Whittle them down to their respective marrows, and the meaningful difference between shlock country and the alt stuff becomes clear: intellect. Done right, killer country fuses smarts with C&W's all-American charm for a deeply rooted music that tickles the senses instead of insulting them.
That hard-to-forge alchemy is in full force on Dallas Wayne's first release for Hightone. One reason for its smart-but-sure nature is Wayne's collaborator on the disc: Robbie Fulks. Each of the twelve tunes on Big Thinkin' is co-written by Wayne and Fulks, the Lenny Bruce and John Steinbeck of today's country trailblazers. The songs on Thinkin' (which Fulks and Wayne also co-produced) bear the same blend of trad musical charm and up-to-date lyrical gifts as Fulks's solo work. And Fulks's fans will enjoy hearing his tunes delivered in Wayne's perfect Ernest-Tubb-meets-Merle-Haggard baritone. The disc's title track is a great beginning, its snaky guitar figure setting up a forecast of what will be with good-ol'-boy savvy.
Fulk's pointed pen gets sharper on "She'll Go Down (in Honkytonk History)," a classic pedal-steel-and-piano two-stepper that details the beer-soaked late nights of a gone-wrong woman who has been "living it up too long to ever live it down." Other honky-tonk gems include "Rock Bottom, Pop. 1," a rockin', boot-scootin' losers' anthem, and "We Never Killed Each Other (But Didn't We Try?)," which recalls "Somebody's Been Sleeping (in the House of Love)" from Fulks's wonderful South Mouth. The tune sports couplets few singers would have the courage to touch: "Nothing says love like an 8-ounce glove, you used to tell me," Wayne sings in this account of the ending of an abusive relationship, "but a second honeymoon in the emergency room ain't healthy." Similarly grim is "Lie, Memory, Lie," where spooky swamp country à la John Anderson and self-talking lyrics ("Dress it up so it suits my pride/Lie, memory, lie") are paired with ghostly fiddles and Wayne's bottomless-pit voice.
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The heartbreak quotient is filled with classic tearjerkers such as "I'm Back (And Lonelier Than Ever)," a pedal-steeled tale of a shattered man limping back home: "The man who left you long ago/Has loved and lost and now crawls back where all good losers go." Perfect. "Old 45s" is a weeper loaded with high-caliber wordplay aimed at the heart. In this testimonial to the lethal power of songs from the past, Wayne reminds us that "old 45s can kill you like a bullet to the brain." On "Temptress's Smile," Wayne and Fulks slip 'round to the back porch for a mandolin-powered, Appalachian-flavored tale of the travails found in the pleasures of the flesh. The disc also includes one hell of a sobering, true-grit drinking song, "The Only Way to Die."
Big Thinkin' is much-needed relief for alt-country optimists who dream of this type of twang replacing the fluff of Shania, Faith and 21st-century Garth on the radio. Members of that demographic will find solace in the disc's Nashville-sucks diatribe, "If That's Country." In this Dave Dudley-styled counterpart to Fulks's "Fuck This Town," Wayne tells it like it is: "Laser beams and navel rings and a pretty face might be something/But you can kiss my Ozark ass if that's country." Before the song ends, its "deer snuffin'" hero reminds us that "You can make a star of a teenage girl/But one million dollars won't make her Merle" and asks that we all "make sure Chris Gaines stays the hell off of my front lawn." Hilarious. Big Thinkin' is cerebral proof that -- despite what the Soundscan tallies may say -- authentic country is alive and well.