As much as us hardcore music nerds on the Internet are loathe to admit, the truth is that for something to have a chance at being accepted by mainstream country radio, it’s required to have a considerable amount of commercial appeal. That means uber-traditional sounds and extremely complex songwriting are pretty much out. Given those constraints, an album like Trent Tomlinson’s 2006 debut Country is My Rock is exactly what modern mainstream country could (and should) sound like. It’s traditional enough to register as unabashed country music, but accessible enough to not scare away a general audience. It’s also substantive enough to hold the attention of those seeking depth and storytelling in their music, but melodious enough to appeal to casual music fans just looking for pleasant background noise on their morning commute. It’s in this way that this album reminds me of much of the better of ’90s country music: widely appealing without sacrificing its identity or intelligence.
The preceding paragraph is in no way meant to imply that Country is My Rock is only good when compared to other modern era mainstream releases. It’s a highly satisfying album by any standard. With only one or two exceptions which we’ll get to later, the quality of the songwriting on this album is very high. Trent had a hand in writing every track on the album, proving his aptitude as a tunesmith. His voice is a little on the thin side, but he has a very likeable voice, and gets the most of his abilities. He is a skilled interpreter who is passionate and convincing in his performances.
The title track and album opener is a paean to Trent’s traditional country heroes and the soul-nourishing ability of country music. While the song’s rock-leaning sound with blazing electric guitars is admittedly incongruent with its praise for artists like Hank Williams and George Jones, I find it forgivable because (A) it is a damn fine rock song and (B) Trent proves beyond a shadow of a doubt on the rest of the album he knows what actual country music is and how to write and perform it. It’s a lot different than today’s carpetbaggers who name drop Hank and Haggard incessantly but owe far more to Bon Jovi and Motley Crue.
And boy does he prove it. “Angels Like Her” is an outstanding stone country heartbreak ballad that contains killer line after killer line. It was too country for radio sadly, but it’s worth seeking out the album for this track alone. “The Bottle” is a similarly themed song that is very nearly as good. “I Was Gonna Leave Tomorrow Anyway” is more contemporary and radio-friendly, but avoids being overproduced. It’s an excellent lyric that involves a man attempting to deal with his partner’s breaking up with him by rationalizing that he was was going to leave anyway. Another good song that deals with the end of a relationship is the tender ballad “A Good Run,” although in this case the narrator is sincerely at peace with the dissolution of the relationship.
The album’s closing track, “One Wing in the Fire”, is something special. Written with Bobby Pinson, whose name usually means quality, the song’s narrator is a son who takes stock of his father’s transgressions and wonders if it means his dad won’t be accepted into heaven along with himself and his mother. Like the best religious country music, it doesn’t shy away from complexity or descend into ham-fisted moralizing. Shaver, Kristofferson, and the Louvins would be proud. It’s easily one of the best singles of the past decade.
While Tomlinson tackles serious subject matter well, he can also pull off light-hearted fare. “Cheatin’ On My Honky Tonk” is a fun little honky-tonker which cleverly reverses the standard plot of a man ignoring his wife to hang out at the bar. In this case, the narrator finds himself going to great lengths to conceal his newfound love from his lovesick barroom buddies so they don’t view him as a sellout. Similarly good is the irresistibly catchy “Drunker Than Me”, which involves a narrator having to break up with his girlfriend because he can’t handle the responsibility of dealing with someone who is even wilder than him. These two tracks are genuinely original, smart, and funny, which is easy to appreciate when you know that comedy can be much harder to execute than drama.
There is one major misfire on this album. “Hey Batter Batter” is a weak, pointless song involving bravado and baseball metaphors aplenty. Obnoxiously produced with uninteresting lyrics and a grating chorus, it’s easily the worst track on the album. I don’t know if I’d describe it as unbearably bad, but frankly, it’s not good and should have been left on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, I am certain that if this album had been released today, this would be the lead single. Better but not particularly good is “The Next Time”, an uptempo which involves a narrator engaging in bad behavior and swearing he won’t do again until, of course, the next time. It’s not bad, but the joke is a bit one-note and the song doesn’t really go anywhere. Thankfully, every other track is well-above average to outstanding, so these two duds don’t bring the down the album’s overall quality too much.
Country is My Rock compares favorably not just to other modern mainstream releases, but to the greater country music world as well. It is a legitimately strong album that anyone would be well-served to check out, even if you wrote off the modern, popular version of our genre long ago. Yeah, it comes with the territory that it’s going to be overproduced in spots and maybe there’ll be a little bit of weakness in the songwriting here or there, but even the most jaded of Nashville haters will likely find a ton to like about this album. While this album was a critical success and yielded three moderately successful singles, Tomlinson’s career momentum died before he could release a second album, and because there is no justice in this world, he never regained it. A full-length follow-up has yet to be released. However, we’ll always have Country as My Rock to enjoy and serve as a reminder of what could have been.
Grade: 3.5 out of 4 flags