Kenny Rogers enters his 75th year with an album that blends the familiar with the challenging, seeking new hits and pursuing new ideas even as he enters the Country Music Hall of Fame this fall.
His age occasionally shows in the raggedness at the edges of his vocal tone. But Rogers always made the huskiness of his voice work for him, and that holds true through most of these 11 new songs.
Impressively, he hits high, forceful notes when required, matching longtime duet partner Dolly Parton on the soaring passages of the wistfully sentimental title tune, which would have fit on any of his solo albums from decades past.
On the progressive side, Rogers tackles the struggles of a Mexican immigrant on the Spanish-tinged ballad “Dreams of the San Joaquin;” a jaunty Gulf Coast dance tune on “Don’t Leave Me in the Night Time,” featuring accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco; and a complex narrative about fighting darkness in the modern world on “Turn This World Around,” a duet with young singer-songwriter Eric Paslay.
He occasionally reaches too far, as in “ ‘Merica,” certainly the first patriotic tune to reference a spanked child and a drunken uncle.
For the most part, though, Rogers proves he can still deliver the romantic ballads and dramatic narratives on which his reputation rests.
After 11 years as one of the most effective traditional country singers of his generation, Joe Nichols crosses over to rocking contemporary songs, most of them about seducing young women and sentimentalizing the rural lifestyle.
Nichols’ beefy baritone gives more muscle to these up-tempo celebrations than most of the younger male artists now topping the charts.
Nichols has always been good at injecting personality into novelty songs, and he elevates even the corniest of these formulaic tunes (“Yeah,” “Hee Haw”) by giving them a swagger equal to that of Tim McGraw and Trace Adkins.
Give him a memorable song like “Gotta Love It” — reminiscent of Nichols’ 2010 top hit “Gimmie That Girl” — and he stands above most of the new country stars to rise in his wake.
Nichols frontloads “Crickets” with his aggressive attempt to fit into modern country conventions. But he reminds everyone of what an outstanding, old-fashioned country singer he can be when he uses the tail end of the 16-song collection to present the philosophical “Old School Country Song,” about how chat rooms and cellphones don’t soften the pain of heartbreak, and a fine cover of Merle Haggard’s classic “Footlights.”
Here’s hoping Nichols’ contemporary move helps keep this traditionalist relevant and on the charts.
By Michael McCall, Associated Press