Blake Shelton is probably the most famous country singer in America right now – but not for his music. As the handsome, heart-on-sleeve papa bear of The Voice, NBC’s hit American Idol knockoff, Shelton is the butch Southern analog to Idol’s Steven Tyler: cracking wise, hooting for his teammates, eyes welling up when he describes how close he feels to them. As gossip-mag readers know, he’s married to Miranda Lambert, the most gifted woman to hit country’s mainstream in a decade. They have made the covers of Us Weekly and People. If not for Lambert’s outspoken love of firearms, they’d have a paparazzi tent city in their front yard.
Shelton’s sixth album is poised to be his ticket into the musical mainstream, yet it’s no overt crossover move. Instead, it’s a recognizable Blake Shelton record: blue-jeaned and workmanlike, by turns corny and horny, with a double shot of good-ol’-boy charm and a couple of airtight singles. Shelton has said in print that artists should be polarizing. Yet Red River Blue is unlikely to offend anyone.
Shelton is the paradigm of the modern Nashville pro. He debuted as a hunky hat act in 2001 with the country-chart-topping “Austin,” a love ballad told in answering-machine messages. Shelton couldn’t sing like George Jones or spit guitar licks like Brad Paisley, but he could play a role and put a song across. 2004’s “Some Beach” was the decade’s best fake Jimmy Buffett song, and Shelton’s version of “Home,” another country chart-topper, laid twang on the hit by Canadian puffball Michael Bublé, improving it in the process.
Red River Blue shows similarly versatile market savvy. It opens on “Honey Bee,” the sexy slow-groove rocker he performed with his gal team on The Voice. “Ready to Roll” is a come-on with a touch of Running on Empty-era Jackson Browne (if you’re gonna be a heartthrob, study the masters). His spirited cover of Dave Barnes’ Christian-rock love song “God Gave Me You” makes the most of its big, sculpted hooks. Maybe the best moment is “Get Some,” a John Prine-flavored TGIF jam with steel guitar, saloon piano and some good punch lines (“You get high, reeeal high. . . [cough]/Forget your next line”). But it’s downhill from there. “Sunny in Seattle” works a laundry list of creaky metaphors for eternal love, and Shelton lacks the gravitas to sell the heartbroken title track. He tries to spice up bland material with creative phrasing and asides (“I’ll even go pick up some. . . feminine products for ya” he tells some lucky woman on the outro of “Good Ole Boys”). But as cliché–lovers might say, a pig in a dress is still a pig.
The desire to enliven his persona may be why Shelton has been mouthing off on Twitter (e.g., a seemingly gay-baiting joke that flipped the lyrics of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine”). He should take a tip from his wife: The best way for a pop musician to command attention is to write, arrange and perform with bravery. Barring that, well, you can always judge prime-time singing competitions.