[21 January 2014]
Glossier, more polished, and with a bigger sound than his first two records, Off the Beaten Path is Justin Moore’s bid for the big leagues of country music. There is the requisite ode to small town life (“This Kind of Town”), a ballad with Miranda Lambert (“Old Habits”), and a spate of songs about having a good time with a girl in the backseat of his truck. It should surprise no one that this album isn’t exactly “off the beaten path” for Moore, picking up more or less where 2011’s Outlaws Like Me left off, with the same rough-and-rowdy attitude and sentimental shine. That said, it’s worth noting that in the broader country community, Moore—with his good ol’ boy image and celebration of small town ways—might indeed be traveling off the beaten path as country music shifts further and further towards pop in the age of Swift. And that’s not to mention the divergent strain of Musgraves-led country music that has pushed back against more mainstream, traditional artists like Moore.
The great irony of pegging Moore in the “traditional” camp is that he’s really what you might consider more of a mainstream traditionalist, a country musician happy with the genre as it has been defined since 1990, when its popularity exploded. That means that while he extols the virtues of small-town life and the simple pleasures of beer, he has hardly tied himself down to the actual country tradition. The obvious signpost here is his claim on “This Kind of Town” that the “boys [there] will out-Hank you,” by which he refers not to the father of country music, but to his son Hank, Jr., whose career has been defined by his rowdy, pro-American image. Though his songs have mentioned both father and son, it is the image of Hank, Jr. that Moore has his eye on.
What that orientation within country music leaves us with is a bunch of fun-loving, good-timey tunes with some great guitar licks along with…well…a couple songs that are wince-worthy. First and foremost in that department is the ode to a woman’s rear end, “I’d Want It to Be Yours”, which includes such crass remarks as “Hate to see you go, but I love to watch you leave, girl”. Not quite as lowbrow as that is the album’s lead single “Point at You”, which trumpets the narrator’s girlfriend (or wife) as being not just the better half of the couple, but the only good half of the couple. While he has a “rough side, a wild side..[and] a fightin’ side after a few”, the woman in the relationship embodies all that is “sweet,” “soft,” and, uh, well, the “best.” Sound like she got the crummy end of the deal here?
Now these attitudes are nothing new, no more than the usual hackneyed sentiments about gender in the South that country music has tripped over before. But who am I kidding? I don’t expect country music to suddenly contort itself into values like those held by rising stars such as Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe, artists who are ready to stand in opposition to the mainstream. I don’t expect Moore to stand up and take a side; I expect him to be who he is. I expect more of the solid country-rock yarns that he spins so effectively on “Lettin’ the Night Roll”, “Country Radio”, and the title cut, earnest and uncomplicated backroads romances—songs about spending all night with a few bottles of alcohol, country music, and a girl in his Chevy. These are the songs right in his wheelhouse, unleavened by braggadocio or other masculine posturing.
The deluxe version of the album includes five extra songs, four out of the five either paeans to, or observations of, the “redneck” lifestyle, including an ode to beer (fittingly, “Beer”) and a backwoods wildlife experience (“Field Fulla Hillbillies”—and, yes, Moore hilariously frames this occurrence as being “like a scene out of National Geographic”). But the fifth and final song of the deluxe version is the real gem, outstripping most of the songs on the release itself. In fact, it’s a bit of a headscratcher why it was left off the final track listing. That song, “Wheels”, follows a man in the aftermath of a fight with his girlfriend, as he chases her car’s taillights down a highway in his pickup. In a display of odd honesty, the narrator admits, “Tonight, shoulda swallowed my pride / Stood in the driveway ‘til I saw it her way.” Instead, he doesn’t stop to consider what it was that caused her to leave, instead just chasing her near-blindly down a darkened road. It’s a sad and sweet song and I hope Moore makes more like ‘em.