RCA Nashville did wrong in 2006 when they saddled twentysomething Chris Young, whose fine original “Drinkin’ Me Lonely” had essentially clinched his Nashville Star victory, with such a fluffy set of material for his major label debut that even Hazel Smith was heard to say “This boy really needs some better material.” (Okay, that didn’t really happen… but it should have.) But RCA should be commended for keeping Young around through three poorly-performing singles, until “Gettin’ You Home” eventually struck a nerve and hastened the release of this sophomore set, The Man I Want to Be.
There’s little doubt that this is a better album than its predecessor. The backing sounds less like a production machine with the dial turned to traditional, more like a tight ensemble supporting a classic singer in the mold of Randy Travis and Keith Whitley. There’s dobro, fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar that feels like more than an afterthought – indeed, even feels like a foundation. The material is of generally better quality, though there are still a fair number of missteps: The most painful miscalculation is “Twenty-One Candles,” which sounds like a rocking Trace Adkins B-side, but even relatively palatable songs like album-opener “That Makes Me,” lead single “Voices,” and the title track suffer from a nondescript quality that makes them virtually interchangeable with albums cuts by the likes of Jason Michael Carroll and Justin Moore.
Young handles standard-issue material with aplomb, but he really belongs in an entirely different ballgame. At his traditional best, he recalls Randy Travis – not just in baritone, but in the tone of his material as well. “The Shoebox” is like a less plot-driven version of Travis’ “The Box,” while the moment of decision (and test of moral fortitude) outlined in “It Takes a Man” echoes that in “Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man.” Elsewhere, “The Dashboard” looks to be heading the way of “Riding With Private Malone” before it takes an interesting twist. Then Young gamely trades licks with Willie Nelson on another story song, “Rose in Paradise,” which became Waylon Jennings’ last chart-topper the same year Young entered his terrible twos – though you certainly wouldn’t know it from his performance here. Along with “Gettin’ You Home,” these songs comprise one of the strongest five-song blocks on any record this year. If you stripped away the lesser songs on both sides, this would make an excellent EP. Shame they couldn’t fill out the rest of the record with material of similar quality.
None of it will prepare you for the closing track, a cover of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” where Young breaks out the soul and proves that his prospects are by no means solely country. Country is clearly where his heart lies, though, and The Man I Want to Be is a much better showcase of his gifts than his previous album. This disc should get a lot of people’s attention, but there are a few duds weighing it down, so I’ll keep an eye on Young and hope for better next time. If he continues improving at this rate, his third album should be a doozy.