2000’s Fried Green Tomatoes has nothing to do with the 1991 film of the same title. It was Ricky Van Shelton’s ninth studio album — and his last, aside from a Christmas album released later that year. It was his only entirely self-produced album. It was released on the Audium label, which gave it the potential to reach a wider audience than 1998’s WalMart exclusive Making Plans. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform any better commercially than its predecessor.
Like his earlier albums, Fried Green Tomatoes is a combination of contemporary songs and covers of old country classics. On the newer material, Shelton seems to have made a conscious decision to update his sound just a little; many of the uptempo numbers such as “Call Me Crazy”, “I’m The One”, and “From The Fryin’ Pan” all have more of a rock edge to them. For the most part, he is able to perform these contemporary songs credibly, without sounding like he is out of his league. However, as always, it is on the more traditonal numbers that he truly excels. The Dallas Frazier-A.L. “Doodle” Owens tune “All I Have To Offer You Is Me” had been Charley Pride’s first #1 hit in 1969. Ricky’s version doesn’t match the original, but it is quite good and it’s a shame that it hadn’t appeared on one of his Columbia albums where more people might have heard it. It’s my favorite song on the album, followed closely by “Foolish Pride” written by Ernie Rowell and Mel Tillis. This song doesn’t appear to have been recorded before, but it certainly sounds like an older song with its rich melody and generous helpings of fiddle and steel.
Another beautiful traditional ballad, “You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Crazy)” is a forgotten gem whose first appearance seems to have been on a 1966 Jan Howard album. It was later covered by Alan Jackson. “Who’s Laughin’ Now”, written by Tom Littlefield, Rick Rowell and Mel Tillis Jr. also sounds like it may be an older song given a second lease on life.
“The Decision”, co-written by Ricky with Jerry Thompson, was the album’s sole single and its biggest misstep. With a more pop-oriented sound than typically heard from Ricky, it tells the story of an unwed 17-year-old expectant mother who is wrestling with whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The saccharine arrangement and Ricky’s easy-going delivery are all wrong for a song about a life and death decision. I suppose Shelton and Thompson should be given credit for attempting to tackle such a serious and emotionally difficult topic, but it is done in a very superficial manner and seems like a missed opportunity. Incidentally, we are never told what the girl ultimately decides.
Aside from this one clunker, Fried Green Tomatoes is a solid album that allowed Ricky Van Shelton to wrap up his recording career on a high note. He released a Christmas album later in 2000. He continued to tour for a few more years before announcing his retirement from the music business in 2006. It’s a shame that he didn’t enjoy as much post-major label success as many of his contemporaries. His retirement was a loss for country music. We can only hope that he will one day decide to treat his fans to another album. Until then, pick up a cheap used copy of Fried Green Tomatoes if you haven’t already heard it.