It's kind of spooky how things come full circle. Who would have through that Donnie and Johnny Van Zant, brothers to one of rock & roll's true icons and heirs apparent to the Lynyrd Skynyrd legacy, would find themselves in a musical climate so friendly to the excesses of Southern rock in the 21st century? As it stands, nine years after their supposed one-off debut, the pair are not only going strong, they've had all of their previous recordings reissued as DualDiscs. That said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The wild rebel yell of Lynyrd Skynyrd's raucously soulful three-guitar attack that railed against everything Nashville stood for -- no matter how much they may have admired some of country music's legends -- has been co-opted and decidedly de-spined by that very same place. Sure, acts like Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson know how to raise the roof and let it rip, and sometimes they can do it on records as well as live, but more often than not, that screaming guitar sound has been compressed to death, tamed inside focus group radio-programmers' meetings, and fed to the masses without all of its fangs bared. My Kind of Country showcases both sides of the argument: the album's opening track, written by the brothers with Tony Mullins and Craig Wiseman, comes roaring out of the gate with slide guitars blazing, thunderous drums, and a howling wall of blues-rock noise. The refrain is an anthem that is not unsimilar to Skynyrd's finer moments (hey, if you all don't want to hear that, then don't write songs like this). It's Southern rock that's as good as it gets in 2007 and a far sight better than almost anybody else trying the same thing. Oh yeah, the latter half of tracks like "Free Bird," and elements of a Blackfoot song or two come rumbling out of the speakers at full-tilt boogie. Things are promising until you take in the next coupe of tunes. First there's "These Colors Don't Run." Also written by the Van Zant brothers and Mullins. It's a honky tonk waltz with pedal steels whining that's a patriotic anthem. It's fine as far as it goes, and these fellas are as entitled to speak their notions about the nation, its military, and their pride in it, as John Mellencamp is on his side of aisle. That said, if only it rocked as hard as "Train." Instead of coming off as a loud honky tonk song -- of which there are plenty -- it would have been far more effective as a rollicking road burner that sounded like a bomber about to drop its payload. Speaking of Mellencamp, "Goes Down Easy," written by some corporate Nash Vegas songwriters, is nothing more than a cheap and crummy clone of a Mellencamp move circa Uh-Huh. And all the authentic heart these cats put into singing the song can't save it from being terrible. All that and we're not even 15 minutes into the album.
Unfortunately, more generic country follows in "That Scares Me," by another couple of "professional" songwriters. It's indistinguishable from 90-percent of the formula that passes for country music these days. If anybody had a license to turn the formula inside out it is the Van Zant brothers, who fought so hard for so long to make their own brand of Southern-fried rock and balladry that this album is simply unpalatable. And it's not that this stuff feels like a grown-up version of the past, either. These are just bad songs. Things come back to normal a bit on the title track written by the brothers, and on a couple of others. But at least it feels like it was written for the brothers and not for Darryl Worley or Toby Keith, though why the songwriters felt they had to name the Skynyrd and .38 Special pedigrees is beyond imagining. Talk about overselling. When the Van Zant's write, as they do on three other tracks here, even when they are working with generic Nash Vegans, they add something that country's new tradition can't take away, even when they are singing about Jesus as on "We Can't Do It Alone." Whether you are Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Mormon, or even agnostic, it's tough to deny the authentic feeling in this tune, and its heart can't be scraped out by generic production either. The roiling guitars, the dynamics, the snarled out words breathe conviction. It's not just the lyrics, it's the music, big, bad, rough and ready rock. Even the easier and breezier country cuts like "It's All About You" offer something lyrically and musically that is, even in its everyday working woman and man lyrics, the kind of hope that comes from something that runs counter to formulas: genuine soul. The same goes for the closer, "Headed South," a bluesy, simmering road song about longing for home. It's a slice of life tune written from the dark side of the road, where the bus becomes a prison and each town becomes a blur, making one wonder why the hell they chose this life. The guitars bite, cut and riffle, the harmonies barely contain one another, the tom toms pop and rumble, and the entire cut begins to drift into some ether of otherworldly rock before it fades into silence. It's as fine a finish as these cats have ever laid down. Apparently, this pair can write "contemporary country" songs without having to compromise their pedigree and the music they grew up making. If there is any justice, there won't be any ringers on the next Van Zant record albeit with Justin Niebank and Mark Wright still in the producers' chairs. If anyone gets it, it's them. As it stands, My Kind of Country has plenty of good to go along with what's less than desirable.