November 4, 2008
As the lead singer of Alabama, Randy Owen guided the quartet with his rugged, yet appealing vocal style. With the band retired from the road, Owen steps into the spotlight alone with his solo project, One on One. An elder statesman in contemporary country music, Owen is now embracing the challenge of courting to a youthful audience while still maintaining the signature style that defined his three decades as a hitmaker. Here, he’s far removed from his heyday as Alabama’s frontman, and the blue-collar rockers that defined the group’s Hall of Fame career are eschewed in favor of laidback grooves that fit well with Owen’s quietly soulful interpretations. Behind the boards for the album is conspicuous co-producer John Rich, recruited to command Owen’s comeback to the mainstream scene. The pair’s production choices swing from wonderfully subtle to poorly mismanaged, and those fluctuations in song sense make One on One a mixed bag of slow, seductive rhythms that rise and fall with the material they inhabit.
One on One is a contemplative album, one with a template rarely seen on Music Row. It explores the awakening of a mature man who’s increasingly willing to exhibit his emotions. With a number of country music’s leading men moving through midlife, the pursuit of age-appropriate songs is more challenging than ever, and even country stalwarts Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn and Toby Keith have issued releases that fail to fit their adult image. Success in this endeavor can prove sweet, though. Jackson’s own Like Red on a Rose is a fine recent example of a man growing gracefully into advanced adulthood, and the thoughtful songs on that collection, along with the deft touch of producer Alison Krauss, made it a staple in sophisticated country-pop. Owen gives his own take on this careful life transition, hueing closely to the content of that worthy detour in Jackson’s career. Latest single “Like I Never Broke Her Heart,” a regret-laced ballad about a man’s foolish mistakes and his lover’s resulting departure, is perfectly matched to Owen’s deep baritone. It’s the crux of the album; on its own, the song is fairly pedestrian, but the rueing of past decisions coupled with an appreciation for love’s redeeming qualities make it the emotional compass of the set.
Owen’s best moments occur on the tender odes to romance that play well with this chosen persona. With his rich baritone, he instills the alluring “I Confess” with the perfect amount of pent-up desire. And a trio of tempting ballads that follow are designed to continue the mood. On “Let’s Pretend We’re Strangers For The Night,” his yearning vocal is exquisite in its sensuous musical setting. “Holding Everything,” a duet with Megan Mullins, finds the two singers connecting with the lost-in-love sentiment. And on “Slow And Steady,” Owen sings in a lustier tone that echoes his wooing wisdom, and it’s the best example of his special facility to celebrate romance with suave subtlety. The small satisfactions here are in the lush atmosphere, with Owen’s voice leading the proceedings with terrific vocal precision.
What sets the album off course is its dramatic divergence into radio-friendly topics and tones. Owen commits a flagrant act of imitation (with no flattery involved) on “Barbados,” a desperate attempt to capitalize on country music’s recent spate of island-flavored songs. The overly saccharine “Braid My Hair” is mired with bland production and an excess of sentimentality. The most desperate plea to country radio, to no surprise, is the uptempo “Urban’s On The Country Radio,” a song that namechecks the genre’s favorite Aussie. Owen’s partnering with members of the Music Mafia (Rich, along with James Otto and Shannon Lawson) is creatively inspiring at times, but these combinations also contribute to the leaden moments of the album. An overcalculated grasp at younger fans fails to fit the singer’s artistic pedigree, and he’s best served saving his energy from this typical Nashville filler.
Despite straying from the cohesive formula that One on One suggests, Owen is mostly vindicated for his decision to fly solo, with his voice showing more character than ever before. His effort to epitomize an ideal of masculinity means that men have more inspiration than ever to expound on their dreams and desires, and this is in sharp (and welcome) contrast in a genre predicated on the exuberance of youth. This genteel gentleman’s original glory days may not be relived, both personally and professionally, but his times of reflection have provided him purpose and understanding as he navigates the winding ways of middle age.