24 February 2012

"Burnin' the Roadhouse Down" by Steve Wariner

Burnin' the Roadhouse Down
Steve Wariner
Produced by Steve Wariner
CD Release: 21 April 1998
List Price: $6.03 (CD), $9.49 (MP3)

I was aware of Steve Wariner, but never a fan. I was, however, a Garth Brooks fan and Garth was a Steve Wariner fan. So it came to be that Capitol Records signed Wariner to a three-album deal, of which Burnin' the Roadhouse Down was the first. I confess: I bought it in the Spring of 1998 only because Garth appears on the title track. Not that it matters, but this was around the time that Garth came to Louisville and I got to see him in concert and Sevens was still just a few months old. No offense to Trisha Yearwood, but I was rather hoping that Wariner would be the opening act for that show. As it was, they did play this album over the sound system before Yearwood's set, so in my mind this was part of that concert anyway.

The hope, I'm sure, was that a lot of Garth Brooks fans would think along with me and buy their first Steve Wariner album. It was Wariner's second ever gold record, so it was clearly a boon to his commercial career but of course, Garth sales were about 10-12x as high so clearly there were relatively few of us rabid enough to buy a whole album for one duet. Their loss!

Periodically, I go through my library and purge albums that no longer appeal to me. For years, Burnin' the Roadhouse Down would be on the chopping block. I had gone months without thinking about it, so how much could I really care about it? Still, I recalled liking it so I would throw it in the CD player to give it a chance to persuade me to keep it. By the end of "Every Little Whisper," I'm reminded I really do like it. By the end of "Road Trippin'," I know I'm keeping it. By the time the album ends with "What if I Said," I want to go around the entire world saying, "You need to hear this right now!"

The album is notable for Wariner's signature song, "Holes in the Floor of Heaven." I always liked the song, but feared it was a little too "Hallmark" for my taste. Relative to the bombastic melodrama that characterizes contemporary country, time has shown it to be a much more thoughtful song than I gave it credit at the time. I was surprised to hear "Love Me Like You Love Me," which I instantly recognized from Clay Walker's recording on his 1996 album, Hypnotize the Moon. It's always weird when you can sing along with something you've never heard!

Wariner was never a redneck or a cowboy. He's a smooth sounding guy and one can easily imagine him having built a career on the Adult Contemporary charts instead of Country. But just when you wonder why a guy as vanilla as him bothered with the charade of being a country artist, he goes and hits you with a song about heartache like "A Six Pack Ago" or "Big Ol' Empty House" and you know he's as entrenched in the sensibilities of the genre as anyone else. There's some killer fiddle throughout "I Don't Know How to Fix It," and I think I'd love to hear Tim McGraw take a crack at it some time. I think my favorite second favorite track on the album is the penultimate song, "Big Tops" in which Wariner constructs an allegory of the end of a relationship mirroring the taking down of a circus on its way out of town. There's something about the line, "They're firing all the clowns" that just fascinates me. That's bloody brilliant writing!

Beyond producing the album, Wariner co-wrote every song save "What If I Said," which was written by his duet partner, Anita Cochran. I dig the writing on the other 11 songs, but this is the gem of the whole thing for me. I think there comes a point in many male/female friendships where the possibility of bringing up romantic/sexual desire crosses the minds of each person. It's been the case for me on occasion, mostly in my youth. I've yet to hear a song that does a better job articulating those anxieties than this song and it absolutely crushes me each time I hear it, even if I haven't actively felt that confusion in ages. Just hearing this song floods me with a sort of emotional memory recall and I'm in my late teens/early 20s again, staying up late, living and dying by the ring of the phone.

It's not a party disc, or a driving disc (though "Road Trippin'" is certainly worth adding to a driving playlist). There is, however, a nice, clean sound to this album that invites candlelight and wine, or hot chocolate and a fireplace.

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  1. Excellent review. I've kind of overlooked Wariner since i didn't get into country full time til the early 90's.

  2. Thank you. I'm much the same way, though I was exposed to a lot of country in the 80s. It wasn't until the 90s that I consciously became a country listener, though, so I only took in a certain percentage of what I heard in the 80s. His other two Capitol albums, Two Teardrops and Faith in You have some solid songs but for my money, this is the strongest of those three albums.