Shannon Brown

Corn Fed

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Shannon Brown is the latest in a long line of Big & Rich protégés -- and the close association with John Rich, who produced her 2006 debut, Corn Fed, and had a hand in writing just over half of its songs, at least separates her from the pack of singers who pattern their sound after Big & Rich without actually working with the gonzo duo. Her closest comparison within the B&R stable would be Gretchen Wilson, the stylized redneck woman who kicked up a storm in 2004, around the same time Big & Rich started making waves with their debut, Horse of a Different Color. But if Wilson is a deliberate hell-raiser -- half Tanya Tucker and half Shania Twain -- Brown is the girl next door, sweet and friendly, with just a little bit of sex and sass. And she might be a better straight-up singer than Wilson, too, boasting a greater range and a sense of subtlety -- which isn't necessarily a plus for a singer tackling John Rich material. Like a lot of his work, his songs for Corn Fed are often contrived and cutesy, and what once sounded fresh and fun is creeping toward the formulaic, particularly on self-congratulatory cuts like "High Hopes," where Rich confronts critics who don't call this new breed of country "country." In the hands of a vocalist without charisma, this could be deadly, but Brown is a thoroughly appealing singer, filled with down-home charm but a vocal power that you don't hear every day. Shannon had been kicking around Nashville for a while before she finally had this opportunity to record a full-length debut -- she had a song on the soundtrack for Miramax's 1999 overhyped indie comedy flop Happy Texas, and sang some backup vocals on records by Chely Wright, Richard Marx, Lorrie Morgan, and Kenny Chesney -- and the skills she developed during those years in the trenches are evident in how she sounds equally convincing on the searching, introspective ballad "Small Town Girl," the funny, swaggering "Big Man," the gospel-inflected "Can I Get an Amen," and the terrific title track. She's good enough that when the Rich originals veer toward formula, she can wring something interesting out of them, but the really promising thing about Corn Fed is that the seven songs she had a hand in writing are the best here, suggesting that not only does Brown have a fine debut on her hands, but she has a bright future as well.

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