Nashville is desperately seeking a male savior. The last year has seen jaw-dropping declines in radio listenership with one Houston radio consultant reporting that 31 percent of country fans have ditched the format (mainly for rock and classic rock) in the last 12 months alone. Sales are in the toilet for virtually all adult male artists, particularly when compared to the relatively robust totals rung up by tiny tyke Billy Gilman and chart-topping ladies Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Leigh Ann Womack and the Dixie Chicks. Four out of the Big Five label heads have recently admitted that the fault lies with their boring product.
Against this dismal and anxious backdrop, Charlie Robison's Step Right Up takes the stage. Signed to Sony Nashville's Lucky Dog imprint some three years ago, Robison is the latest great white hope for literate hard country. The husband of Dixie Chick Emily Erwin, the Houston-born and Bandera-bred honky-tonker will be allied with the sort of all-out label D day usually reserved for the likes of Diamond Rio or Jo Dee Messina.
Step Right Up is -- for a change -- a product worth plugging. True, some tunes (the NRBQ-penned duo "I Want You Bad" and "Comes to Me Naturally") play it safe enough to appease even the most timid Young Country programmers. These two numbers are engaging enough; they simply aren't Robison running on all cylinders. "I Want You Bad," the only semi-clunker on the disc, has of course been selected as the first single by the Sony brass in Nashville. It comes to them naturally.
Elsewhere Robison and co-producer Blake Chancey find ample room to roam. It may as well be said here that, yes, some of the finest moments are flat-out derivative. The Irish romp "John O'Reilly" is a sound-alike for another of San Antonio's Emerald Isle-fixated twangmeisters. On a remake of his own "Desperate Times," which first appeared on his Bandera disc, Robison recalls Steve Earle, with a mandolin intro intensely reminiscent of "Copperhead Road." In fact, "Desperate Times" sounds like "The Road Goes on Forever" set to the music of "Copperhead Road." Also Robison's voice takes on distinctly Barfieldian tones on his cover of the Hollisters' "Sweet Inspiration."
But then, who really cares if good music is derivative? As long as the playing is red-hot (it is), the sources are well chosen (they are), and a little something new is brought to the table (only a little), it doesn't really matter.
Should radio get behind this album -- and there is something here for every permutation of rustic programmer from Americana to Young Country -- and should it enjoy chart success, we in Texas can expect anything from these parts that's left of center with a twang to be snapped up and clutched to the bosom of Music Row. Step Right Up could prove another Guitar Town, and Nashville could enter another of its all-too-few golden ages. But should it fail, a flummoxed Nashville will wallow in tedious Young Country inertia while another 31 percent of the listenership flips the dial.