There must be times when country outlaw Travis Tritt would love to knock that shiny black cowboy hat off Tim McGraw's purty little head. Over the past decade-plus, as both singers have played pivotal roles in turning boot-scootin' pop into a worldwide craze, it has ultimately been the milquetoast McGraw who sold more albums and seduced more fans. Never mind that the increasingly overlooked Tritt has always had the stronger voice, the punchier tunes and the better chance to come out of a barroom brawl with all teeth intact.
Toughness and talent just don't count for much in the vainglorious realm of the New Nashville. McGraw, with hat pulled low over steely peepers, looks like a model in a Marlboro ad. Tritt, letting that shaggy mullet fly and leaving his wrinkled shirttails untucked, looks like Mr. Goodwrench.
McGraw's marriage to crossover queen Faith Hill sure hasn't hurt his career, either.
Tritt's tough luck in grabbing attention from the good-looking set will no doubt continue this month, as his new album, the swaggering "My Honky Tonk History," goes head-to-head with McGraw's relatively wimpy "Live Like You Were Dying" -- the feel-good title track of which has already spent seven weeks atop the Billboard charts. Tritt's tight and honest 12 offerings trump just about all of McGraw's polished and focus-grouped 16 cuts, but it's the far weaker collection that is already looking like a record-breaker.
Both artists rely on a who's who of Nashville songwriters. Tritt's crew (including Gretchen Wilson, Delbert McClinton and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) pays homage to George Jones, David Allan Coe and an assortment of legendary down-south rabble-rousers. McGraw's team also includes some proven saloon poets (Rodney Crowell, Tom Douglas and former Heartbreaker Stan Lynch), but here they seem to be stuck in namby-pamby Brad Paisley mode.
Tritt's opening track about paying your dues, "Honky-Tonk History," is a macho gutbuster of scars, bars and whiskey-chugging gals. "I got these calluses from all those nights / I spent playing a Telecaster 'til my fingers bled Bud Light," the 41-year-old Georgian brags in a husky baritone over a hell-yeah groove from such wicked session players as keyboardist Hargus "Pig" Robbins and guitarist Billy Joe Walker Jr. On McGraw's kickoff cut about paying your dues, "How Bad Do You Want It," the 37-year-old Louisianan uses his stalled-in-midrange croon to deliver such tired tripe as "If you want it all / You gotta lay it all on the line" over an elevator-appropriate arrangement from his competent but risk-averse backing band, the Dancehall Doctors.
Because they're so in love and can't stand to be away from each other -- or so Us Weekly informs -- the incandescent Hill shows up to help her hubby on "Blank Sheet of Paper," a sweet, considerably restrained ballad about McGraw's late-blooming relationship with his father, Tug McGraw, the baseball hurler who died this year of brain cancer. But Tritt's special big-name guest delivers far bigger thrills. That liberal Hoosier John Mellencamp joins the ultra-conservative (and Dixie Chick-needling) Tritt on "What Say You," a strange-bedfellows duet that strives for peaceful dialogue via prickly give-and-take. Over a gentle banjo line from Bela Fleck, Mr. Small Town howls with his cigs-damaged pipes, "Man, I don't talk no religion / And I ain't gonna wave that flag," and Tritt quickly goes lower with "But I love God and America / And I'd fight for what I have." Give credit to these ornery opposites for airing it out but also keeping it catchy.
Tritt may be a tough-talking son of a gun, but he proves aces at the weepy stuff. His Father's Day special, "I See Me," much like Kenny Chesney's Kleenexian "There Goes My Life," is about a tough guy going gushy over his kid, and the sparse arrangement and genuine (but never saccharine) sentiment pack an honest wallop. McGraw's string-bloated smash "Live Like You Were Dying" spreads thick the same inspirational goop that Lee Ann Womack used for her ubiquitous uplifter, "I Hope You Dance." Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman's cheesily manipulative lyrics, which give voice to a man who dodged death and started appreciating the reprieve, should be showing up on Hallmark cards any day now.
And so it goes. McGraw's long-live-Dixieland stomp "Back When" plays like a cruel, snotty swipe at urban ills ("Back when a ho was a hoe / Coke was a Coke / And crack's what you were doing when you were cracking jokes"). Tritt's shot of Southern comfort is the rowdy redneck special "When in Rome," which ribs the right way ("Well, you must be from the city / 'Cause you sure ain't from 'round here / There ain't no smoke-free section / We don't sell no import beer").
The only time McGraw bests Tritt is on the obligatory punny cut, the kind of wink-wink wordplay that every country disc contains. "Do You Want Fries With That," about a fast-food schmo who waits on his ex's new beau, has a roughhouse feistiness that the singer last summoned on his likable hit "I Like It, I Love It." (From "Fries": "I'm supposed to tell you, 'Please come back' / But how 'bout this instead / 'I hope you both choke on a pickle' / That would tickle me to death.") Tritt makes like an ape on "Monkey Around," and the less said about that mess, the better.
That lone dud aside, the rousing "My Honky Tonk History" has it all over "Live Like You Were Dying." Alas, until Tritt starts wearing a Stetson and choosing touchy-feely tunes -- or, at the very least, steals away with Shania Twain -- he'll no doubt continue to watch the back of McGraw's million-dollar melon moving up the charts for a long time to come.
Travis Tritt, along with Diamond Rio, David Lee Murphy, Blue County and Rachel Proctor, is scheduled to appear Sept. 19 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.