January 2002 saw the release of Alan’s tenth studio album, which showcases him as a confident singer-songwriter at the height of his commercial success. He is in fine voice, and Keith Stegall does his usual excellent job in the producer’s chair. Drive was the first of Alan’s albums to debut at #1 on the cross genre Billboard Hot 200 chart, despite making no concessions to crossover tastes, and it was named the ACM Album of the Year. But this is a record where one song has an impact which overshadows everything else.
Alan’s masterpiece ‘Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning?)’ defined a nation’s mood in the aftermath of 9/11. Alan had not originally intended to record it at all, but the popular response after he sang it at the CMA Awards in November 2001 led to a studio version being released as a single. When it was a #1 smash hit, it obviously had to be included on his new album. Over eight years on, it has lost none of its emotional impact, either in the studio recording or the original live version, which was added as a bonus to the end of the album, including Vince Gill’s introduction. If nothing else on the album is of quite the same calibre, that is because few songs can approach the perfection of this. Part of what makes it so effective is that it offers no judgment of the various choices he imagines people taking; it is entirely inclusive. It still makes me cry every time I hear it, with its quiet questioning and insistence that love is what really matters in the end:
Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
And pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?….
Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers?
Stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
And thank God you had somebody to love?…
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love
The song received another accolade by being included (in a cover version by The Wrights, Alan’s nephew and the latter’s wife) as one of the songs illustrating America’s history in Song Of America, a three-CD collection produced for US schools.
Eight of the twelve songs on the album were written solely by Alan. The opening track, and second single, ‘Drive (For Daddy Gene)’, which provides the album title is a very personal nostalgic look back at a childhood spent with his father around boats and cars. Car songs tend to leave me cold, but this one has an engaging warmth impossible to dislike, and it duly headed straight to #1. The car theme is bookended with the final track, the awkwardly scanning ‘First Love’, about his teenage love for his first car, restored to him in 1993. The driving theme is further illustrated in the CD liner notes with appropriate symbols taken from road signs attached to the lyrics of some of the songs.
The next single, the goodhumored ‘Work In Progress’ got to #3. It is a Brad Paisley-style, semi-spoken, humorous admission of a man’s failings notable for its self-deprecating charm. #2 hit ‘That’d Be Alright’, written by Mark D Sanders, Tim Nichols and Tia Sillers, is pleasant enough filler, but not very substantial. It seems all the more banal being sequenced immediately after ‘Where Were You?’
Alan had joined George Strait on the controversial #1 hit ‘Murder On Music Row’, and he recruited Strait as duet partner again, for the more conventional ‘Designated Drinker’. It’s always a pleasure to hear George, but the song’s story of the protagonists both drinking away their respective heartbreak and in need of a friend to get home is not fully realized as a duet – perhaps it needs an additional verse showing the guys high and dry without anyone to drive them both home. The track was not formally released as a single, but the star power gained it some unsolicited airplay.
I like ‘The Sounds’, a regretful admission from a man left in devastated near-silence as he faces up to the fact that his wife has left him, realizing his mistakes too late, set to a very pretty melody:
I can hear the things I did wrong
I can hear her thoughts
By looking in her eyes
I can hear all the times she cried
I can hear the memories
As they echo off the wall
Falling from the pictures down the hall
I can hear regret building up inside of me
I can hear all the things I could not see
Those are the sounds of a woman leaving
Stronger than the wind in a willow tree
Those are the sounds of a heart breaking
You can’t hear it
But the noise is killing me
Just as good is ‘Bring On The Night’, a co-write with Charlie Craig and Keith Stegall, which surprisingly has a 1987 copyright date. It is a heartfelt ballad with a lovely tune paying tribute to the way married love can banish everyday problems, and it is hard to see why it fell through the cracks and was never included on any of Alan’s earlier albums, as it is a very attractive song. It was certainly worth bringing out of retirement for this album.
‘Once In A Lifetime Love’ and ‘When Love Comes Around’ are nice but not very memorable songs about the difficulty of securing true love. The first is well sung but a little impersonal with a faintly wistful feel; the second is more optimistic about the future.
The best of the three outside songs and one of my overall favorites is the very pretty but sad ‘A Little Bluer Than That’, written about lost love by Mark Irwin with Irene Kelley, who provides sweet harmonies, and has recorded her own outstanding version of the song. I also like Harley Allen and John Wayne Wiggins’ quirky ‘I Slipped And Fell In Love’. This is a good record with one track which elevates it to classic status.
You can listen to Drive on last.fm, with the exception of the live version of ‘Where Were You?’. The album is also widely available and you can get it at amazon.