Donnie Wood likes to write hits. Sure, that doesn’t necessarily mean those songs translate into millions of dollars for the local singer, but you certainly can’t fault him for trying via his knack for crafting songs with so much shine, even Mr. Clean would be envious. Shoot. Go back to 2013’s “Bad Good Ole Boy,” and you’ll see that Wood has been swinging for the fences with his blend of unapologetically well-produced pop-twang.
That ambition continues on his latest, “Country 10.” Veering away from the down-home template of his previous work, Wood isn’t afraid to test the bro-country waters here, singing about everything from “purty” girls to his “Alabama baby” to asking his mama to “say a prayer for me.” Plus, of course, there’s a drum machine. And not just any drum machine. It’s the kind of drum machine that has both sides of the Florida-Georgia Line blushing.
Take the title track thvat opens the record. Complete with rock ‘n’ roll guitars, it begins with a Nickleback-ian electro-groove that isn’t not heard on mainstream county radio anymore. Making things fun, however, is Wood’s wit. Much like his set four years ago, this is a guy who has a real knack for making you grin each time he opens his mouth. “You want a guy with a six pack / I got one back home in the fridge / And if size really matters / I got a double-wide back in the sticks” he proclaims, and it’s hard not to smile. Is it parody? Is it self-serious? We may never know for sure, but his consistent dabbling in such waters makes you want to believe it’s more the former than the latter. Or, in other words, it’s as though he’s laughing with you.
Of course, the eyebrows raise when it’s obvious he’s catering to the former. “Georgia Marble” is a sullen tribute to fallen soldiers that uses the image of a tombstone as a centerpiece for heartbreak. His intentions are pure, if not a little cliched, as a rolling drum pattern introduces a track that fades the rest of the music into focus. There’s pretty use of a fiddle between mid-tempo Top 40 grooves before the production leads into a speaking word track that kind of/sort of leaves the listener hanging by the time everything ends. It wouldn’t work if you didn’t at least think Wood believed all of it, and in this case, it’s probably best to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if the idea isn’t particularly original.
Then again, being original isn’t something on which Donnie Wood puts much of a premium. That’s OK, though, if you own it, and he does. Consider “Say A Prayer,” which is such a knockoff of the new-grass twang incorporated on pop radio these days (think Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and you’re much more spot on than you want to be), that it feels like Wood owes I Heart Radio royalties. That said, it’s not like he’s not doing it well, acoustic guitar, banjo, piano and an up-tempo feel fully in tact. Sure, his voice gets a little flat occasionally, but when it’s buried under all this gloss, it’s hardly a fault.
What are his faults, then? Well, the pandering to the bro-world isn’t always the most flattering color for someone to wear. “Stranger In My House” leans so heavily on a dark, processed rock groove that it almost suggests whatever Bon Jovi is doing to try and stay current. Or, perhaps worse, Foreigner. “Easy” is also too predictable — if there is such a thing — with its four-to-the-floor structure and effect-laden vocals. Even for an artist who embraces a bit of cheeseball every now and then, it’s a track presented with an abnormal level of familiarity.
Even so, “I See You Smilin’” is innocent, fun, and even — gasp! — kind of funky, in a completely bro-country way, of course. On it, those updated production tricks work to his advantage, giving the song a late-’90s pop-rock vibe that’s almost novel nearly two decades later. And “Leave It At Home Tonight” echoes the same playful nature, providing a bouncy alternative to the “go out and let loose” mantra that modern country so often abuses. All he wants is a cold beer, a cover charge and a good time, and darn it if it’s not something we all want ourselves, every now and then.
Which, not so coincidentally, is what Donnie Wood embodies: The everyman’s desires. That’s what makes him relatable, and that’s what makes his music, more often than not, work in ways that might fail him otherwise. Why? Because doing so with a wink and nod automatically makes him an affable character in his own country music telenovela. It’s like he’s the “Jane The Virgin” of the local country music scene, and God bless him for that.
A perfect 10, this may not be. But, hey. As far as “Country 10”s go … .
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***