Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – Better Than I Used To Be

Karlie Justus Marlowe | September 9th, 2010

Sammy Kershaw - Better Than I Used To BeWhile comeback title track “Better Than I Used To Be” has been touted as the driving message behind Sammy Kershaw’s first album in four years, there’s another standout tune on the collection that better defines the singer’s current state of nostalgic neotraditional throwback/viable commercial player flux.

“Takin’ the Long Way Home,” which finds the velvet-voiced singer (and song co-writer) soaking in all of the whiskey, all of the smoke and every last bit of the heartache, is an exercise in self-recognition that extends beyond marital strife and into the nineties-country standout’s latest bid for musical relevance:

There’s really nothing for me here
But I guess I’ll have another beer
And walk on over there and play one more song
And it’ll be time for me to go
Where I’m going I don’t know
I just know I’m taking the long way home
Still sitting here my friend
Knew I’d be here to the end
‘Cause once again I’m taking the long way home

Despite a long absence from the studio and an even longer drought on country radio, Kershaw is indeed still kicking. For perhaps the first time in his career, the material on Better Than I Used To Be outshines its vocalist – an attribute that works more often than not, owing much to the range of tempos and influences Kershaw and producer Buddy Cannon make work.

Cases in point: Retro romp “That Train” kicks things off, followed by the charmingly clichéd “Saltwater Cowboy,” shagadelic (more Myrtle Beach, S.C., less Austin Powers) “Everybody Wants My Girl,” and Mel McDaniel-infused “Through the Eyes of a Woman.” And that’s just through the first five tracks.

While the variety keeps things rolling, Kershaw himself sounds best when he pinpoints an elusive, developed maturity. Aside from “I Ain’t Fallin’ for That” and “Cover of The Rolling Stone,” fun tracks which feature, respectively, the spot-on influences of George Jones and a duet with Jamey Johnson, the exuberance of Kershaw’s older material is replaced with a wiser weariness. This older, more refined approach is best represented on the quietly commanding “The Snow White Rows of Arlington,” a Hugh Prestwood song that thoughtfully contrasts a sparse arrangement with heavy lyrics on patriotism and death.

Better Than I Used To Be extends beyond classic Kershaw, a welcome addition to the singer’s deep catalog of favorites. While its strengths also can be its weaknesses-“variety” can veer into sonic schizophrenia and “mature” reads dull on more than a few occasions-the album exhibits a refreshing self-awareness of a country artist who knows where he belongs.

3.5 Stars

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