I remember distinctly the first time I heard “Austin,” sitting in my grandparent’s driveway. I loved the song instantly, and connected with the lyric, enough so I couldn’t wait to see how the song ended – did they get back together or not? Looking back, it’s still a great song and a wonderful introduction to Blake Shelton.
It seems light years since 2001 when Shelton released his self-titled debut, produced by legendary songwriter Bobby Braddock. A success out of the gate, it launched him with the aforementioned five weeks number one. “Austin” works because of the uniqueness of the lyric, the telephone call hook that makes you wonder, “who is that guy who sings the telephone song?” It also didn’t hurt that it was straight ahead country with no frills.
Second single “All Over Me,” a Shelton co-write with his hero Earl Thomas Conley and Mike Pyle, follows the same no-frills pattern but stalled at radio, hitting #18. Its lack of airplay isn’t surprising as it isn’t a great song, suffering from a plodding piano-led melody and Shelton’s weird chorus vocal.
He nicely rebounded with “’Ol Red,” the excellent southern-set third single which made use of his natural twang and storytelling prowess. Originally recorded by Kenny Rogers in 1993, the track has gone on to become Shelton’s signature tune, despite hitting #14 at radio.
The remaining album cuts combine standard debut album filler with some numbers that display Shelton’s promise. Both “Every Time I Look At You” and “She Don’t Know She’s Got It” come packed with muscular electric guitars and a left over 90s vibe, while “If I Was Your Man” ventures into reggae. He hits a snag on “I Thought There Was Time,” weirdly belting out the song’s title to fill up the chorus.
But Shelton hits a home run when he sticks to keeping the proceedings good and country. Braddock’s own “Same Old Song” becomes grating with repeated listens, but the lyric is memorable enough to stand out from the pack. I also enjoy “That’s What I Call Home” a fairly standard song about family, which Shelton co-wrote. The melody is grounded in nice doses of fiddle and steel and that backing allows Shelton to give a rather tender and affecting vocal performance on the track.
Shelton’s third and final co-write, “Problems At Home” is far and away the album’s strongest song outside the singles and my favorite track overall. A plea to God to fix the world’s problems (all the while fixing his as well) is effective for Shelton’s tenderly emotional lyric and a winning chorus:
And I pray they’ll find the answer
That there’s a way to right the wrong
And Lord while you’re listening
Could I mention some troubles of my own?
I got problems right here at home
Overall, Shelton’s debut displays the promise he’s continued to hone on each album since. It’s clear he’s trying to be more than a flash in the pan although the song selection is mediocre at best and the listener can sense Shelton is still trying to find his voice. It’s okay, but could’ve been so much more.