Easton Corbin’s self-titled debut album largely lives up to the claims of its lead-off single – it’s “a little more country” than much of what we hear on radio today. And for the scores of country-starved folks out there staring quizzically at their radio, and wondering if their local country station has switched to top 40 pop music or 80s rock, it’s a Texas-sized breath of fresh air.
On songs that Corbin helped co-write he really shines. Take “This Far From Memphis,” which follows a tack similar to Tim McGraw’s raw-edged heartbreaker “Don’t Mention Memphis” from McGraw’s 1995 album All I Want. Corbin outdoes McGraw, however. “This Far From Memphis” has an added edge of believability brought home emphatically through the simple, devastating lyrics, traditional production, and Corbin’s emotional delivery. There is a Hank Williams Sr. “Lost Highway” quality behind this heartbroken travel diary, and behind Corbin’s other impressive co-write, “Leavin’ a Lonely Town.” On these tracks and at other places on the album, Corbin’s vocals and the phrasing also call to mind influences of country music legend Keith Whitley. Producer Carson Chamberlain used to play in Whitley’s band, so the connection makes sense, but it is still impressive and surprising to hear. In short, these songs get to the roots of the sad country song and show an impressive grasp of the conventions and heritage of traditional country music. So too does Corbin’s writing on “That’ll Make You Want to Drink,” a song that tackles a Haggard-esque theme along the lines of “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” Although it’s nothing special, and could qualify as filler, the song is traditional and convincing. It also isn’t afraid to “go there,” in terms of looking at the nitty-gritty absurdities of the bar scene and life in general, something that places it apart from recent one-dimensional party-minded bar anthems like Dierks Bentley’s “Sideways.” “A room full of good times, laughter and pain” combined with the lost love scenario provides ample motivation to get your drink on, and Corbin hams it up good-naturedly. Even when contributing writing credits to a cookie-cutter tune like “The Way Love Looks,” Corbin’s flexible voice brims with boyish enthusiasm, making the song doubly effective and catchy.
Corbin also dips into some standard fare material not written by him with graceful ease. Lead-off single, “A Little More Country Than That,” is a clever and engaging tune that gets away with a list of country clichés because its whole point is that those things are only shallow surface descriptions when compared to Corbin’s actual depth of country identity, as expressed by his personal beliefs and preferences. In “Don’t Ask Me ‘Bout a Woman” the lead-in sounds similar to Tracy Lawrence’s “If the World Had a Front Porch,” and brings to mind the story in Brad Paisley’s “Waitin’ on a Woman.” It is also thematically reminiscent of early Kenny Chesney in “Grandpa Told Me So,” except in that song grandpa does dispense sage advice about women and life, whereas here grandpa’s withholding of any advice is his form of advice. Here the touching relationship between grandfather and grandson is contrasted with the mysterious nature of women. “A Lot to Learn About Living,” is a forgettable and fun Chesney-style ditty, with its keyed-up relaxation mantra urging us to drop it all and become a beach bum. This may not be believable, nor really country, but Corbin makes it more charismatic and fun than its writing deserves. And in a song like “Let Alone You” you can’t help but call to mind any mid-1990s George Strait track. However, the song becomes increasingly absorbing with each listen. It manages to convey both the tempered optimism of the new outlook caused by rediscovered love, with the retelling of just how low things got before that rediscovery. This makes the outcome and situation all the more valuable and once-in-a-lifetime – exactly what a good hook of this kind should do. “Made fate turn circles on a dime” is a line that particularly catches your attention, and brings the suspenseful, high-stakes situation of this guy’s life into sharp focus. Although these tunes are all derivative to some degree, they work well with Corbin behind the wheel and can stand on their own just fine.
“Roll With It” is the second single from the album after “A Little More Country Than That,” and works well in its role as a light summer tune. The soul-searching low-key production and effective, mournful tone displayed on “Can’t Love You Back,” with its extended fiddle-and-keyboard-accompanied fadeout begs multiple listens. The “steel-ful” sound, and powerful delivery draw you into the emotion of the situation presented, while the open-ended, unchangeable heartache of the lyric makes the song all the more effective.
This album is not perfect, but it could well steel your heart courtesy of Chamberlain’s steel-friendly, skillful production and Corbin’s early-Strait voice. Chamberlain is an adept producer, who also did great things for Billy Currington on his 2005 album Doin’ Somethin’ Right, and with Easton Corbin he has done it again.
While cynics may pin Corbin as wholly derivative and trapped in the shadow of Strait’s legend, the fact remains that he has brought back a much-loved country sound and sensibility that has been playing hooky from Music Row for quite some time. Not only that, but the way Corbin makes some of the generic material on the album come alive with his vocals, infusing wry humor and convincing dedication into sometimes forgettable lyrics, speaks volumes about what he is capable of in the future. Corbin makes a great stride towards returning to country’s roots on this album. Indeed, Easton Corbin would sound perfectly natural coming from a tractor cab or on a porch overlooking a cornfield in summer. Country music that sounds good in the country – take a listen!