March 10, 2009
Amongst the glut of faux traditionalists that populated the country airwaves during the nineties, there was one voice that cut right through the clutter, such was its raw verve and unabashed authenticity. Aaron Tippin sings with pure country conviction about the invisible Americans, giving voice to the working men and women who seem to have vanished from the collective national consciousness.
In truth, Tippin was their last great champion, scoring radio hits with such anthems as “I Got it Honest”, “I Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way” and “Working Man’s Ph.D.” So it seems fitting that he has returned with a concept album that celebrates the American trucker, collecting most of the high-profile road songs in country music history, but also including some low-profile gems that give In Overdrive greater depth and resonance.
One of the reasons the album works so well is that Tippin sounds like he could conceivably be a truck driver. He restores the “little white pills” to “Six Days on the Road” that Sawyer Brown censored on their hit cover, the distance between the narrator and the character is completely eliminated on his version of Alabama’s “Roll On”, and all the Urban Cowboy sheen is completely decimated when he tears into “Drivin’ My Life Away.”
But while the vibrant takes on the overly familiar material are entertaining, the album’s strongest moments come with the more obscure tunes. Two of the best are in a humorous vain, with “Chicken Truck” venting about being caught behind the title on the road, and the “not-”Convoy’-but-kinda-better” CB radio romp “White Knight.”
In Overdrive peaks with Tippin’s nuanced reading of “Prisoner of the Highway”, which explores the paradox of being imprisoned by the freedom of the road. The album’s theme comes to a fitting close with “Drivin’ Fool”, a heartfelt prayer for a smooth run and a safe return home.
The actual final track, “Drill Here, Drill Now”, is an awkward addendum. Tippin’s pitch for more oil drilling in America feels out of place and a bit forced, even coming from a singer who was able to make “East Bound and Down” sound completely natural on the same album.
But that’s a minor gripe about a surprisingly effective concept album. It won’t get the same plaudits that have been showered on recent concept albums by Ralph Stanley, Kathy Mattea, and Patty Loveless, but even at the peak of his commercial success, Tippin flew just under the radar, despite being one of the most distinctive stylists of his time. But if you’re hitting the road anytime soon, I suggest taking In Overdrive with you. You’ll rediscover an old friend and get where you’re going a little bit faster.