Let’s talk about the elephant in the room before I get stuck into this review. Shane Richie has been in EastEnders. There we go, I’ve said it so you don’t have to. In some corners that seems to have given people the idea that because Richie is known for one thing, he shouldn’t be trying to do anything else. Despite having been an all-round entertainer since the mid-80s, when Richie announced he was releasing not just a new album, but a Country music album, people seemed to be surprised. Without hearing any of the music, people were quick to criticise Richie but the last laugh is on them because he’s about to prove everybody wrong with A Country Soul.
Firstly if Richie were trying to cash in by rushing out an album pre-Christmas, he likely wouldn’t have chosen to do a Country record. In fact when he met labels they tried to convince him to do a swing album but he stuck to his guns. Secondly if you spend a little time talking to him, you’ll soon learn that he has an extensive knowledge of the genre, which is the result of a long-time passion for Country not because he brushed up in a bid for chart glory.
A Country Soul is a 13-track album that includes 3 original songs and an interesting selection of covers. Looking through the track listing, unless you’re a hardcore Country buff you’ve likely not come across too many of the songs before. The most obvious ones here are covers of Rascal Flatt’s What Hurts the Most and Wagon Wheel, which is thanks to Darius Rucker’s chart dominating version, and Richie’s takes on both of them are well worth a listen.
The album opens with Heartache on the Dance Floor, which sticks closely to the Jon Pardi original. It also serves as a bridge between classic and modern Country, something that Pardi is working to his advantage and clearly it’s working for him. Richie’s vocal on the track is grittier than Pardi’s, he conveys more life experience through his vocals, something that is notable throughout the record.
A cover of Heartland’s I Loved Her First follows. The song was a number one hit for the band and Richie uses it as an opportunity to show off a more soulful side of his voice. It’s one of the strongest covers on the record and Richie puts his own stamp on it. The tempo picks up with Pat Green’s Wave on Wave, which is a true singalong moment that I can imagine going down well during Richie’s live set. It’s an infectious song but one that a lot of people in the UK may not have heard before.
A Country Soul features Country takes on some non-Country songs. Nik Kershaw’s I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me has a joyous hoe-down feel to it and Stephen Stills’ Love the One You’re With has a more rootsy flavour while retaining some of the soulful edge of the original. They are both interesting moments on the record and Richie’s versions flow perfectly with the rest of the record.
For me the true triumphs on the album are the three original tracks. Shut Up (‘Cause All I Want Is You), written with Richie’s son Jake, hits the modern Country/pop sound perfectly and it’s a ready-for-radio moment that could easily be a hit for him. Piano ballad That Bottle Ain’t Your Friend hits close to home dealing with Richie’s well-documented troubles with drink in the past. It also takes a popular Country music trope and packs plenty of emotion into it. 22 Gardens, which closes the record, is a marriage of soul and Country as Richie recounts a true story from his childhood. It’s a wonderful track and a fitting end to the album.
Elsewhere on the record Richie grooves out on the dreamy cover of Stephen Bishop’s On and On, puts an acoustic live feel to Eagles’ Heartache Tonight, and proves he can handle a stirring ballad on Dobie Gray’s Drift Away.
I truly hope that people take a chance on A Country Soul. This is a passion project for Richie and he’s poured his heart and soul into it. My only criticism is that I would have preferred more originals but from speaking with Richie recently, I know he shares my sentiments. I’m sure there’s a portion of people who will have made their mind up about the album without having listened to it and that’s a real shame. Put your pre-conceptions to one side and take a chance on A Country Soul. You may just find that Richie’s recorded a better album than you’re expecting and shock horror, you’ll discover it’s actually pretty damn good.
Track list: 1. Heartache on the Dance Floor 2. I Loved Her First 3. Wave on Wave 4. Shut Up (‘Cause All I Want Is You) 5. I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me 6. What Hurts the Most 7. Wagon Wheel 8. Heartache Tonight 9. That Bottle Ain’t Your Friend 10. Love the One You’re With 11. On and On 12. Drift Away 13. 22 Gardens Record label: East West Release date: 10th November 2017