On his third studio album, songwriter Byron Hill strays from what I previously called the ‘back porch appeal’ of his first two albums. Where those earlier efforts were simple, efficient acoustic affairs, Stay a While finds Hill bringing more sounds into the mix, including electric guitar, keyboards, piano, and even organ on some tracks.
The result is a somewhat more lush-sounding record, one that will probably be a bit less jarring to ears accustomed to a radio-ready production style. Hill, who also fills the producer seat, does an admirable job of not washing away all of his everyman charm in the tide of these sonic embellishments. The thing that ultimately keeps the effort grounded is Hill’s voice, a charming workhorse that’s as warm and relatable as it is technically limited. His Myspace page wryly notes that he “Sounds like: a songwriter,” which at first blush reads more like a joke than the secret of success that it truly is.
Sadly, though, Stay a While is sorely lacking in the all-important songcraft element that creates interest and moves action forward: conflict. A hallmark of Hill’s previous albums was the break-up song, a preoccupation which combined with the acoustic style to give the impression of a lovable loser strumming a guitar out on the porch as he watches his baby not coming back (to borrow a line from a David Ball single).
As a songwriter, some of Hill’s best efforts have been those built on conflict. Oftentimes, the conflict is even spelled out in the lyric that gives the song its title:
- I’ve got a fool-hearted memory (George Strait)
- Nights are the loneliest part of the day/That’s when your memory comes around (Ed Bruce)
- Let’s talk about anything, anything in this world/But politics, religion, and her (Sammy Kershaw)
- I took her to the moon/And I can’t bring her back (Trace Adkins)
If these new recordings are any indication, Hill is now at a happy juncture in is life. Stay a While practically revels in contentment and life lessons learned. The dewy-eyed title track, the finger-snappingly cool “More Where That Came From,” the trucking ballad “Way Too Long,” the smooth “Once You’ve Been to the Moon,” and the buoyant “The Dream Comes True” are all about being madly in love. In fact, the one song that sounds like a good break-up song (“The Photograph”) was actually written about the passing of a mother. Given that Hill’s previous albums spent about half their time dealing wonderfully in the problems of love, it’s a little disappointing to find that everything is suddenly going so terribly right. While most of these songs are fine and even enjoyable on their own, the album sags a bit under the weight of so many of them.
That’s not to say that every song is about love. There’s also an ode to an old friend in the form of “That Old Car,” a story song complete with life philosophy in “Life’s a Ditch,” and a song about the rambling life of a musician in “All the Home I Need.” While these are welcome breaks from the virtual lovefest elsewhere on the album, they are neither numerous enough nor outstanding enough to reverse the album’s general treacly trend.
Hill does best when writing in more of a broken and self-reflective mode, as he does on two of the album’s finest songs. The first is “Blame It On Kristofferson,” which finds him thinking about the man who set his life’s course and the awestruck boy inside of him still trying to live up to the legend some forty years later:
I’ve been blessed to bring a smile to a few folks with my songs
Bring a tear to someone’s eye and hear them sing along
But sometimes I start hating every word I’ve ever written
Thinking I ain’t ever living up to “Sunday Morning Coming Down” at all
Blame it on Kristofferson
Even more poignant is the album’s final song, “My Daughter’s Father,” a quiet meditation on balancing the expectations of the world (and self-expectations) with more essential matters of the heart:
It’s not like everybody’s waiting to see if I’ll go far
It’s not like everybody’s watching, though sometimes I think they are
I don’t have to change the world, I don’t have to walk on water
All I have to be is my daughter’s father
Although a few more moments like these would have improved Stay a While immensely, what’s here is a solid songwriter album. While I’d recommend either of Hill’s first two albums ahead of this one for those interested in discovering his talent, established fans will likely find plenty to enjoy about this latest offering.