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Tom Cheatham

Scars That I’ll Keep

Review by Gary Hill

Country music these days, or at least the country music that dominates commercial radio, is really more pop music than country. The charm and sincerity and down home delivery that makes country music something special has been bleached out of the music and replaced with catchy hooks and overly clean production. Tom Cheatham’s latest release shows that it’s possible to produce music that borders on pop and rock without sacrificing the qualities that make country music a real American treasure. There’s not a weak song here and everything feels familiar without being derivative. Most of the music borders between country and rock, but Cheatham’s vocal delivery generally lands securely on the country music side of the fence.

Cheatham really delivers a sound that crosses over while staying true to country roots. It’s the kind of music that can be appreciated by both rock fans and country purists. The modern pop meets country acts could learn a lot from Cheatham. He does it all in a style that’s sure to please many, while still keeping it original and well rooted in tradition. In addition, he does it without ever feeling like he’s repeating himself or running out of quality material. This is an album that flows from quality tune to quality tune throughout. Nashville, take note – this is how country music should sound.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Empty Heart

This pounds in with a real rocking country sound. Cheatham’s vocals are heartfelt and the music has a country meets rock and blues sound. There are hints of modern rock in the arrangement, but this is all country and delivered in a satisfying style. The guitar solo is particularly tasty. Cheatham’s delivery is both familiar and unique. He comes across as the real deal.

Forgiveness

Musically “Forgiveness” is much more of a rock song than it is country. It’s a real testament to Cheatham’s vocal style then, that the piece is pure country music. Although there’s a bit of a “twang” to some of the guitar soloing, with a different singer handling the song, this would have more of a classic rock texture. It would also be less unique.

Scars That I’ll Keep

The title track comes in with music that conveys a bluesy rock sound. The vocals are perhaps more “rock” than the previous numbers had been. There’s a real maturity and pain in Cheatham’s delivery. If there’s a crossover tune here, this is it. While long time country fans will have no problem warming up to this piece, it wouldn’t be out of place amongst classic rock songs either.

Help Me Hold On

This has a rock element that almost feels like something Sister Hazel might do. The vocals are among the most pure country inspired, though. The combination works extremely well. It’s hard to find a standout cut on this set because it’s all so potent, but this one would be a contender.   

Letting Go
Cheatham pulls it down for a ballad with “Letting Go.” While the volume drops, the intensity and charm are still right up with the rest of the disc. This represents a change of pace while still maintaining the tone, style and quality of the rest of the set. It’s one that’s less likely to crossover than some of the other numbers.
Learn to Live

Coming in mellow, “Learn to Live” has a more melodic rock meets country texture. While it’s still pure country, it has a real classic rock element, too. It’s one of the most dynamic pieces with the intensity and pace growing as it continues. “One Good Reason” comes in with a similar style, a real blend of country and rock music. The cut has a really familiar musical texture. The guitar solo is all rock, but the majority of the number falls more on the country side of the equation.

Tonight

Starting off tentatively, “Tonight” is one of the most rock oriented pieces on the set. That said, both Cheatham’s vocals and the guitar soloing convey plenty of pure country music. The chorus is amongst the catchiest of the set and the track is infectious. It’s an excellent contender for single, assuming that concept has any value in the current music scene.

Angel

This is the mellowest piece of the set. It’s a ballad that, with a different singer, would wind up feeling purely pop. Cheatham manages to keep the country element on display. The tune represents another bit of variety. The closer (“Lead Me On”) gets some serious country infusion through the slide guitar. In fact, that guitar soloing drives the track and shows up all over the piece. While it’s a slow moving ballad, it has a lot more power than “Angel.” Closing an album with a mellower tune like this, doesn’t always work well, but there’s enough real country sound infused (along with an inspired delivery) to make it an extremely satisfying closer.

 
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