TERRY GROSS, host:
Within seven months of arriving in Nashville from his native Wisconsin, singer-songwriter Josh Thompson had his first hit song and a music publishing deal. Now he's released his first album, called "Way Out Here," and rock critic Ken Tucker says it's one of the best debut country albums in a long time.
(Soundbite of song, "You Ain't Seen Country Yet")
Mr. JOSH THOMPSON (Singer/Songwriter) (Singing) You say you got a thing for a man in worn-out jeans, a Stetson hat and them alligator boots. So you want a man with rougher hands who does what city boys can't, someone raised up with down-home country roots. Well, now dont go thinking that's what you got just because he says yeehaw. You ain't seen country yet...
KEN TUCKER: Josh Thompson may have just put out his rookie major label release, but he comes on like an old pro at making country music albums. That is, he makes them the way they used to, when albums arrived on vinyl, five songs to a side.
Most stars think that putting less than 15 tracks on a collection is cheat, while making most of their cash on hit-single downloads. But Josh Thompson has sussed out his key demo. He knows the country music audience still buys albums and probably won't squawk about the number of songs as long as the quality is consistent.
(Soundbite of song, "Won't Be Lonely Long")
Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) When the lonely set in, I fought back the tears. I dont love you anymore is so hard to hear. And it felt like a mile from our door to my truck. Somehow I found the strength to fire it up. How lucky am I that you said goodbye at seven o'clock on a Friday night? I won't be lonely long. By the time that first beer's gone, I'll be floating on a neon cloud with my friends around. We'll be raising up our glasses and singing out loud to those done-me-wrong drinking songs.
TUCKER: That's a first-rate song called "Won't Be Lonely Long." It's addictively clever, faking you out in the beginning as though it's going to be a tears-in-my-beer ballad, then kicking into an upbeat honky-tonk song. The song is co-written by three writers, including Thompson and George Ducas, himself a solid recordmaker whose career never took off the way it should have.
The first, weepy verse is perfect mood music, and then the raucous stuff is superb fun. Positioned as the fourth song on the album - after tunes that make nods to Waylon Jennings and how all he needs is, quote, "a couple of bucks when I'm itchin' for a scratch-off ticket," Josh Thompson is clearly pulling off something impressive here, acknowledging his betters and boasting about how far he's already come, without coming off like an arrogant jerk.
(Soundbite of song, "Beer on the Table")
Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Every morning I get up before that rooster crows, headed straight to somewhere I dont even want to go. Eggs and bacon in my belly and a Folgers coffee buzz. Good ol' radar detector, it protects me from the fuzz. Well, I do what I gotta do to get through working that nine to five. It's killing me, but then again, it's keeping me alive. It puts the gas in my truck, butter on my biscuit, couple bucks when I'm itching for a scratch-off ticket. That poker makes me broker every Saturday night, but I still got running water and they ain't cut off the lights. Come Friday night, my friends and I start peeling off them labels. Working hard all week puts the beer on the table.
TUCKER: Thompson possesses a strong, surging, but not particularly distinctive voice. It's the voice of a songwriter, which is how Thompson got his foot in the Nashville music-industry door. He wrote a popular song for someone else - Jason Michael Carroll, called "Growing Up is Getting Old" - that proved Thompson's gift for melodic hooks and the sort of tight little puns that are the stuff of country music mini-manifestos.
Thompson's own album is stuffed with good examples of this-is-what-I-stand-for statements - most blazingly on the title song, "Way Out Here."
(Soundbite of song, "Way Out Here")
Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun, and you might meet 'em both if you show up here not welcome, son. Our necks are burnt, our roads are dirt, and our trucks ain't clean. The dogs run loose, we smoke, we chew and fry everything out here, way out here. We won't take a dime if we aint earned it.
TUCKER: Once again, puns do the work of truth-telling. The title "Way Out Here" refers to the backwoods life the narrator describes with lovingly surly detail. But the phrase also means this is the way we live out here, with, quote, "guns and the good Lord" invoked as warnings, and the invocation of three Johns - John Wayne, Johnny Cash, and John Deere - to prove his working-class roots.
Thompson makes a point in interviews to mention his time spent pouring concrete for driveways and basements in his father's Milwaukee concrete business. As is also true of the hip-hop industry, authenticity -feigned or real - is important to impress upon the fans. To Thompson's credit, he doesn't brag about it excessively, and often uses it for some fun, as when he says in the song I played at the start of this review, "If you ain't made love to a Merle Haggard cassette, you ain't seen country yet."
For a first-time album, "Way Out Here" is impressive, not just for the confidence of Josh Thompson's delivery, but also for its consistency. One of the business models of earlier-era country music Thompson doesn't follow is the old formula of front-loading your album with two or three hit singles and padding the rest with filler. On "Way Out Here," Thompson makes every cut count.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Josh Thompson's debut album "Way Out Here."
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