The Internet has splintered music into so many sub-genres, that sometimes I just want something comfortable and familiar. Up-and-coming country powerhouse Eric Lee is on the job, because that's exactly what his debut album Southern Redneck delivers: well-crafted, safe, comfortable, and familiar.
On the flip-side, Lee may have fallen for the illusion perpetuated by 'ah shucks' country artists; that one can be a regular guy with average tastes, yet somehow get recognized on merit alone. That contrivance is for audience consumption. Big talents, with bigger hats have learned that driving down the middle of the road won't get you out of your hometown.
In general, the standouts on the album are the up-tempo tunes, such as the rollicking opener “Small Town Ways” or the Summertime Blues-influenced “Alabama Sun.” These feature great honky-tonk piano lines, and ridiculously catchy musical hooks that are virtually guaranteed to stick in your head for days. This is Eric Lee at his peak: presenting all the tropes of classic country we know and love, with a great deal of class, style, and knowing down-home folksiness.
Along with the upbeat songs are a handful of slower ballads, also solidly written and performed. The standout of these is the hit single in waiting “When It Comes To Lovin',” which features some clever Meatloaf\Jim Steinman-style lyrics paired with fine country crooning. Similarly, the mournful “Why Didn't You Love Her?” expresses an age-old sentiment with heartfelt and painfully honest lyrics.
The album ends with an unexpected twist: a cover of the Steve Earle classic “Copperhead Road,” a personal favorite of mine. Unfortunately, lacking Earle's gritty voice and hard rock influences, the result seems somewhat too smooth and safe for the song's subject matter. This does not seriously detract from the fun that can be had from so many other tracks on the album, even if it does make me wish he'd used it as an opportunity to stretch his legs a bit more.
Country pop music is an arguably over-saturated genre, and at times it feels that Lee does little to distinguish himself from similar acts from the last two decades. Songwriter depictions of small town life, where people get along through assimilation, are an escapist art - most fans are not cowboys or rednecks, they drive Corollas and work at insurance companies. The stereotypes are a convenient shorthand, but this storyteller needs to avoid becoming a victim of his own cultural simplification.
No, Eric Lee doesn't need a bigger hat, or sequins or platform boots, he just needs to magnify one unique quality to stand out within a crowd of great acts such as Brad Paisley or Montgomery Gentry. Lee is teetering on the edge of big things, so if you're looking to scoot your boots tonight or get some tears in your beer in fine classic style, Southern Redneck will scratch that itch, and leave you wanting more.