While I think having too many co-producers often proves the time-honored point about "too many cooks," Nail is an exception to the rule. He works here with a triumvirate: original producer Frank Liddell, who oversees Miranda Lambert's recordings, Chuck Ainlay, who with Liddell co-produced Nail's previous album The Sound Of A Million Dreams and a third cook: veteran Nashville studio bassist Glenn Worf.
"Burnin' Bed" may follow current themes, but it's redeemed by Nail's fine performance and low-keyed arrangement with a few Roy Orbison overtones raise it from the ordinary. "Brand New Day" as the title hints, celebrates moving beyond lost love to something new. His vocal, enhanced by a powerful, simple arrangement, allows him to inject a maturity lesser singers might not have achieve. There's nothing profound in "Countin' Cars" yet this clever look at how to occupy a sleepless night after romantic spat offers a light, engaging change of pace
If one track defines Nail at its best, it's "The Secret," one of several numbers he co-wrote. This powerful and very adult ballad, a sort of variation on the George Jones classic "He Stopped Loving Her Today," recounts the tale of a man returning to his hometown to help bury the old girlfriend who carried his child, a secret she literally took to her grave. Even the album's sole cover of a classic provides a powerful moment: Nail's moving revival of the 1969 Glen Campbell hit "Galveston" with added vocals by Liddell's wife, Lee Ann Womack.
As a historian, I can tell you, no era of country has ever been totally good or bad. But only a few artists and albums from any era have staying power. Nail may well be among those.
Eric Church, too, is creating music that should last by setting himself apart from the usual suspects. He doesn't mindlessly grind out good timey sludge Music Row craves, nor does he offer the pretentious, self-conscious "artiness" common to way too many Americana acts. He pushes the limits on most of his latest album, The Outsiders, one reason he's earning stature and respect beyond the yahoo-pickup-beer-beach crowd.
That's apparent on "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young," a thoughtful, joyful celebration of youthful oblivion tempered by maturity. That's right. Maturity. Church, like Nail, is among the few who seem to think that matters in today's country. Of course, some amount of red meat has to be thrown and he gets that done on the title track, "The Outsiders," reflecting the current blend of Nashville bombast with added elements of rap. Church's superb execution sets it apart from many similar numbers.
He can take a hackneyed theme and give it an ingenious twist, as he does on "Cold One," a smart tune that cleverly conflates a lost woman and the fact she takes off with a brew from of the singer's 12-pack. The rap-rocker "That's Damn Rock & Roll" has the fiery edge of Hank Williams Jr. at his best. Even when he turns introspective, he avoids mincing words. "Dark Side," a man's reflection on curbing his baser instincts, blends smart lyrics with a refreshing, understated arrangement, another way Church and producer Jay Joyce seem intent to chart their own direction.
To open the song "Devil Devil," Church wanted to use the Shel Silverstein poem "The Devil and Billy Markham." Unable to obtain clearance, he wrote his own opening verse, "Princess of Darkness," a sharp, acidic commentary about Nashville's greedy, slimy side barely hinted at on the overblown ABC soap opera of the same name. Even the late Waylon Jennings, a true Outlaw and no fan of Music Row, didn't lay it out quite this explicitly. The same applies to "The Joint," a story about a mother who, fed up with her husband's barroom stops, takes matters into her own hands by torching the place.
It's true country can't stand still. At best, it can modernize in ways that keep it fresh while retaining the basic, visceral edge that's always remained at its core. Church's sheer audacity here marks the natural progression that began on his previous album Chief, and reflects an artist who truly gives a damn.