In 1994, Alan Jackson released “Gone Country,” a track that poked fun at Nashville carpetbaggers. It’s an amusing, if not entirely accurate, song — after all, Bob Dylan went country to record parts of Blonde On Blonde back in the ‘60s — but it helps to underscore what has changed in the subsequent two decades as the genre’s reach has grown and its walls have perforated. These days, a Michigan-born former One Tree Hill actress like Jana Kramer can easily find a home in Nashville: her 2012 debut single, “Why You Wanna,” was certified platinum.
Kramer played New York City’s Gramercy Theater last night, previewing several songs from her forthcoming sophomore album, thirty one, which hits stores Oct. 9. It’s been three years since her first full-length, and during that time, the sound of country has bulked up. thirty one arrives suitably armored for this new environment — roughly half the tracks are heaped high with guitar. In the opener, “Boomerang,” one rogue instrument seems tuned to the “Guns N’ Roses” setting, while “Bullet,” which features a contribution from Steven Tyler, borrows heavily from the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” cowbell included. (This is appropriate: Keith Richards supposedly stole the Stones’ iconic riff from Ry Cooder.)
thirty one is produced by Scott Hendricks, a veteran who helmed Blake Shelton‘s recent albums — he’s adept at stewarding projects that sit squarely in the mainstream. But occasionally Hendricks tries something more daring, like Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here,” which remains one of the slickest mixtures of country and rap. Kramer’s outlier is “Circles,” which forgoes guitar squalls in favor of a dark bass groove. At times, it sounds like something that might have been pulled from an early ‘80s record by Michael McDonald or Don Henley.
That track didn’t appear during Kramer’s Gramercy performance, which focused on the singer’s riff-coated side. She frequently stood flanked by rotating squadrons of riff-generators — sometimes all three guitarists and the bassist would form a squalling phalanx. The set kicked off with “Boomerang,” a blistering, peppery cut co-written by Maddie & Tae. “I should’ve known that you’d come crawling back,” Kramer sneered. “It’s the only thing to do when you lose the best thing you ever had.” She tossed out a series of weapon analogies — boomerang, arrow, gun — to get her point across: “I ain’t the kind of thing that you can throw away.”
Kramer maintained this tempo (fast) and texture (fuzzy) for much of the night as she unveiled other thirty one tracks like “Pop That Bottle” and “Said No One Ever.” (The latter is co-written by Nicolle Galyon and Natalie Hemby, who have both been on hot streaks lately.) Even Kramer’s covers leaned mostly in this direction: Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman,” The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
One cover, though, was unlike the others: Kramer took on Alanis Morissette’s hit single “Ironic,” transforming it into a country power-ballad with a crisp breakbeat and long, weeping-willow guitar lines. But this break was brief, as Kramer immediately followed that with “Don’t Touch My Radio,” another song from thirty one. Her band resumed playing with crunch and volume, and Kramer switched straight back into Nashville mode: “I like my boys like I like my music — down home and country.”