Today, "country rock" tends to refer to rock songs that bear a passing resemblance to country music, but they happen to be about living in the country and are thus acceptable for country radio. That wasn't always the case. Artists like Marty Stuart, the Kentucky Headhunters and Steve Earle had hits with rock influences, but those songs never ended up sounding like Bon Jovi with a steel guitar. They were rougher-edged, admittedly, and they may have been louder and more raucous than the competition, but they were unmistakably country.
The Dirt Drifters fit right into that vein. This quintet consists of a three-guitar attack (lead singer Matt Fleener, Ryan Fleener and Jeff Middleton) backed by a strong rhythm section (bassist Jeremy Little and drummer Nick Diamond). Far from being a cacophonous mess with screaming guitars and crashing drums on every song, the band knows when to dial it down as well as when to crank it up. Something Better kicks off the album with a driving drum beat and some nice interplay between the lead and steel guitar. Fleener has a strong voice with just enough grit to fit in the upbeat songs, but he also shows a surprising tender side with Hurt Somebody.
At their best, the Dirt Drifters call to mind Chris Knight, who's also spent his career writing about people that are flawed and life that's unvarnished and occasionally tragic. The bar hoppers in Always a Reason are more interested in drowning their sorrows than partying. The blue-collar worker in Name on My Shirt may be proud of his work, but he's aware of the toll it's taken. The album even has a body count, courtesy of Married Men and Motel Rooms, a cautionary tale for any would-be cheater. It's a standout piece of songwriting, giving enough details to paint the scene while leaving plenty to the listener's imagination.
I'll Shut Up Now is a rare misfire, a criticism of everything in modern society from the environment to Barry Bonds using steroids. Like some other topical songs - see Toby Keith's American Ride - the list of pop culture references is too scattershot to really hit home, though there is an amusing reference to Willie Nelson's latest brush with the law that features a cameo from Nelson himself. The title track, too, is a paint-by-numbers list of everything that they are proud of, and it naturally includes the standard topics of the USA, Jesus and family. But the negatives here are small when compared to the positives.
The Dirt Drifters have toured together for several years, and it shows. "This Is My Blood" sounds like the third or fourth release from a band that's become comfortable a unit and is just starting to hit its stride. It is a debut album though, and as such, it makes the band one of the best discoveries of the year.