It's getting harder for a guy to get noticed in Nashville these days. Country radio playlists continue to narrow and the Nashville establishment has fallen head-over-boot-heels for distaff acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks. Even the big-hat acts of the late '90s are languishing: Alan Jackson and Vince Gill have turned to old-school homages as they look for new directions, while Garth Brooks has developed a disastrous split personality as Chris Gaines. As George Jones once asked, who's gonna fill their shoes?
Gary Allan, for one. "Smoke Rings in the Dark" (MCA Nashville) is the third album by Allan, who will need to live down his recent designation in People magazine as "sexiest country star." There are times when Allan does bear a resemblance to a former "sexy star," Chris Isaak, but the likeness is more musical than physical. That's particularly true in the haunting title track, which has a cool melancholy and embered-fire vocal reminiscent of Isaak (by way of Roy Orbison). Supported by trebly guitar and sinewy pedal steel, Allan's tremulous tenor addresses a deep sense of romantic loss. "The loneliness within me takes a heavy toll/ 'Cause it burns as slow as whiskey through an empty aching soul," he sings before adding this aching coda: "I'm not gonna wake you/ I'll go easy on your heart/ I'll just touch your face and drift away like smoke rings in the dark."
Allan grew up in Southern California, and his take on country is informed more by Bakersfield than by Nashville. You can hear a little bit of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in "Don't Tell Mama," a honky-tonk parable about drinking, driving and familial shame, and in "Bourbon Borderline," the mourning after a love hangover. Love goes wrong all too often in Allan's world. In the rockabilly shuffle "Sorry," he comes home to a cold kiss-off from a departing wife. In "Cryin' for Nothing," he laments that "me and my pride/ Her and her dreams/ We never ever stood a chance it seems."
There's hope, of course. "Learning to Live With Me" is a catalogue of small epiphanies, and love rebounds on Jamie O'Hara's lovely, Orbisonesque "Lovin' You Against My Will." And however defeated he may be elsewhere, the singer offers himself as the cure to someone else's misery on "I'm the One," where his sweet promises are built on long, flowing lyric lines. Along with the voodoo-jazz-meets-honky-tonk of "Cowboy Blues" and propulsive Southern rock of "Right Where I Need to Be," Allan covers the Del Shannon chestnut "Runaway" with all the requisite falsetto flourishes.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)
Trace Adkins, 'More . . .' Adkins has a rich, resonant baritone, and given the right material, the long tall Louisiana native can stand his ground with any honky-tonk hero. But "More . . . " (Capitol) suggests that Adkins is not always well served in his choice of songs, too many of which are melodically and thematically slight. Love ballads like "I'm Gonna Love You Anyway," "She's Still There" and "The Night He Can't Remember" (naturally, it's "the night she can't forget") feel like assembly line product, as does the blue-collar anthem "Working Man's Wage."
The best songs here seem to draw an emotional commitment from Adkins, whether it's "Don't Lie" and its weary request to a cheating, departing spouse to leave without false fondness and regrets, or "I Can Dig It" and its spry, fiddle-fueled invitation to let the singer be the cure for romantic disaster: "If you want your broken heart to be your last/ If you want a big hole to bury your past/ I can dig it." As in the past, Adkins shines on Texas-style swing: On "All Hat, No Cattle," he enlists Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel and Bob Wills's fiddler Johnny Gimble for a genial putdown of duded-up cowboy pretenders ("The only stampede that he's ever seen is the clearance at the Western store"). Atkins ends with "Every Other Friday at Five," a poignant plea for civility between divorced parents who might use their children as hostages. "Let's not put 'em in the middle and play tug-of-war with their hearts/ But let mamas and daddies smile hello and wave goodbye on every other Friday at 5."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8155.)
Tracy Byrd, 'It's About Time' Family weighs heavily on Tracy Byrd's mind, too. The title track of the Texan's latest album comes in the form of a letter from a frustrated spouse complaining that he's so caught up in his work, he's abandoned the family: "It's about time that you're not giving/ The life you're not living/ You're losing your focus/ Not knowing you don't notice/ That our dreams are slowly fading." The ultimate cost is made palpable in "Put Your Hand in Mine," where the tracing of a young child's hand becomes the only tangible connection between a departed dad and his loving son. Elsewhere, Byrd honors a wife's long-term support in the testimonial "Proud of Me," and the power of emotional support in the ballad "Ain't It Just Like a Woman."
This isn't to suggest that "It's About Time" (RCA) is fixated on family matters. There's plenty of old-fashioned courtship ritual, from the spry catalogue of dualities in "Can't Have One Without the Other" ("Sometimes it's hot to trot/ Sometimes it's the cold shoulder") to the aching confession of "Every Time I Do," where Byrd is caught in the undertow of memory: "I say I'll forget her/ Oh, but I know better . . . Shouldn't get the blues when I think of you/ But every time I do."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8156.)
CAPTION: Gary Allan: Blowing "Smoke Rings" around the competition with his latest album.
CAPTION: Trace Adkins: Able to stand his ground with any honky-tonk hero in "More . . . ."