Commercial country tends to like particular voices, certain timbres which sound great coming out of your local radio station. With Keys To The Country, the opening song of the fourth Chris Janson album, I realise he is essentially Blake Shelton’s replacement on radio. This album is the type that Blake has been making for 20 years and which provided a template for country which is designed to be enjoyed by fans of country music. The system works.
Chris, should you need reminding, plugged away for years before Buy Me A Boat become a surprise hit off the back of Bobby Bones, one of the radio guys, playing it off his own steam. Chris has become a member of, and regular performer at, the Grand Ole Opry, tootling on a harmonica and giving audiences good vibes and singing the song Good Vibes. His setlist includes Fix A Drink and Waitin on 5 (‘startin’ on six’), which stalled at 42 on radio after the success of a love song called Done.
The album’s title track has a pounding kickdrum which soundtracks how Chris is ‘a little bit’ this, ‘a little bit’ that and it’s nothing I’ve not heard before, especially because he was ‘all in…fallin’ from the minute that I saw you’. Love Don’t Sleep ticks off rural signposts but ‘when it comes to you baby, ain’t enough hours in the night’, while You Never Did is a Janson 100%-er (with music and lyrics by Chris) where he thanks his wife for persevering with him, with a catch in his voice and a fiddle backing him up.
George Strait could have turned all these songs into hits (You Never Did is so much an homage that Dean Dillon might have a claim for providing the vibe in a Blurred Lines kind of way). So could Kenny Chesney or our friend Blake, because uptempo love songs will always have a place in country. I hope one of those love songs gets a push to radio, given the inevitable trad revival that followed a decade of ‘hey baby girl, get in my truck’.
Conversely You, Me & The River is a murder ballad written by and featuring Eric Church, who joins Chris and his harmonica by the ‘Mississippi mud’. Travis Tritt, meanwhile, may have agreed to feature on (harmonica solo ahoy) Things You Can’t Live Without – take a wild guess what they are given your knowledge of commercial country music from 1927 onwards – because of the patriotic tone of Flag On The Wall. That song sounds like an Eric Church composition (and it is) down to the way Chris phrases the words about troops, meth, bibles, God, Jesus, guns and how This Land Is your Land is a ‘crock of shit’. Someone tell Eric and Chris that Woody Guthrie wrote that song as a satirical response to God Bless America.
There’s a song about momma called Bye Mom, which is basically Even Though I’m Leaving by Luke Combs, and one about fishing. The Reel Bass Pro is in the same key as Buy Me A Boat and is the second song this year to mention the brand after Thomas Rhett’s Bass Pro Hat. Johnny Morris also gets a namecheck for ‘providing fishing poles’ which you can get at BassPro.com. I really think Bass Pro have paid for some sponsorship, as if albums are radio stations now and need sponsorship to drive sales. Maybe I’m being too cynical…
There is a reason why Chris hasn’t crossed over to global audiences: his songs are so damned American. ‘There’s a trophy in the trophy case’ is the opening line of Small Town Big Time, which has the album’s best riff and which could have been a hit for 12 guys (Justin Moore, Craig Morgan, Craig Campbell, people not called Craig) in about 2008. As if to underline his Americanness, the album ends with My American World, which ticks off the same things you can’t live without just in case listeners didn’t think Chris loved his country enough. In on the joke, the chorus ends ‘I really really REALLY REALLY love my American world’. We get the point. In fact, we got it 40 minutes previously.
Rhett Akins and the Peach Pickers, who famously hit paydirt with Boys Round Here, have moved on to Janson. The trio gift him Halfway To Crazy on which Rhett also shows up. Again, it is odd for Chris, a man who used to drink but who stopped when he met his wife, to sing so much about getting drinks and having a party by the creek, but he’s got to make Warner Bros back their advance, so he’ll say yes to anything.
We Did It Anyway starts in a hayfield with banjos twanging and drums pounding, before Chris moves to a ‘southern rock’n’roll show’. It’s a slice of small town life that anybody in Nashville could sell to anybody in the American south. Ditto Cold Beer Truth and Here and Gone (co-written with Casey Beathard), two slices of country philosophy sung in the same tenor as Blake.
I never complain that country music is too country because we’ll miss this sort of thing when it’s gone. Scotty McCreery is doing similar things to Chris Janson but he’s able to play the UK thanks to the brand recognition from American Idol and because he’s an indie artist not tied to the major system and an Opry contract to fulfil. I wish Chris well, because he seems to be having such fun doing a job he loves.
Disclaimer: This piece has been amended since publication. Chris Janson has never been a ‘recovering alcoholic’ as the original version of this piece stated. He instead said that he quit drinking when he met his wife and his sobriety did not result from any dependence on alcohol.