Mark Chesnutt – Outlaw (Saguaro Road, 2010)
Like many fine artists discarded by the mainstream Country music machine, Mark Chesnutt’s artistry has grown even as his commercial fame has waned. Having parted with his last major label (Columbia) after an eponymous release in 2002, Chesnutt released a series of indie albums that returned to his hard-country roots. Starting with 2004’s Savin’ the Honky Tonk, Chesnutt developed a sound that favored the twang of the roadhouse over the processed sound of the studio. On this latest, Chesnutt returns to the inspiring songs of his youth, covering titles written or made famous by friends and heroes that include Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe, and Hank Williams Jr.
Producer Pete Anderson’s reigned in the production touches with which he pushed Dwight Yoakam, delivering Chesnutt classic arrangements of guitar, fiddle and steel that focus on the songs and singing. The album is a tribute, but settles even more easily into the sort of dancehall Saturday night that leaves you smiling on Sunday morning… once the hangover’s gone. The vocals generally follow the originals’ templates, but the productions shed the studio sounds of the 1970s and 80s. Anderson’s guitar is meatier than the original on “Are You Ready for the Country,” the string arrangement of Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier” is changed into a mournful fiddle, and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is played without the dramatic climbs of the original. The song list is a combination of tunes Chesnutt’s been singing live for years, including “Black Rose,” “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” and “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,” treasured album cuts like Waylon Jennings’ “Freedom to Stay,” and tunes suggested by his label, including “Desperados Waiting for a Train.”
Many of these are songs that Chesnutt’s long loved, but for various reasons (often, the difficulty of learning the wordy lyrics) he’d never sung. In a couple of cases, such as with “Black Rose,” he dug back past the version he knew, by Waylon Jennings, to the original approach of the song’s writer, Billy Joe Shaver. In other cases, such as with “A Couple More Years,” he stuck with his memories of the hit, by Dr. Hook. The album was cut in Los Angeles, and Chesnutt and Anderson took only two nights to get masters for all thirteen vocals – a mark of their preparation and the synergy the pair found in the vocal booth. Anderson adds plenty of hard guitar twang throughout the album, and the backing band includes Gary Morse (pedal steel), Donny Reed (fiddle) and Mickey Raphael (harmonica). While this doesn’t push Chesnutt forward, it’s a great opportunity to hear a terrific country vocalist sing some great country songs.