It’s easy to categorize new Columbia artist Josh Thompson as another in the long line of outlaw wannabe who needs to tell us how country he is rather than showing it in the music. He does have more life experience to draw on than some of his competitors, having spent several years working in the real world before coming to Nashville in his 30s.
However, self-conscious statements of countriness do form the core theme for the songs on his debut album (all written or co-written by Josh), including the title track, which is a “my hometown is so country” number, complete with name-dropping mention of Johnny Cash, and is Josh’s new single. It is probably just generic enough to be a hit, as is ‘Blame It On Waylon’, co-written with former artist Rhett Akins, and a likely future single (it is one of the tracks billed rather prematurely on a sticker as a ‘hit song’). This is borne out in these lyrics:
If I got a don’t care attitude and long hair
And mean every damn word I’m singin’
I blame it on Waylon
And all them other outlaws
This seems to be more about image than substance, missing the point on a fairly fundamental level. The best part of this track comes in the instrumental break at the end of the song, where the rhythm actually is reminiscent of Waylon, rather than generic rock-country, and feels more like a genuine tribute than the main part of the song. The forgettably generic ‘You Ain’t Seen Country Yet’ references Haggard in the lyrics seemingly at random, and also features annoying “crowd” noise. ‘A Name In This Town’, written with Casey Beathard and David Lee Murphy, has more specific detail and a sense of ambivalence about the home town, which makes it the best of the songs in this vein. ‘Always Been Me’ has a hackneyed hook line, but feels the most sincere.
But there is some real substance here, notably with Josh’s sole solo composition, the reflective ‘Sinner’, my favorite track. It is encouraging to see that this is one of the songs expected to be a single, according to the label sticker. It treads a well-worn path thematically, but it is one that never really palls, as the protagonist humbly confesses his sins and inadequacies:
My heart’s been filled with hate, greed and envy
But I believe Jesus died to save souls like me
Cause I’m a sinner, that’s just what I am
Sometimes the devil can get the upper hand
But I hit my knees, close my eyes and bow my head
And thank the good Lord that when it comes to forgiveness
He’s no quitter cause I’m a sinner
If heaven had a limit
On the number of commandments you could break
Before they just cast your soul away
Well then, there’s no doubt
Where I’ll be heading when I check out
The song also benefits from Josh’s best vocal interpretation, coming across as more heartfelt than all the posturing.
The other really good song here is the waltz-time ‘I Won’t Go Crazy’, a dogged determination not to crack up over his heartbreak, co-written with Dallas Davidson. On a similar theme is the more superficial ‘Won’t Be Lonely Long’. I like the low key opening with the protagonist down in the dumps after his girl has walked out, but luckily she left at 7 pm on a Friday night, enabling him to go out and drown his sorrows (or have a good time instead). It isn’t a bad song (although any love whose loss is so easily overcome suggests it is fairly shallow-rooted), but it becomes less interesting as it bursts into the rocking chorus; I could imagine Brooks & Dunn doing this. I did like the wry spoken outro (“is it too late to get you back?”) which hints at something a little more ambivalent than the body of the song offers.
The pleasant ‘Back Around’ offers mellow recollections of teenage love, and is nice enough as far as it takes us, but lacks context – there is no indication as to how the relationship ended up, and Josh is not a sufficiently expressive singer to give us more than the lyric supplies. Josh’s debut single, the punchily fast-paced working man’s declaration of working hard to put ‘Beer On The Table’ sounds just like early Tim McGraw (or Tim’s more recent ‘It’s A Business Doing Pleasure with You’), and seems to have peaked just inside the top 20. It’s no classic, but it is quite entertaining, and one of the more memorable tracks here.
Neither Josh’s voice nor his material are particularly distinctive, but some of it is worth hearing. The current artist he reminds me of most strongly stylistically is Eric Church. I would be interested in hearing more if he could find the inspiration to tread some less well trodden paths in his songs.
Way Out Here is available as a CD or digitally from amazon.