Articulating the kind of down home and wholesome side of country music that just like so many of the other more pleasing and enjoyable facets of the genre have been rendered patently absent in today’s popular realm, Mo Pitney has become a fan favorite over his burgeoning career with quality songs and a laid back demeanor that puts listeners at ease in a way that both the young and old can appreciate, and together.
Don’t expect raucous honky-tonk tunes about tears mixing with beer stains on wooden dance floors, or cutting loose on Saturday night, or somber moans from a worried man with a worried mind waking up in the gutter. No, Mo Pitney is not a troubled soul. He’s simply an old soul that sings about a simple life and simple pleasures from the distinctly country and devout life he lives.
A signee of Curb Record, this means Mo is subject to the label’s notorious talent retention program that emulates molasses in how they release new music from artists, resulting in Pitney’s new album Ain’t Lookin’ Back being only his second record in over six years of service. And since radio seems to have found no favor in what he has to offer, and Mo doesn’t really fit the underground/Americana/Outlaw profile, it’s been a little hard for Pitney to find traction and a sense of place in country beyond the RFD-TV crowd. But it’s not from the quality of his recordings or performances.
The new album starts out with a great little song with fellow traditionalist Jamey Johnson called “A Music Man” that draws a bead on Mo Pitney as good as anything. Driven to the music from a sincere love that comes through every time he picks up a guitar and sings, it’s the tenderness and care that Pitney brings to each moment that makes the 27-year-old with a wiry frame so compelling to attentive audiences. A voice that is naturally tailored for country, he doesn’t just perform, he professes in a way the brings the words up from deep inside of him, allowing them to drip in the honey of their inspiration.
Still, there a bit of a softness to Mo’s style of country that some may struggle to find engaging. A lot of steel guitar remains in the mix, but even more so than on his first record, the edges of Ain’t Lookin’ Back are smoothed down, while some of the songs sound like they were recorded for the setting of radio, even if they would never survive there. “Boy Gets The Girl” and “Ain’t Lookin’ Back” find Pitney working in more contemporary production than you’re accustomed to for him, even if the steel guitar is allowed to join the party.
But then he brings it all back to the roots with the traditional standard “Old Home Place” cut live with a string band—not a song we necessarily need another cover of perhaps, but let’s not forget this is still a major label release, and it shows just what Mo Pitney is able to provide to the tradition-bereft Music Row ecosystem. Later on the record Mo Pitney impresses with both the writing and mood of “Mattress on the Floor,” which the young will relate to, and the old will remember with fondness. Later the fun and upbeat “Local Honey” is done well enough for you to forgive its cliches.
And in between all of this stuff are quite a few of those just good ol’ “Mo Pitney songs” that are hard to not crack a smile to, and feel custom made for a Sunday afternoon. We’re talking about songs like “Ain’t Bad For a Good ‘Ol Boy,” or the well-written and relatable “Old Stuff Better.” This stuff is peak Pitney.
Sure, with some of these songs, certain listeners may find them a little too corny for their version of country, and that may not be a completely unfair criticism. But a little wholesome goodness is good for everyone, even if it’s just every now and then. It’s a bit of Cracker Barrel in between the late night benders and pontoon parties to ground yourself and re-calibrate back to center. It’s a reminder of the importance and warmness of family and faith. That is what Mo Pitney is best for, and something he delivers that few others are in 2020, and nobody this well.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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Purchase Ain’t Lookin’ Back