This debut album largely squanders the talents of these Tim McGraw protégés in a bid for commercial success.
Many talented musicians spend a lifetime in Nashville without ever getting the breakout success of which they dream. But the Kentucky-born duo Halfway to Hazard (Chad Warrix and David Tolliver) are getting their moment in the spotlight, thanks in part to country superstar Tim McGraw, who co-produced their debut album. When they joined the tour of McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill, this summer, they clearly knew how lucky they were.
As they took the stage at Washington DC's MCI center, they were charmingly in awe of where they found themselves. They even interrupted their set to take a picture of the crowd to commemorate their first arena show. Their music had the same disarming earnestness. These two boys held the giant crowd, accompanied only by their acoustic guitars. When Faith Hill and her band took the stage, her over-arranged songs sounded even more contrived than usual. I longed for Halfway to Hazard's straightforward and pared-down sound.
And I continue to long for it as I listened to this slick CD, produced by McGraw and Byron Gallimore. If I weren’t obligated to listen to the entire album, I would have turned it off seconds into the first song, "Countrified". I don't know who first thought of fusing country and rap metal by putting crunchy riffs on slide guitar, but it sounds completely ridiculous. (They make the same mistake later in the album, on "Country Till the Day We Die".)
"Countrified" is overproduced, faux-edgy pabulum. It betrays desperation for radio play that repeatedly mars the album's songs. Choruses are grandiose and arrive too early in the songs. It’s as if Warrix, Tolliver, and their co-writers were worried that listeners needed a cheap pay-off in order to stay tuned. The rush to the chorus ruins the two songs that follow "Countrified," "Taking Me On" and "Cold". Warrix and Tolliver are forced to feign an emotional intensity that the song doesn't support.
No song disappointed me more than "Daisy," which initially promises to be a great song. It begins slowly, Tolliver's relaxed singing effortlessly down-home lyrics accompanied simply by a banjo, acoustic guitar, and pedal steel. Her momma named her Daisy/ Got it from a magazine/ Through the mountains in her white dress/ She'd run chasing me/ Thought she was faster/ 'Cause I told her so/ Even though it wasn't quite the truth/ I know that she's an angel even though she ain't got wings/ 'Cause my sweet Daisy loved the hell out of me.
They've planted the seeds of a good song. Walking at the music's steady pace, the lyrics have scattered nice sets of images: the dichotomy between sin and saintliness, the double meaning of "she loved the hell out of me" (alternately meaning, "she loved me a lot" and "her love delivered me from the devil"). Warrix's harmony joins Tolliver's lead on the second verse, which tells how the singer gave Daisy her first kiss in church, as an electric guitar and bass gently creep in before the drums kick it up a notch in the final lines.
But they squander this development when they jump to the chorus. Their sweet lyrics turn cheesy, as they wax grandiloquent: She gave me her body/ She bared me her soul/ Didn't ask for nothing/ Nothing, nothing at all/ Said I needed to be baptized/ Held me under the moonlight/ Lord, I don't know why/ She loved the hell out of me.
The song hasn't described any sin that this baptism would wash away, so we just get cheap imagery of an oddly carnal salvation. This song winds up manipulative, rather than moving. In the next verse, the characters are married, just in time for Daisy to die in childbirth.
This album contains many good elements, Warrix and Tolliver have an ear for melody that taking welcome, unexpected turns, but only one decent song. "Die By My Own Hand" has a terrible opening line ("Sex and the city and Indian food / I never tried 'em not until you"), but a pleasant languor that they avoid on the rest of the album.
The album's tragic flaws become comic in its final song. "Welcome to Nashville" is an attack on "auto-tuning Nashville, Tennessee," where payola-demanding DJs play "a bunch of soft-rock wanna be[s]" more concerned about style than playing quality music. With their debut out of the way, hopefully Halfway to Hazard can practice what they preach. Their potential seems squandered in their need for commercial success in a market place corrupted by the warped, insular world of country radio. Their music might have been better off if they'd only gotten halfway to Nashville instead of trying to become the toast of the town.