Imagine if John Hampson from Nine Days and Luke Esterkyn from Stroke 9 had a kid and the kid was obsessed with the “Saturday Nights” portion of Counting Crows’ “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.” Now picture that kid falling in love after turning on the radio to hear it tuned to the most popular country music station in town. He then buys a cowboy hat and starts writing his own songs.
Oh, and one more thing: His grandfather is Tom Petty.
That’s pretty much what you get with Scott Kurt’s “Down This Road,” a seven-song runaway train of a set that is as obsessed with speed as it is heavy drinking, superficial love and a blend of twang best heard these days from such pop-country standouts as Rascal Flatts or Justin Moore. No, he’s not actually related to any of those artists, of course. But hell if he isn’t filing adoption papers sometime soon.
Uniquely confident and impressively polished, it’s a collection that slaps you in the face with capability and urgency. “I Swore I Wouldn’t” and “Last Call,” as examples, make great use of the impatient drum beat that defines The Byrds classic “So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star,” which was given a completely fresh attitude once Patti Smith got her hands on it. Here, Kurt takes the ideal and makes it his own with the help of his country-leaning voice and a quick flash of piano. “I swore I wouldn’t drink last night/ But my friends bought me a round,” he sings on the album-opener, and it’s clear he’s not a subdued drunk. “Call” reverses the formula, opting for the double-time snare hits during the hook, and truth be told, it works as a clever companion to its predecessor.
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Everything Is Alright” then take that up-tempo trick and add a little R.E.M.-radio rock to the feel. Sure, these are the tracks that call upon Esterkyn’s voice more than the others, but they also suggest a different side of Kurt that has less to do with saloons and more to do with Old Navys. The former brings a Southern accent to the forefront, taking cues from Hank Jr.’s old “Monday Night Football” theme while the latter could have been the B-side to Stroke 9’s forgotten single “Letters.” It’s nothing if not accessible.
Only when things settle down does the singer seem at least slightly more versatile than this collection suggests. “My Father’s Son,” a tender ode to Kurt’s dad, is highlighted by some tastefully placed pedal steel that adds some intricate and essential colors to the portrait Kurt paints. (It’s also, for what it’s worth, a near dead-on vocal impression of Hampson’s “If I Am,” but at this point, who’s counting?) It’s a heartfelt break from an otherwise ruckus tone.
But — and this is an important “but” — despite the song’s quiet demeanor, it never technically slows down the pace in any drastic way, and if there is any glaring critique of the album, such would be it. The quick approach and upbeat feel works well for the guy, but at what point can we get things down to an electric mid-tempo? When does a true 6/8 ballad come into play? Scott Kurt doesn’t answer any of these questions with “Down This Road,” and the decision to abandon discussion for answers casts somewhat of a bright shadow over the whole operation.
Still, even if he has only a few tricks in the bag, they are some pretty great tricks to have. “Come Here Look” provides the most exciting moment of the set when the bridge opens up for a cut-time chorus that demonstrates both the artist’s imagination and his desire to do more than merely run in circles with his writing. Unexpected and pitch-perfect, the section provides promise for those who are looking for the singer to take his pop-country formula into different, intriguing territory.
Not that he really needs to, of course. If nothing else, “Down This Road” announces Scott Kurt as someone actually worthy of the multiple Washington Area Music Association award nominations he’s earned in recent years. Energetic and admittedly a little predictable at times, it’s a collection perfect for anyone with a soft spot for accessible hooks and Nashville influences. Sure, he might not like to slow down, but hey: Nobody told his grandfather that “American Girl” might someday work better as a ballad, anyway, right?
Besides, the spirit behind these seven songs clearly have no problem making any party, as Petty would say, last all night.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***