So let’s talk about the infamous story of Texas-Country artists who flirt with mainstream success. I’m talking about guys like Pat Green and Jack Ingram, or even looking right now at Granger Smith. These are all artists who started out in the Texas scene with strong critical acclaim only to compromise some of that acclaim when they signed with major labels (subjective of course). Sure enough, those first two men are back in the Texas scene making solid music, realizing that playing with the “cool kids” wasn’t for them.
Curtis Grimes seems to be following this formula, only in the opposite direction. Believe it or not, he started out winning the Austin leg of Kenny Chesney’s Big Star contest before releasing his debut album Lonely River in 2009. After that, he went on The Voice to see how far he could take his career. Interestingly enough, he ended up on Cee Lo Green’s team rather than Blake Shelton’s. While he didn’t ultimately win, Curtis has been hammering away creating more projects and has been a consistent hit-maker on the Texas Country charts.
Well, actually we do! I’ll admit, I’m not quite sure I can call Undeniably Country a great album, but it is an album that feels as if Curtis Grimes is really starting to dig out his own niche in country music. He’s standing his ground and telling the world who he wants to be as an artist, and thankfully he lets the music speak for itself.
Remember when I said that Curtis was sort of playing the Texas game backwards? Well now we see why. While he started out trying to make it in the mainstream, Curtis is now showing who he is as an artist, and that’s reflected mostly in the sound. I’ll admit, on some level I’m a sucker for traditional country music, but at the same time I also would prefer it to have some texture or flavor, and I believe we mostly get that on this album. The instruments used such as the pedal steel, fiddle and banjo are driving the melodies rather than just supporting them. It’s not exactly as if Curtis was immune to these instruments in his past work though. Heck, he used them quite frequently as a matter of fact. Here though, the sound feels almost intimate, and the production on this album doesn’t feel as cluttered as past Grimes songs could sometimes be. Here, the production leaves a lot of room for the songs to breathe and rise to something great. I give a ton of credit to producer Trent Willmon for helping to find that sound for Curtis. It’s more rootsy than outright whiskey soaked honky-tonk, and that’s a great fit for Grimes as a vocalist.
Vocally, Curtis has always reminded somewhat of Billy Currington with the sort of smooth, easy going vocals that add some real life to these songs. He cites Keith Whitley as a vocal influence as well, and really I’d say it rings true as well as emphasizes my point about the smooth vocals. Like Currington, Grimes also has a lot of charisma to his credit, and that helps on a more fun song like “Right About Now”, a song that also has a great hook as well. Actually, to Grimes’ credit, he’s got a knack for crafting strong hooks, and that’s something that’s reflected in the lyricism.
Now, discussing the lyrics and themes of this album is also where I’ll be discussing my nitpicks as well. It’s not that it’s necessarily bad by any means, but it’s got the same problems I’ve had with past Grimes songs. Some of these songs are certainly enjoyable, but you also feel like they could develop into something more. “Everything Hank Did” is a good place to start. Sure, Hank did live a rowdy lifestyle, but emulating that particular part of his life isn’t doing everything the man did in his twenty-nine years on Earth. If anything, emulating the dark side of Hank’s life may have not been the best way to go. The sound on this track is enjoyable however, and for the most, my criticism of it is minor.
However, one thing I’ve noticed about the songwriting on this album is that Curtis seems to have some really great ideas with his songs only to take too long to get to the point. “If You Ask Me” and “Put My Money On That” are great examples. Both songs operate on the system of listing examples of the main point of the song only to get to that main point later on, and yet by the time they do they just don’t feel as well executed as they could be. They’ve got good intentions, but they could overall be stronger. On the other hand, you also get a song like “From Where I’m Standing” which, sure, has an agreeable enough sound, but also doesn’t feel that essential to the project. It’s a decent love song, but I can’t find much more to say other than that.
Of course, it helps that we have two shining examples of where this does come into fruition, and unsurprisingly enough they make for two of my favorite songs on the album. “Had A Thing” is the crown jewel of this album for taking the classic country theme of getting involved with dangerous things (in this particular case, weed, women, and whiskey), and actually going deeper with that theme by adding some details of how it’s affected this man’s life. Moreover, the song also has a conclusion for this man (which I won’t spoil), completing the circle of telling a story within country music. It’s that sense of detail that really lets me know that Grimes has it in him to write an excellent song.
The other shining example is “Born To Die”, a song where once again we get a story rather than just a list of things that revolve around the main example. The theme of living knowing full and well that we’re destined for something great is definitely an easy one to devolve into a checklist nature, and yet instead Curtis actually takes this theme in a spiritual direction telling the story of none other than Jesus Christ. Again, the details are here, and the story is here with a great hook to boot. The anthemic chorus helps to accentuate the point of the song, and once again it proves that Curtis can definitely pen an excellent song.
The last song I’ve yet to talk about is the closer, “Ten Year Town”. Look, I do think protest songs are getting rather played out these days, and I will say it’s weird to make one at a time where mainstream country music is finally showing some substance and growth. On one hand though, I can’t really dislike this song. In fact, I like it quite a bit. It’s tongue in cheek in nature, not far removed from say, Aaron Watson’s “Fence Post”. For the most part, you can tell it’s coming from an honest place, and on an album where Curtis is standing his ground as the artist he wants to be, and I can respect that.
So overall, Undeniably Country by Curtis Grimes is definitely a step in the right direction for him. Yeah, I’m a country critic praising an artist for sticking to a traditional sound, but really my praise goes deeper than that. It’s a great fit for his vocals, and the sort of rootsier, intimate country sound is really one that isn’t as evident as it should be outside of acts like Flatland Cavalry, and to an extent the Turnpike Troubadours. I will say that Grimes’ songwriting could use some improvements, but aside from that, this is damn solid. Curtis Grimes may not have blown the doors down with this album, but he did forge a new chapter in his career, and I’m excited to see where he goes next, because I’ll be listening.
Best Songs: “Had A Thing”, “Born To Die”, “Right About Now”
Worst Song: “Put My Money On That”