Released in June 1996, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best marks the final album of the hit-making portion of Stuart’s career. His sixth release for MCA Records, and produced as usual by Tony Brown, the album had four singles and peaked at #27 on the charts.
The lead single and title track reunited Stuart with Travis Tritt for their first duet in four years. Released in April of 1996, “Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best” wouldn’t be nearly as successful as their previous collaborations, missing the top twenty completely, and peaking at #23. It didn’t help that the song rocked harder than their previous work and Stuart’s growly vocal may’ve been a slight turn-off for radio programmers. To make matters worse, the mix of loud guitars and screaming steel hasn’t aged well. But the lyric, about a misunderstood boy who’s born to honky tonk, is still relevant today.
Second single “Thanks To You” wouldn’t faire much better on the charts, peaking at #50 that same year. But Stuart and Gary Nicholson wrote an outstanding lyric that holds up extremely well today. A love song, it’s a thank you note to the woman who saved the man’s life:
I searched for love my whole life through
Then it came like a blinding flash from the blue
Thanks to you
Empty nights and long lost days
Roving eyes and rambling ways are through
Thanks to you
“You Can’t Stop Love,” a guitar-heavy mid-tempo number co-written by Stuart and Kostas, peaked at #26 in 1997. Not as commercial as the previous two singles, it amazes me this garnered more airplay than “Thanks To You,” a much better single choice for the late 90s. But it’s still a good song, although the moody and somewhat dark arrangement is a better fit for Gary Allan than for Stuart.
A final single, “Sweet Love” came in the spring of 1997 but failed to chart. Written by rock and roll singer Del Shannon, “Sweet Love” was far too out of step with the times upon its release. Stuart, meanwhile, seems overproduced a bit and the loud guitar-heavy accompaniment drowns out his vocal.
As “Sweet Love” aptly illustrates, at his core Stuart is an individualist. By not bucking to trends or trying to sound like his contemporaries, his albums come off unique to the man creating them. That downside is that uniqueness doesn’t have a home on country radio. But commercial aspirations aside, it makes for a very interesting listening experience.
The most unique of all the songs on the album is “The Mississippi Mudcat and Sister Sheryl Crow,” which features Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin along with his country music coon dog and beagle hounds. The track opens with Martin giving a recitation as though he and Stuart are relaxing on a porch in the country. The barking dogs give way to bluesy number heavy on guitar and originality but low on appeal. This is an acquired taste kind of song, and out of place on a commercial country record.
Thankfully, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best isn’t heavy on such artistic statements. “I’ll Be There For You” is the most modern sounding of the album’s songs, with what appears to be a drum machine heavy arrangement. Written by Stuart, it’s one of the more tender moments and showcases him as the man his girl can lean on in times of trouble:
I’ll be there everyday
Loving you in every way
I’ll stand beside you, your whole life through
I’ll be true
Equally tender is “Shelter From The Storm,” another tune about being the man who stands beside his girl. Written by Stuart and Kostas, it’s an effective ballad complete with stirring acoustic guitar. The only downside is Stuart’s vocal, which gets in the way of the song by being a bit too processed.
The album also has its share of rockabilly moments, too. “Country Girls,” written by Stuart and Paul Kennerley is as predictable as it sounds, a song about girls from the country. But this song smartly avoids the trappings of such songs released today – there’s isn’t any short shorts or mention of a girl’s “hotness.” But while it’s easy on the ears, it does come off as filler. The same can be said for “Rocket Ship” which comes complete with a jerky melody that just wasn’t my taste.
The equally mellow “Country” is an effective ballad and one of the better tracks thanks to the gorgeous production, which smartly keeps from fighting the overall track. The same is true for “So Many People,” an introspective number about lost love:
I’m not nearly wise enough
To be giving this advice
But I’ve seen a thing or
Once or twice
And every broken hearted fool
That I’ve ever met
Has somebody somewhere
That they cannot forget
Overall, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best is a mixed bag finding an individualist stuck between the confines of commercialism and the freedom of forging his own path. The music suffers because of this but it makes a nice segway into the next chapter of Stuart’s career, which began with The Pilgrim in 1999. The album is out of print, but used copies can easily be found on Amazon.