time's" simple pleasures. Another departure, this one more welcome, is found on "The Gulf of Mexico," which allows Black's band to conjure a delightful south-of-the-border mood.
As a singer, Black doesn't possess the emotional wherewithal of Haggard, to whom he's often compared, yet his voice holds up well here. That's particularly true of the elbow-benders "This Nightlife" and "A Heart Like Mine," performances that recall Haggard's world-weary delivery.
Garth Brooks: 'No Fences'
Brooks's voice, by contrast, is powerful, even if it sometimes gets perilously close to sounding like a honky-tonk parody -- all warble and tears. In short, he's the sort of singer who can divide the word "cry" into half a dozen syllables. (On a recent "Tonight" show, guest host Jay Leno couldn't refrain from pointing out this vocal idiosyncrasy after Brooks performed his hit single "Friends in Low Places.")
On "No Fences" (Capitol), however, Brooks manages to sound far more earnest than affected. It's a shame the album's strengths are undercut by "Wild Horses," "Mr. Blue" and other tepid ballads that sound as if they were recorded by a group of polished but uninspired studio players. Even so, when Brooks and the band cut loose on the rambunctious blue-collar anthem "Friends in Low Places" or pare down "Same Old Story" to the lovesick essentials, it's impossible not to appreciate the singer's talent and potential.
Mark Chesnutt: 'Too Cold at Home'
Had Brooks not beaten him to the punch, Mark Chesnutt no doubt would have released a single of "Friends in Low Places," a cut from his impressive debut album, "Too Cold at Home" (MCA). Although it's subdued by comparison, the arrangement neatly frames Chesnutt's Texas-bred baritone and helps explain why George Jones counts himself a fan.
Chesnutt, who performs at Zed's Restaurant in Alexandria tonight, is likely to find himself being compared to Black as well, since they not only share the same producer (Mark Wright) but a fondness for western swing and barroom laments. Wright contributes a few likable songs to the album, including the tailor-made "Blame It on Texas," but Chesnutt is clearly at his best when covering "Brother Jukebox" and "Broken Promise Land," tunes previously recorded by Keith Whitley and Waylon Jennings respectively.
Joe Diffie: 'A Thousand Winding Roads'
Like Black, Joe Diffie didn't waste any time making a strong impression. The wistful recollection "Home" from his recent debut album, "A Thousand Winding Roads" (Epic), shot to No. 1 on the country singles charts, mirroring Black's arrival. Diffie, who appears at Zed's on Nov. 26, first gained recognition in Nashville as a demo singer, so it's not surprising to find him comfortable in a variety of settings.
Nor is it surprising that his knack for vocal mimicry allows him to have some fun, as when he salutes Buck Owens with the spirited "New Way (to Light Up an Old Flame)" or evokes Haggard's trademark slides into a low and mournful register. But for the most part, Diffie comes across as a young honky-tonker who's well versed in the tradition and yet intent on finding his own voice.