Radney Foster

For a summary of the life of a singer-songwriter, Radney Foster nails it on his latest album, This World We Live In: "I belong in a honky-tonk barroom / Singin' songs about the things I've gone through." One of the primary artifices of country music is turning clichs into poetry, and Foster proves to be about as good at it as anyone on his strongest record since 2001's Are You Ready for the Big Show?, an album that moved him away from a Nashville country career and out into the alternative country nation.

This World We Live In will certainly rank as one of the strongest songwriter albums of 2006, with country rockers such as "Big Idea" and super-smart lyrical treatises such as "Half of My Mistakes" offering fine examples of what Nashville can do when formulas are thrown out and chances are taken. Like Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller, Foster can skate close to the mainstream without crossing over into schmaltz or saccharine. After two so-so albums, it's good to see Foster back on top of his game.

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William Michael Smith