By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


October 24, 2006

Nashville can be downright unneighborly to risk takers in mainstream country music -- just ask the Dixie Chicks. But Alan Jackson continues to be invited up onto the porch despite the huge departure of his latest CD, "Like Red on a Rose."

It is one of several notable country CDs released recently. None of the others attempt to break a mold, but those that hew to an artistic vision are most successful.

Alan Jackson | "Like Red on a Rose" | Grade: A

Jackson "Like Red on a Rose"Nothing here even faintly echoes "Mercury Blues" or "It's Five O'clock Somewhere." Country mainly because Alan Jackson's wearing a hat -- and he has that velvety, traditional country voice -- "Rose" is produced by Alison Krauss and displays the same kind of minimalist vibe that the bluegrass queen uses on her solo records.

An all-star band featuring some of Krauss' Union Station players supports Jackson with subtle grace, and keyboards provide some churchy R&B shading.

"I hope my song is what you're longing for,/ I don't sing like I used to/ Sometimes less is more," Jackson sings on "The Firefly's Song," written by Robert Lee Castleman, a Krauss protégé.

"Rose" is a blues album, if the definition can be expanded to a collection of songs that largely ooze contentment, gratitude and love, leavened by the wisdom of how fragile all of that can be. It's the sound of a bar late at night, and one of the last drinkers plays Sinatra on the jukebox.

Jackson is a fine writer, but here he relies on others for all but one of the 13 tracks, the thank-you note "A Woman's Love."

Other standout tracks include "Good Imitation of the Blues," Herb Pederson's "Wait a Minute," and "Had It Not Been You," in which the father of three daughters sings that "the girls wouldn't look anything like they do . . . had it not been you."

"Like Red on a Rose" is Jackson's second CD this year, following "Precious Memories," a gospel album that was also a big departure. It was a success commercially, and so is "Rose," which reached No. 1 on the country chart and No. 4 on Billboard's Top 200.

It was apparent from the first neo-traditional honky-tonk notes of 1989's "Here in the Real World" that Jackson was the real deal, an artist of integrity and sincerity. Nothing since has altered that judgment.

George Strait | “It Justs Comes Natural” | Grade: A

Strait CD coverA truer CD title may not exist. For George Strait's 29th CD, it's tempting to give out a grade like Ralphie's teacher did in his "Christmas Story" fantasy: A-plus-plus-plus-plus . . .

Strait, who rarely writes, once again wraps his smooth, unmistakable voice around a collection of stellar songs. Downtempo or uptempo, somber or playful, waltz or Texas swing, Strait comes across as unfailingly honest.

The amusing breakup song "Give It Away" -- Strait's jazillionth No. 1 single -- kicks off the CD with a smile. Bobby Braddock's "She Told Me So" is the kind of ballad Strait does best: "There's roses blooming in the Arctic Circle . . . I'd believe it if she told me so."

The Texan tells us why "That's My Kind of Woman" ("like me she likes Gus from 'Lonesome Dove' ") and offers relationship advice on Lee Roy Parnell's "One Foot in Front of the Other." But sometimes it just doesn't work out, as in the wonderful weeper "I Ain't Her Cowboy Anymore."

But those aren't the best songs. The best ones are Strait's dishing up of Guy Clark's tasty "Texas Cookin'" ("stop yo belly and backbone from bumpin' "); Tony Romeo's take on loneliness, "Come On Joe," a hit for Jo-El Sonnier in 1987; and Bruce Robison's hoplessly in love "Wrapped," simply one of the best country songs ever.

Mark Chesnutt | “Heard It in a Love Song” | Grade: B

Chestnutt CD coverUnassuming Mark Chesnutt is another survivor of the New Traditionalist movement in Nashville, a Hat Act veteran who put the music and his warm, classic-country voice before the image.

On his new CD, Chesnutt pays tribute to a Mount Rushmore of influences: Hank Williams Sr., George Jones, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.

So, of course, he leads off the CD with a cover of the Marshall Tucker Band's classic "Heard It in a Love Song," and it works wonderfully well, with guitar replacing the piano figures so familiar to radio listeners.

The second track, Allen Reynolds' "Dreamin' My Dreams," was a hit for Waylon and is a standout here as well. Other choice tracks include the weepers "A Day in the Life of a Fool" (Jones), "A Shoulder to Cry On" (Haggard) and "Lost Highway" (Hank Sr.)

Pat Green | “Cannonball” | Grade: B-

Green CD coverPat Green's 10th CD and fourth on a major label completes his journey to the mainstream, and that's too bad. The scruffy Texas roadhouse honky-tonker is gone, replaced by a polished heartland rocker in the mode of Springsteen and Mellencamp -- but without their great songs.

The Mellencamp link is important, because Green is working once again with producer Don Gehman, who produced some of Mellencamp's best work. On "Lost Without You," the arrangement, singing and song structure are straight Mellencamp.

"Feels Just Like It Should" even has Springsteen references, including one to "Born to Run," which is what this song is, set in small-town Texas rather than small-town New Jersey. In "Won't Let Love," he sings: "I wonder if it's real or just a brilliant disguise." Really.

On the other hand, Green still has an undeniable swagger and a distinctive voice, and songs such as the killer rocking title track are pretty irresistible. But over 14 songs, the tunes start to blend together, suffering from the same sound and dynamics, and held back by formulaic writing.

Hey, Pat, free your inner scruffy self next time.

Tom Wurth | “Tom Wurth” | Grade: C+

Wurth CD coverThe first notes ring out. Wait, is this a Glen Campbell reissue? That's the riff in "Southern Nights."

But no, it's "Leaving Lonely Behind," a typical Nashville midtempo rocker, the first of 15 -- and too many -- tracks on young Iowan Tom Wurth's debut CD.

Produced by John Ford Coley (of England Dan and . . . fame), Wurth struggles to make something out of a pretty formulaic affair. Blessed with a strong and pleasant Vince Gill tenor, Wurth fares well on Ray Herndon's ballad "Is This Lonely"; the rocker "Bad Case of Missing You," co-written with Al Anderson; and the relative simplicity of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

Elsewhere, however, the common-man anthem "Bread on the Table," the CD's first single, suffers from the kind of button-pushing list that passes for lyrics and story in Nashville these days. The CD sounds great, and Wurth has talent, but here's hoping he gives us some sense of mission next time out, besides getting on the radio.