Blake Shelton had released a number of albums before appearing as a vocal coach on The Voice, the wildly popular singing-competition reality TV show. Before The Voice, Shelton was a familiar voice on country radio, but he wasn't really a star personality the way, say, contemporaries such as Brad Paisley or Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw have become. I don't know how Shelton felt about that, but to me, this lack of an easily pigeonholed personality worked in his artistic favor. On any given Blake Shelton album, there's a wider range of styles than most stars venture to attempt.
From the jaunty bliss of the hit single "Honey Bee" to the more solemn bliss of "God Gave Me You," Shelton sings with unaffected straightforwardness. He stands in the tradition of 1980s country vocalists such as Earl Thomas Conley, Keith Whitley, Vern Gosdin and even laid-back Don Williams — guys who weren't pushing an agenda or an outlaw image. Shelton can take a rather ordinary piece of novelty material such as "Hey" and give it the kind of conversational intimacy that lifts its good-natured tunefulness up a notch.
Shelton's insistence upon roaming across various genres, from cornpone to power ballads, along with his deceptively tossed-off vocal manner, have led some to dismiss him as an aimless dabbler. People — like me, for sure — who are suspicious of TV sing-off shows such as The Voice initially suspected a hack in the making. Instead, Shelton overturned expectations by outshining his fellow judge-slash-coaches by becoming a real country-music TV personality, in the grand old manner of Jimmy Dean, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Roger Miller. He was funny yet assertive, unpredictable and playful. That demeanor has spilled over into his new music, as well.
I suspect that, at bottom, Blake Shelton thinks of himself as a country crooner, essentially a singer of ballads who branches out to suit his ornery restlessness. His recent marriage to one of country music's best firecrackers, Miranda Lambert, isn't just a good PR story: It sets up the potential, down the road, for what could be a great country duet album in the tradition of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. In the meantime, Red River Blue delivers on the idea of Blake Shelton as a country everyman who's never ordinary.
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