October 21, 2008
On Craig Morgan’s new album, That’s Why, life is about sitting in Cracker Barrel rockers, driving around the old town square and sipping on Boones Farm wine.
No surprise, given that he’s earned steady radio airplay for slice-of-life songs such as “Almost Home,” “Redneck Yacht Club,” and “That’s What I Love About Sunday” (Billboard’s #1 country song of 2005). But he’s failed to translate these successes into significant career advancement. His last album, 2006′s Little Bit of Life, has yet to reach gold status despite three top ten singles. Moving to a major record label (Sony BMG imprint BNA Records) is part of Morgan’s push to stamp his image into the public consciousness and rise to the top ranks of modern country singers. Although a nice effort, That’s Why still finds Morgan in a holding pattern, sticking to the tried-and-true but still struggling to carve out a niche.
Morgan teams up with longtime producer Phil O’Donnell, with whom he shares production credit, and the pair allow Morgan’s operatic country vocals to cut through the clean, crisp musical setting. Morgan also penned six of the ten tracks, and they follow the same template of his previous releases. These songs illustrate the simple things in life, and Morgan details these everyday events with a distinctive southern drawl. That voice can be a caricature at key junctures, overwhelming the message and the mood, but it generally falls on the safe side of overkill.
But although That’s Why still maintains the traditional markings that have propelled his career so far, it’s a bit sterile at times. Where the album stumbles is a lack of conflict for its characters and a lean towards the bland sounds that overpopulate the radio playlists that Morgan targets. First single “Love Remembers” is an example of a unique hybrid, a Nashville pop-country power ballad that stays close enough to country through the sheer force of Morgan’s trademark vocal performance, but it’s the ultimate example of the album’s sterile structure. The soon-to-be Opry inductee suffers from being involved in that balancing act meeting every new artist that comes down the Nashville pipeline: to meet the genre’s current trends and still tread within the deeply-rooted sounds of its history.
The one-woman man in Morgan honors everlasting love with both “It Took a Woman” and “Planet Her,” tributes to an awe-inspiring woman and her sweet, saving grace. The album closer, “Ordinary Angels,” explores the hope that the human spirit can solve any number of life’s traumas. In the midst of trials and troubles, Morgan not only pursues happiness, but posits that it’s the only available choice. Positivity in itself isn’t a bad thing, but its sheer pervasiveness combined with the ”cleaner”, more glossy production here doesn’t paint a well-rounded portrait.
Two songs in particular shoot straight at small-town America and connect. “Every Red Light” sees the narrator reminiscing on the wayward steps, all with an aw-shucks attitude that’s not only palatable, but also clearly relatable to its audience. And “Sticks,” not surprisingly, is a celebration of rural living and all its simplicity. Morgan tackles each with great clarity, but the lack of thematic diversity throughout That’s Why stalls any momentum for the rest of the album.
Morgan may never completely shed his journeyman status and rise to superstardom, but he’s a serviceable country singer. He possesses the ability to carve through the complexities of the world and wax poetic about the commonfolk and the need for friendship, the thrill in Friday night and the faith in love and the good Lord above. But Morgan never explores the challenges that make these joys that much sweeter. His regular-joe rhymes and traditional musical twists will satisfy the hard-core country fan, and the more sophisticated fans can enjoy a travel back through time with the simple stories told by one of the atypical voices in Nashville. One wishes that Morgan pursues meatier material the next time we hear it.