Keith Urban’s Golden Road Leads to Riches

This week’s new albums disprove the prevalent theory that all men in country music sound too much the same. From Keith Urban ’s striking blend of pop and country music, to Pinmonkey ’s upbeat Appalachian vibe, to Ronnie Bowman’s relaxing bluegrass, Nashville boasts an impressive variety of voices. As for those who prefer the middle of the country road, John Michael Montgomery returns with a new studio album as well.

Keith Urban proves that his 2001 CMA Horizon Award wasn’t a fluke. His second Capitol solo album, Golden Road, finds him more aggressive on guitar, perhaps due to heavy touring over the last two years. “Song for Dad” may be next year’s unavoidable Father’s Day tribute, while “Somebody Like You” remains one of the catchiest, fastest-rising country hits of 2002. The Australia native also explores his spirituality on “You’re Not Alone Tonight.” Urban’s past hits include “But for the Grace of God,” “Where the Blacktop Ends” and “Your Everything.”

As on their first hit, “Barbed Wire and Roses,” the four-man band Pinmonkey brings bluegrass to the country mainstream without alienating traditional listeners. Dolly Parton harmonizes on a devastating break-up song she wrote in 1976, “Falling Out of Love with Me.” On the lighter side, the guys bring a bluegrass element to pop hits like Cyndi Lauper’s “I Drove All Night” and Sugar Ray’s “Fly” on their superb self-titled debut (BNA). They pick up a few Southeastern dates with Brad Paisley on the CMT Most Wanted Live tour this weekend.

A star in the bluegrass field, Ronnie Bowman issues his third solo album, Starting Over (Sugar Hill). Good title. Since his last solo record, Bowman left the Lonesome River Band, got divorced and moved to Nashville. Yet, Starting Over succeeds in its honesty and elegant, understated arrangements. Plus, strong material and Bowman’s pure and lonesome voice make this an ideal purchase for Alison Krauss fans. In fact, Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales and Jerry Douglas (all members of Alison Krauss & Union Station) provide able studio support.

Could that be a banjo that opens John Michael Montgomery’s new studio album, Pictures? Don’t worry, the electric guitar arrives less than 30 seconds later on “Country Thang,” yet another song about what it means to be country. In all, not much has changed in Montgomery’s music since his debut a decade ago. Scott Hendricks, who produced some of Montgomery’s early hits on Atlantic Records, returns as co-producer on his first album for Warner Bros. The band Sixwire, also on Warner Bros., makes an appearance on “It Goes Like This.”

For those in search of beer-soaked, good-timing tunes, Jameson Clark’s Workin’ on a Groove (Capitol) fits the bill. The first single, “You Da Man,” recently dented the country singles chart and the rest of the album follows a similar party-time theme. Clark co-wrote the eight tracks and co-produced the album. Fans of Charlie Robison might consider looking into this South Carolina native’s music, too.

A guitarist in Waylon Jennings ’ band during his outlaw years, Billy Ray Reynolds introduces his first album, Whole Lot of Memories (Compadre). Reynolds reprises “It’ll Be Her,” which Jennings had recorded, as well as the thoughtful, Civil War-inspired song “Atlanta’s Burning Down.” Bonnie Bramlett and Merle Haggard lend their voices to the project as well. Recommended to listeners nostalgic for country music from the 1970s, Reynolds wrote or co-wrote most of this fine effort.

Jim Mills picks a fine banjo as a member of Ricky Skaggs ’ band Kentucky Thunder. Skaggs sings lead on the title track of Mills’ solo album, My Dixie Home. Tim O’Brien and Paul Brewster lend their vocal talents to the album as well. Adam Steffey, Stuart Duncan, Dan Tyminski and Barry Bales make up the band. Tellingly, Mills thanks his “all-time musical heroes” — Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne and Ralph Stanley — in the liner notes.

To go even further back in the country catalog, folk singer Steve Forbert turned to Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music. Both Forbert and Rodgers were born and raised in Meridian, Miss., and Forbert salutes the Singing Brakeman with Any Old Time: Songs of Jimmie Rodgers. Yes, Forbert yodels here, too.

Open Road, a bluegrass group from Colorado, keep the old-time country sound alive on its second album, Cold Wind (Rounder). The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) nominated the quintet for Emerging Artist of the Year in 2001 and 2002. Sally Van Meter produced the project. Check out the playful mandolin tune “South Saluda Ramble.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.