By Bill Friskics-Warren
With his career sales exceeding 30 million CDs, country singer Kenny Chesney can afford to take chances. His latest project, "Hemingway's Whiskey," though hardly a radical departure, is his most stylistically wide-ranging to date.
"Round and Round," for example, is dirty-toned blues-rock. Elsewhere, "You and Tequila" and the title track hew closer to contemporary Americana than anything coming from the Nashville mainstream: The former features the loamy vocals of alt-country singer-songwriter Grace Potter, and the latter sports the spare, harmonica- and acoustic-guitar-based arrangement favored by the song's co-writer, Guy Clark.
Easily half the album offers much the same stadium-sized amalgamation of pop, rock and country nostalgia that's made Chesney such a huge draw at the box office. The record's first single, "The Boys of Fall," revels in the glories of the high school gridiron (the song's video includes appearances by NFL greats Brett Favre and Peyton Manning). Sentimental yet sincere, the track might have succumbed to its excesses were it not for its commodious arrangement and Chesney's warm, purling vocals.
Nothing -- not even the singer's self-deprecating, Everyday Joe persona -- can redeem "Live a Little" and its aw-shucks inducements to start smelling the roses. At least "Where I Grew Up," another potential lapse, is salted with lines about moving beyond high school. Better is the good-natured clowning around of "Small Y'all," a spirited duet with George Jones that has Chesney laughing at himself and, from the sound of things, really having a good time.
Recommended tracks: "Hemingway's Whiskey," "Small Y'all"