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.
“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!
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.”
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.
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.