Although hailing from Pennsylvania, Craig Bickhardt spent over 20 years in Nashville taking songwriting meetings, and he has an extensive catalog of country hits to show for it, including chart-toppers recorded by the Judds and Ty Herndon. That no doubt pays the bills nicely, but in recent years Bickhardt has returned to Pennsylvania and aimed more at being a singer/songwriter. (His publicity materials make a point of listing his influences as "artists like James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot.") On his third solo album, however, he still sounds like a Nashville songwriter for the most part, turning out efforts that exude craftsmanship, but also can be formulaic (which is sometimes another way of saying the same thing), often amounting to no more than successful reshufflings of the usual clichés. Angels and dreams, cowboys and prairies, folksy, vaguely Christian philosophy, they're all there in Bickhardt's songs, which may not be surprising since at least some of these compositions date from his Nashville days. The title song has been recorded by Tony Rice; "Even a Cowboy Can Dream" by Sylvia Hutton; and "If He Came Back Again," a paean to a Hank Williams-like outlaw country singer, by the Highwaymen -- Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson -- all of whom, no doubt, identified with it personally. (They cut it for their 1994 album The Road Goes on Forever, but it wasn't released until it appeared as a bonus track on the tenth anniversary edition of the disc.) "This Old House" was a Top 40 country hit in 1987 for Schuyler, Knobloch & Bickhardt, the trio Bickhardt joined with fellow songwriters Thom Schuyler and Fred Knobloch. "Prayers for You" has been recorded by Karen O'Shea, and "Where in the World" by Sylvia as the title track of her 2002 album. Bickhardt sings his versions of these songs in a breathy tenor, usually accompanied by a single guest vocalist who harmonizes on the chorus -- Aislinn Bickhardt (his daughter), Beth Nielsen Chapman, Terri Hendrix, Janis Ian, Tim O'Brien, Maura O'Connell, Darrell Scott, or Jack Sundrud -- over country-folk arrangements heavy on acoustic instruments, with, at most, only a snare drum keeping the beat. He comes closest to matching the kind of individual lyrical vision of a Mitchell or a Cohen (actually, closer to a John Prine) on "Donald and June," a story song that is touching and amusing, and, for once, craftsmanlike without being formulaic. Actually, it's another old song -- Don Williams recorded it in 1990 -- but it still suggests that there's more to Bickhardt than Nashville hitmaking.
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