Year of the Album — #006
Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin” (Mercury Nashville, 2010)
Similar Albums: Eric Church – “Carolina” (Capitol Nashville, 2009)
Jamey Johnson – “That Lonesome Song” (Mercury Nashville, 2008)
Darius Rucker – “Learn to Live” (Capitol Nashville, 2008)
In country music’s mainstream, there are artists who follow the traditional sounds of the genre, those who update those sounds to include modern flavors, and those who pander to the pop element that has taken over radio country ever since Shania Twain “came on over.” It’s interesting, then, that two artists could attempt to create the same kind of album while winding up with two distict efforts so apart on the spectrum it’s hard to fathom.
In this case we have Darius Rucker’s sophomore effort, which lends itself to fans of the pandering sort, and Easton Corbin, who may be the second coming of George Strait while Strait’s not even far removed from the business. Both artists clearly want to be down home country men who play it straight, cut through the bullshit and write songs that honor the American south they grew up in. But where Corbin hits the mark, crafting a meaningful album that actually has depth, originality and respect for country’s forebears, Rucker pulls a Fairweather Johnson, running what worked on his first country album into the ground so forcefully it’s hardly recognizeable.
The 9513 wrote of a potential 2011 revival of traditional country on the radio airwaves, and if they’re right, true country fans have a ton to rejoice about when listening to Easton Corbin, which is the best traditional meets modern country album I’ve heard since Eric Church’s Carolina. “I’m A Little More Country Than That” is one of the most straightforward, honest country top tens I’ve heard in years, and it sounds like the new traditional country I grew up on in the eighties and early nineties, when artists like George Strait, Keith Whitley and Steve Earle were tearing up country radio. Several cuts on this effort even sound like Corbin spent time in the room with Earle while he put together Guitar Town, the best album to come out of that era. Listen to “Leavin’ A Lonely Town” or “This Far From Memphis” and tell me you disagree.
But Rucker just can’t stop making the same mistakes. He ran Hootie and the Blowfish into the ground by refusing to adapt his sound even enough to make the band’s albums distinguishable from each other, and thus his band never had success beyond their initial debut. His 2008 country debut Learn to Live had him easily making the transition from country-fried rock to straightforward radio country pop, but that album worked because he kept the songs simple. Singles like “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Alright” worked because they were straightforward enough to stick in your head and down home enough to make you want to identify with him.
But Charleston, SC 1966 fails because it tries to take his first country album and polish it so cleanly no one’s supposed to be able to find fault with it. It’s country music reduced to the lowest common denominator so it’ll guarantee hits. Problem is, he plays his everyman role so fakely it’s ridiculous, particularly on songs like “Might Get Lucky” where he comes off as a fraud. “There’s a window of opportunity between when the kids are tucked in and a half a glass of chardonnay,” he sings. “The key to get a second look and a ‘come here, honey’ is treat her right in the daylight and I might get lucky.” Please! Cut through the bullshit a little, Rucker! And he’s got to get in “I Don’t Care,” featuring Brad Paisley, which is one of those offensively stupid mock-Cheeseburger in Paradise turds that country radio seems to love shoving down our throats. The whole album winds up sounding like it’s pandering to everyone and appealing to no one.
If you’re up for some up-front honest country with roots deep down to the Everglades, give Easton Corbin’s self-titled debut a listen. It’s real country that stands up and shouts that there’s a lot more to the genre of country songwriting than Taylor Swift’s fans will ever understand. Rucker, meanwhile, needs to consider whether he’s happy having a few hits while selling his soul with cliché after cliché. I’ve always felt he had the voice for country music, but if he’s content making the same album over and over (and having it get worse for the wear) we’re in for a repeat of Hootie’s decline.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!