By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Country-rock Hunk No. 1, Rodney Atkins, wants y'all ladies to know about a few of his favorite things: bird dogs, honky-tonks, blackjack, pickup trucks, spark plugs, beer pong, throwin' darts and extra innings. Hunk No. 2, Eric Church, digs smallmouth bass, Faulkner, NASCAR, Red Man (the tobacky, not the rapper), mustard on fries, sleeping in on Saturdays, not acting his age (32) and—hell yes—his truck. Finally, Hunk No. 3, Texas' own Pat Green, goes for pawn-shop guitars, crackers in his chili, trustworthy mechanics, inner-city teachers, laid-off Detroit factory workers, boxers past their prime and giving ex-cons a second chance.
Green's thoughtful list, as presented on the title track to his earlier-this-year-released What I'm For, reads like a cross between Alabama's "40 Hour Week" and Roxy Music's "Manifesto," and his motto—that if you know what he's for, you don't need to ask what he's against—may well be a sign of the times as Nashville awkwardly adapts to a more liberal era. But his fellow hunks also know who butters their bread: On Atkins' "Best Things" (off It's America) and Church's "Love Your Love the Most" (off Carolina), the singers concede that, as cool as all this stuff might be, it still can't compare to a good woman. All three songs appear on country albums released this year, right alongside efforts by fellow hunks Keith Urban (Defying Gravity), Jason Aldean (Wide Open) and Dierks Bentley (Feel That Fire)—none of which are used to explicitly tally what those guys like, though none of them seem to mind small towns much. Or arena-rock riffs. Or, once again, women who can turn them into better men.
That's particularly true for Urban, who's been doing the "laid-back, unshaven, Down Under himbo who just stepped off his surfboard with his greasy hair" thing for a decade now. Unsurprisingly, Defying Gravity is wall-to-wall lovey-dovey fare, primarily about kissing. I keep hoping he'll make a hot-shit guitar record someday—maybe even a live album—but he just keeps getting ladies' choicier. Nonetheless, he reliably still sounds more like John Waite (production-wise), Don Henley (vocal-wise) and Lindsey Buckingham (guitar-wise) than like George Strait or Randy Travis. And he's still most fun when he makes lazy haziness his point (surrounded by audible waves and Ferris wheels in "'Til Summer Comes Around") or powers his jangle-pop like Bryan Adams crushing on Tom Petty ("Standing Right in Front of You"). He's least fun when he ends his album apologizing through a dark night of the soul, seemingly praising wifey Nicole Kidman for saving him from all that coke—even calling himself "born again," despite being Catholic.
Pat Green ends What I'm For uncharacteristically gloomy and sober too—"In the Middle of the Night" of a cold, lonely, overwrought Boston winter, contemplating "shooting my soul right through the ceiling." The longtime DIY guy has been gravitating toward heartland rock since he sold his San Antonio soul to Music City earlier this decade; the only time the word "country" shows up on his current publicity one-sheet is in the title to his paradoxically Mellencamp-ish single "Country Star." His previous hit, "Let Me," swiped its guitar hook straight from Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze." (See also: Urban's "Only You Can Love Me This Way" equals America's "Ventura Highway" equals Bentley's "Better Believer" equals Ringo Starr's "Photograph.") More Green lights: a gorgeously fugue-y ode to hard-luck siblings, a hangover number that chimes like "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," and some perfectly humid swamp-soul about how we are all prostitutes.
Like Green's "Lucky," Rodney Atkins' "Got It Good" spells out how rich people have it great, but regular folks oughta be thankful for their blessings too. Corny, but so what? Rodney's band rips the Stones like Mellencamp's in 1982. Next comes "Friends With Tractors," a fast-rolling pro-farmer boogie climaxing with a hoedowned shout-out to Larry the Cable Guy. Atkins was born with a baritone sturdy enough to put over his prole-romanticizing platitudes, and he's developing a wit to match—when this good ol' boy gives up smokin' and drinkin' and women, it's the worst 15 minutes of his life; when he wakes up at 4 a.m. at album's end, it's not to confess sins but to go fishing. His 2006 breakthrough If You're Going Through Hell had four country chart-toppers on it, most notably "Cleaning This Gun (Come on in, Boy)," the funniest song ever written about being the dad of a daughter who just started dating; his new set's exuberant pinnacle, "Chasing Girls," winds up in similar (if less threatening) paternal territory after opening with a reminiscence of flirty tweens pursuing each other around bungalowed cul-de-sacs with squirt guns and water balloons. It's also the best song to mention EPTs since Eric Church's "Two Pink Lines" two years ago.
The riff in Jason Aldean's latest smash, "She's Country," as far as I can tell, comes from AC/DC. He's easily got the hackiest cowboy hat here, but what sets him apart are frequent hooks that don't just feel hard—they feel heavy. The first time I heard his 2005 debut hit "Hicktown," I thought of Black Sabbath; his follow-up "Johnny Cash," amusingly enough, largely recalled mid-career Bad Company. The Georgia metalbilly's new Wide Open features nary a single self-penned lyric, but the title opener about an underemployed gal "slingin' eggs and bacon with a college education" holds its own regardless.
Right now, though, the most interesting thing about Aldean is that Eric Church has it out for him. "Ya sing about Johnny Cash/The Man in Black woulda whipped your ass," Church scolds, in a song castigating "one-hit wonders," plus your usual feisty clichés about how Waylon wouldn't've done it that way. That's "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," one of several slide-strewn chip-on-shoulder shit-kickers on Carolina's first half; halfway through the album, in "Smoke a Little Smoke," the singer pulls out his stash, the guitars do a hefty trailer-park vamp, and you wonder why this usually apolitical rebel thinks we need "a little more right and a little less left." The album opens loud, with Church imbibing and overtiming himself to death; he hangs onto 16 as long as he can in "Young & Wild," and for "Where She Told Me to Go," hell is a bachelor's apartment with faulty plumbing and lousy TV reception. On the record's subpar second half, he mushes out—a dame inevitably saves his hard head from hitting rock-bottom, but not from falling short of his '06 debut. There's still a jaunty "Twist and Shout" swipe, though. And a lush and elongated guitar solo at the end.
Dierks Bentley's "Little Heartwrecker" is more or less the same song as Church's "Hell on the Heart": She's a hottie, so prepare to get burned. And ramblin' Arizonan Lollapaloozer Dierks—by consensus, the hunkiest of these hunks, give or take Aussie Urban, and the only other one not born in Dixie—is going through motions of his own on Feel the Fire. As with Urban, slacker nonchalance is part of what makes him sexy. But four albums in, his rockgrass roadster is stuck in the muck. There's one great track ("I Can't Forget Her," made spacious with spooky spaghetti-western guitars and Del Rio desert sand blowing around), a couple good ones at the beginning (some fugitive funk with motorcycle sounds and "space bass," some blatant pro-Velvet Rope line-dance fodder), and lots of indistinctive competence.
Which might be enough: If you need a little help, Dierks is here to tell you that, babe, there ain't a button he can't reach. Maybe even the ones in your sewing kit on that really high shelf. But can he bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan?
Can any of these guys? Does it matter?