Dirt Road Driveway
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Country music is full of guys who aren’t particularly gifted singers, e.g., Shelton or McGraw, but who worked with what they had to forge highly successful careers. Texan Granger Smith is another one who, in many ways, is just another country voice on the radio. But what sets him apart, especially from other Red Dirt acts, is that where others are simply conveyors of material that other people write, play and produce, Smith is the whole package.
On Dirt Road Driveway, his ninth album, Smith is clearly in the driver’s seat, writing the bulk of the material, producing it, and even engineering it in his own studio with his own band. Oh yeah, he sings the songs too. But with a production technique that’s somewhere between country radio and music for the sake of music, Smith obviously has one ear turned to Nashville but the other ear turned to, well, whatever it is that he hears. And it’s mostly pretty good.
Unlike many of his ilk who just chop wood all night, Smith is a decent guitar player who also plays keyboards on the album. There’s nothing too cerebral about the material here, with songs about love, implied sex, trucks and beer, and not delivered very subtly. But he knows how to play to a 2013 audience that doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing things. The leaving-adolescence song “19 Forever” would have been derided as too musically U2-ish for country a decade ago, but now the Edge-y guitars fit fine. “If Money Didn’t Matter” is an introspective look at what’s important in life, and it’s a shame that country radio isn’t all over “I Am the Midnight,” with its unique imagery and melodic instrumental hooks. And Smith still appreciates background vocals, delivered here by Nashville vocal legend Wes Hightower, more than many country solo artists.
The highlight of the album, though, is two songs by Smith’s cranked up, tongue-in-cheek (or is it really?) hard-core country alter-ego, Earl Dibbles Jr. , who has had millions of views on YouTube. Dibbles, er, Smith parodies the stereotypes of the country audience beautifully while out-Aldeaning Jason Aldean with crunchy guitars. Nobody else could have done this better.
Smith is an example of a Red Dirt artist who is truly that, an artist, and not just another guy in a van playing clubs in nameless towns 250 nights a year. This isn’t to say that Smith, who actually had a writing deal in Nashville as a teenager, is too good for Music City. But the producers on Music Row might do well to take a musical cue or two from him.