Mark Chesnutt: Country as it oughta be (photo: Brian Tipton)

The Old Tradition, With An Edge
Mark Chesnutt, With Producer Pete Anderson, Gets It Right Again
By David McGee

Mark Chesnutt
Saguaro Road Records

It was back in 2006 that Mark Chesnutt, no stranger to major label success with any number of classics to his credit as an MCA Nashville artist in the ‘90s, went the small label route on Heard It In a Love Song and got back to making lean, straightforward country music of the type that had influenced him in his youth and that he had been a part of making the basic language of the mainstream again when he emerged in 1988. He followed the same pattern, equally effectively, in 2008 on Rollin’ With the Flow for Lofton Creek Records. And he’s done it once more, in 2010, with the superb Outlaw, for Saguaro Road Records, which is also home to Patty Loveless, another former MCA Nashville artist who has been on a hot roll herself as a Saguaro Road artist the past couple of years.

Being a collection of ‘70s and ‘80s covers written and/or recorded by the very top tier of the lonesome, on’ry and mean generation, Outlaw most resembles in content the approach that made Heard It In a Love Song so memorable—a superior vocalist putting his own stamp on songs made famous by other country giants. With a harder edge, supplied by a tight, basic combo and a steely-eyed focus on keeping the guitars twanging, the steel crying and the frills kept to an essential, absolute minimum (such as the ebullient south of the border accordion flitting around an otherwise stinging and righteously twanging rendition of ol’ Waylon’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line). For this, give credit where credit is due, meaning Outlaw’s X factor, producer Pete Anderson—yes, that Pete Anderson, he of the post-Dwight Yoakam low profile. Functioning as Yoakam’s alter-ego all those years, Anderson was nothing short of brilliant behind the board, adapting Spectorian rock ‘n’ roll sonics and attitude to Yoakam’s apocalyptic, Bakersfield-charbroiled chronicles of epic romantic misfires. But as big and as aurally imposing as his productions have been, Anderson knows when to rein it in, and it’s precisely his sure sense of the proper tone for the proceedings that sets up Chesnutt’s voice to carry the weight. Yoakam and his big sound were inseparable; we know from his acoustic demos and the occasional acoustic performance how compelling he could be sans band, but really, you want Dwight against the big backdrop Anderson and the rest of the band could provide. With Chesnutt, the musicians follow and shade and keep everything in proper proportion—when solos present themselves, they’re more than likely to have a spare but eloquent grandeur to them, such as the lonesome guitar picking that puts an aching sign-off to Chesnutt’s terse, self-lacerating reading of Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier,” sounding a hollow, haunted coda to the singer’s remorse; or the alternately stinging and twanging guitars sharing space with a crying, backwoods fiddle and velvety steel guitar supporting Chesnutt’s down and bluesy treatment of Hank, Jr.’s “Country State of Mind” (featuring the singer’s impressive Jimmie Rodgers-style yodel as the song closes). In arguably the album’s most clever arrangement, Chesnutt sprints rather happily through the desolate emotional terrain of Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning,” but a good part of the tune is given over to an infectious western swing set-to between steel, an agitated fiddle, sputtering electric guitar, and harmonica, and in the end you don’t know whether the song’s protagonist is celebrating or lamenting being dumped again. At other times the music is so subdued you almost forget it’s there, because the point is to heighten the drama pouring forth from Chesnutt’s gripping vocal, most notably in a wrenching take on Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train,” a deliberate, introspective interpretation until it bursts forth near the end into a relentless, roiling, guitar-fueled march towards oblivion. The same could be said for an inspired cover of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” A tough one to tackle, this, given that Waylon and John R. Cash both have defined it for all time. But Chesnutt digs down deep for a reading so measured and reportorial that it’s startling when he raises the vocal ante in the choruses to emphasize his complicity in his miserable plight, and Anderson lays back in the arrangement, letting first a lone, twanging guitar, then a rising hum of violins cushion the narrative, preceding his master stroke of bringing in a somber church organ to underscore the singer’s search for absolution on a Lord’s Day offering none for this woebegone soul.

Mark Chesnutt—Rollin’ With the Flow
Mark Chesnutt performs the title song of his 2008 album, Rollin’ With the Flow, a Charlie Rich classic.

Of course, Mark Chesnutt is not going to do an album of covers and not tip his Stetson to ol’ Waylon: he does so here four times, with a soaring treatment of “Freedom to Stay”; a lovely, tear-stained waltz with an impressive duet partner in plaintive-voiced Amber Digby on the older-man/woman, younger-man/woman theme, “A Couple More Years”; a stomping, faithful rendition of Neil Young-by-way-of-Waylon on “Are You Ready For the Country”; and the aforementioned “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” Unadulterated and unvarnished from first cut to last, Outlaw is a high-water mark in Mark Chesnutt’s career resurgence, and in Pete Anderson he’s found a producer who respects the music, respects the artist, and gets the best out of both. This is country as it ought to be, and one of the most pleasing records of the year to boot. Inspired, all around.

Outlaw is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
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