Some singers instantly elevate whatever material they touch, putting even the simplest of truths over with such raw, unimpeachable conviction that they become almost startlingly potent.
Danny Gokey isn’t that kind of singer.
He’s the kind who makes most any song he applies his pipes to sound worse through injudicious application of vocal tics and tricks borrowed from Michael Bolton, the kind who presents himself as the gaping absence of personality at the center of his own album.
On Sunday, I sat down and listened to Gokey’s new album. Twice.
What could possess a person to do such a thing? Only the best of intentions, I assure you. Given that Gokey is being marketed as country, and I write about country, I thought I should know something about him. I didn’t watch American Idol last year, or any year since 2003. And I’m not that interested in plain biographical facts. So, I came to his first album with little baggage and a simple hope: To get to know Danny Gokey through his music.
But after spending 80 minutes with the man’s album, I’m no closer than I was before. All I know is that he’s a glass-half-full optimist whose answer to all of the world’s problems is faith and love – and that doesn’t tell me much, given that half of the other aspiring contemporary country singers adopt the same pose.
Worse, I get the sense that Danny Gokey doesn’t understand, like, or particularly want to sing country music.
While past country Idols (Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Josh Gracin, even Bucky Covington) haven’t exactly been traditional standardbearers, I’ve always felt their engagement with the pop-country field to be sincere. I can sense the underlying appreciation of Martina, Shania, and Garth, if not Hank and Lefty. I understand their personal investment in calling themselves country artists – based on the country music they grew up listening to in the ’90s – even when their music doesn’t bear out that classification to my satisfaction. I get that they want to be here.
By contrast, Gokey’s complete lack of investment in anything resembling country music is readily apparent. He’s a Christian soul singer tapping the conventions of country music from a safe distance, seeing if he might strike gold. The nearest analog is Phil Stacey, who released exactly one ‘country’ (at Disney’s insistence) single and album on Lyric Street before following his heart to a Christian label the next year. I hope Danny Gokey’s country stint will be similarly short, so he can move on and make some music he actually enjoys.
On My Best Days, Gokey is like Bucky Covington minus sincerity, Rascal Flatts minus twang. Clay Aiken could deliver down-home sentiments like “Sunday morning, all dressed for church / Took a muddy road shortcut, showed up all covered in dirt” (“Life on Ya”) more credibly. Anne Murray could rock “Like That’s a Bad Thing” harder, and Gary Allan already did.* On his debut, Gokey makes everything – even that which might be heartfelt, like the mindless optimism that pervades the whole affair – feel like a complete lie. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he is not now, and probably will never be, a country singer. Not even by contemporary standards.
Toward the end of the album, he sings of a man who “did it all to impress someone else / When all he had to do was stop and be himself.” And he’s apparently just obtuse enough not to realize that he may as well be referring to his own country music career. I’m willing to accept that there’s a place for Danny Gokey somewhere in music, because millions of fans have already voted their support. But it’s very clearly not here, and he’d be doing himself, his fans, and country music a huge disservice to prolong this uncomfortable marriage.
* Seriously, why mess with a song previously recorded by Gary Allan? Unless you’re Rodney Hayden, don’t.