It’s easy to knock contemporary country music because of how detached from its roots it’s become. The days of Jimmie Rodgers, Red Foley or Johnny Cash have been laid so far out to pasture that it would take much more than a tractor and a few hunting dogs to find where exactly its remains reside. Like it or not, they have more or less been replaced by a plethora of bad boy rock stars who, instead of sharing the microphone with Dolly Parton, duet with such artists as Nelly, and instead of leaning heavily on the picking of a banjo or the sentiment of a fiddle, barely offer anything more than a few power chords and an occasional “Git R Done!”
But — and this is an important “but” — that doesn’t mean that those tried and true, red-white-and-blue values are nowhere to be found entirely. Despite all the commercialism, there’s still the heartbreak. There’s still the twang (however subliminal or faint it may seem). There’s still the campy, entertainment-over-artistry shadows that loom like a storm ready to flood a farm. There’s still Nashville. And, maybe more noticeable than anything, there are still those handy cowboy hats and boots that these days are more marketing tools than they are fashion statements.
Country music isn’t dead, per se. It’s just going through its glamour faze. For once, it can enjoy the social fruits of finally being pretty enough to date the star quarterback and it has no intention of returning to the boys of the 4-H Club anytime soon. Once that concept is established and accepted, however, it’s much easier to appreciate what the modern-day cats are trying to pull off with their stadium tours and kitschy music videos. Don’t hate the players, Garth Brooks wants to tell you. Hate the game.
It’s with such a footnote in mind that the following must then be noted: There’s a whole bunch of greatness within locally bred country act Donnie Wood’s latest 11-song set, “Bad Good Ole Boy.” Unashamed to the bone, it has no problems knowing exactly what it wants to be, and for that it should be commended, even celebrated. Sure, you could probably hum these melodies in your sleep, and yes, the distance between this set and, say, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” is about three universes wide, but hey: It’s not like John Lennon’s “Imagine” is nipping at the heels of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 25,” either.
Granted, there are still the cringe-worthy moments. “I Can’t Get My Truck to Go Home at Night” and “It’s a Girl Thing” land on the corny side of what contemporary country music is these days. Either track could come on at a Texas Roadhouse and nobody would blink an eye, its vague steel guitar and honky tonk piano all but daring the waitresses to launch into one of their line-dances. The latter is particularly buried underneath a sea of cheese as Wood makes it known how hangin’ with his boys for Monday Night Football is no longer his go-to bonding experience for the week — that responsibility now lands at the feet of his latest muse as he explains how he “discovered the ultimate activity” before noting that “It’s a girl thing/ Makes me feel so alive/ When she’s wearing my shirt/ And Chanel No. 5.”
The good news, though, is that this is the worst it gets. Outside those two glaring missteps are some likeable (if not lovable) moments. The title track, for instance, is a lot of country-fied fun despite its predictability. Wood has a killer band (as is typically the case with country solo acts), and it falls in lockstep through an exciting tempo as upbeat as anything else here or in mainstream pop-country music. The guitar riffs are in full effect and the blue-collar mindset is palpable, Wood’s voice selling his contradiction with the amount of gusto needed to succeed in the genre.
Actually, two of the songs here should make a play for consideration when the local best-of lists are assembled at the end of the year. “The Moon Light,” while uncredited in the liner notes, might be the most sweetheart performance of the last 12 months. The closest thing he gets to a traditional country-western sound, Wood’s slow pace is neither boring or unnecessary. In fact, it’s flawless. “Let’s entertain the man in the moon/ And make it worth his time/ It’s the least that we can do/ He’s kind enough to shine,” he sings during the song’s opening verse and it’s irresistible. He does delicacy well and after songs that explicitly try to trump his manhood, not only is the performance a nice change of pace, but it also tastes like the worthiest flavor of tenderness.
Not to be outdone is “John Deer Letter,” a mildly genius play on words about a fast woman who loves to leave her men lurking in the dust. The premise is fun and brainy: A woman takes off on a man’s John Deere tractor after leaving him — you guessed it — a Dear John letter. It’s smart and it proves how substantial a lot of the stuff throughout the record truly is. Wood isn’t a second-rate performer who’s looking to hop on the train of lucrativeness the genre has been known to offer some of its most fly-by-night-est acts. Tracks such as these prove that none of what he’s doing is thoughtless and his attention to detail and presentation should be rewarded by both current listeners and potential fans.
The only real hiccup? According to the record’s booklet, Wood himself wrote only one of the album’s 11 songs, the unexpectedly touching ballad-heavy finality, “See You Sooner.” It’s also the only song where he ditches the band in favor of an acoustic guitar and almost nothing else. The result is good, not great, but one has to wonder why he didn’t want to have more input on the rest of the set. You’d like to think he’s got the talent for it, but with only these tracks as a sample size, how could we know for sure?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter, of course. Because Wood originals or not, “Bad Good Ole Boy” is a promising collection of contemporary country-western music that frankly is good enough to have a song or two pop up on radio stations both near and far. It might not be what it used to be, but there’s a large and loyal market for this kind of stuff and as far as ability and potential go, there’s no reason Donnie Wood shouldn’t be one of the next opening acts on one of those summer-set package tours, coming to a stadium near you.
Besides, it’s his turn to date the prettiest cheerleader, anyway. And who can really blame him if he wants to seek out one more date night before they both leave for college?
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***