Mark Chesnutt

Savin' the Honky Tonk

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There's a lot of truth to the title of Mark Chesnutt's tenth album, 2004's Savin' the Honky Tonk. Chenutt began his career as a new traditionalist country singer, indebted to Merle and George and singing straight-ahead honky tonk, but as his star rose and the decade rolled along, he moved further and further into country-pop, culminating in his 1999 crossover hit "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," a cover of Aerosmith's love theme to Michael Bay's absurd Armageddon. It might have been his biggest hit, peaking at 17 on the pop charts, but this wasn't a breakthrough to a new level of success. Shortly afterward, he lost not only that newfound pop, but he had a hard time cracking the country Top 40 as well. He left Decca/MCA Nashville after 2000's Lost in the Feeling, releasing a formulaic eponymous album on Columbia in 2002, yet despite a modest hit in its first single, "She Was," the album disappeared quickly and, with it, so did Chesnutt's contract with Columbia. Left without a major, Chesnutt signed with the indie Vivaton and decided to abandon the increasingly poppy, polished material that characterized his albums of the late '90s. So, he turned back to honky tonk as much to save himself as to save it, and the results are by and large pretty terrific. Singing hardcore honky tonk, Chesnutt not only sounds comfortable and relaxed, he's re-energized, both by the straight-ahead setting and the freedom to pick songs without an eye on the airwaves. There are still a couple of ballads that are slightly treacly, but in this unadorned setting, the sentiment doesn't seem so saccharine. Plus, they're primarily used as a change of pace here, since the heart of this record is in twangy, rollicking honky tonk songs. Three songs mention drinking or beer in the title, two others mention honky tonks, one tune is about "Mama's House," and a bunch of others are filled with bad behavior, heartache, and humor. While Chesnutt's band is a bunch of Nashville pros, the music is none too polished -- it's clear that they're having a good time, and it's hard for listeners not to have a good time as well. Perhaps Savin' the Honky Tonk will be just a one-off for Chesnutt, and he'll return to poppier material after this return to his roots, but hopefully not. This album proves that he's at his best when he sticks to the hard stuff.

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