The past few months, it seems that country is moving back toward the traditional side of the spectrum. I’m not sure exactly who started the trend — Zac Brown Band and Chris Young perhaps? Or it could just be that we’re getting artists who grew up listening to the “class of ’89.” Whatever the cause, we’re sure hearing a lot more fiddle and steel on radio lately. And one more entrant into the neo-trad fold this past year is Tennessee native Dustin Lynch, who unassumingly snuck into the Top 20 with his slow-burner “Cowboys and Angels.” Brett Beavers (in, by my count, only his fourth production credit for someone other than Dierks Bentley) and Luke Wooten man the boards, keeping the sound crisp and modern.
“She Cranks My Tractor” is the upbeat lead-off to the album. Although it seems to be on the surface just another “man, my country girl’s hot” kind of song that the Peach Pickers have done to death, it’s loaded with clever lyrics like “Ten pounds of sugar in a five pound sack” and “she’s the first one up the hayloft ladder.” The repeated “she cranks, she cranks, she cranks” in the chorus might be a little annoying after the third time around, but overall, the song’s restrained production and Lynch’s voice make it seem smooth and charming, not aggressive. Similarly, on the Jake Owen-esque “Wild in Your Smile,” the electric guitars come out and Dustin’s voice drops to the lower register as he comes on to a hot girl and promises her a good time. But even when he’s singing “I know you love a little danger, baby,” he sounds authentic and friendly.
“Cowboys and Angels” took me a few listens to get into when I first heard it on the radio. And that’s by no means a knock against it. It takes on a well-worn theme (good girl who loves a bad boy) with lines such as “There’s a want and there’s a need / There’s a history between / Girls like her and guys like me.” While its lyrics look simple on paper, Dustin sells them convincingly. She’s obviously not the same girl he’s singing about in “Hurricane,” which uses the title object as a metaphor for temptation — and offers the interesting observation that a lot of them are named for women. “Waitin’” also takes another familiar theme (broken heart) and spins it in a new direction. There was a lot of waiting in the start of the relationship, and now that it’s over, he’s sitting on the couch, drinking whiskey, and waiting for her to come back. Its minor chords and very long chorus recall Kenny Chesney’s excellent “Somewhere with You.”
“Last Lap” is a smooth, laid-back song about cruising through town. It has a “whoa oh” chorus like Jake Owen’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” but a slower, more deliberate feel. The inclusion of details like Jackson Street (which actually is the main drag of Dustin’s hometown of Tullahoma) color in the song nicely. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for small-town nostalgia like this. And what’s a country song without a hot girl sitting in your truck? He’s got that in “Last Lap,” and he elaborates a little on “Sittin’ Pretty.” (Yes, she’s sitting pretty in a truck. Where else?) The conversational, laughing tone of the song makes it feel very off-the-cuff and organic. And guess what “Yeah Yeah Yeah” is about? Yep, a girl wearing a Haggard shirt and singing along to the radio. I admit I had low expectations with a title like that, but not unlike “Felt Good on My Lips,” it fits the theme of singing along. “Rock You Sweet” is about a girl too, but it’s more intimate than the songs before it. It uses interesting details like rocking boats in the sea and a jam band by the beach both as means of promising an unhurried good time.
But the good times aren’t over. Is life getting to you? Well, you can surely identify with “Unwind It,” which perhaps unsurprisingly about kicking back and drinking beer to forget all your troubles. Dustin pushes down to the lower end of his register again, fitting what is surpisingly an unhurried take on that topic. And if you want some partying, there’s plenty out back in the woods, and indeed, the girls are “Dancing in the Headlights.” Finally, there’s “Name on It,” yet more promises of partying and girls It’s nice to see party anthems that aren’t rocking out, and “hot girl” songs that have a little more maturity than most. On the other hand, those themes overtake nearly the entire last half of the album, making the disc a little monotonous at times, while undermining each song’s individual lyrical clarity and charming delivery. (There’s an acoustic bonus track called “Your Plan,” a beautiful soul-baring song of surrendering control of life to the Man Upstairs™. I’ve said it before: this recent trend of soft, slow, religious-themed closing tracks is a good thing in my book.)
Lynch’s debut has plenty of strengths, but they come through best when he breaks away from the omnipresent hot girls and trucks. A few more tracks like “Cowboys and Angels,” “Hurricane,” or “Waitin’” and a few less like “Name on It” would have made this an exceptional debut instead of just a very good one. Still, each song taken on its own has plenty of strengths, and nearly any would sound great on radio. Dustin has a smooth, low voice not unlike Don Williams minus the sappiness, and he’s perfectly matched by uncluttered, often soft production that manages to sound traditional and modern at the same time. Even though I didn’t get a lot of fiddle and steel, I was still surprised at how low-key the album was. A little more thematic variety would certainly help, but otherwise,Dustin Lynch is a welcome introduction that stands out even in the slowly-growing field of more traditional newcomers.