Chris Cagle is one of those underrated country artists who has found moderate success and built a decent fan base over the past fifteen years without actually becoming what could be considered a household name. He’s had a couple of gold records, had a couple of records hit No. 1 on the country sales charts, but he’s never had the name recognition of superstars like Kenny Chesney or Jason Aldean. (It says something about the country music market when a guy with two Number 1 records is only “moderately” successful.)
Now, after four years of silence, Cagle is back with a new release, Back in the Saddle. The question is—will this one be enough to take him to the top?
Honestly, the jury is still out on that one.
On the plus side, Back In the Saddle reflects a more grown-up version of Chris Cagle, who has spent the “off-time” being a family man on his ranch in Oklahoma. The songs reflect a depth and maturity that was lacking on earlier hits like “Chicks Dig It,” and Cagle blends an honest country sound with just enough rock & roll to make it relevant in the modern country market. Also, to his credit, Cagle is nearly flawless as a vocalist, and the subject matter on his new record is diverse and interesting. From the hat-tip to the fairer sex in “Let There Be Cowgirls” to the defiant self-reliance in “I’ll Grow My Own,” there’s plenty of great country music here. All these factors could genuinely put this album into a larger playing field.
But alas, there is an Achille’s heel on this record. It’s a subtle flaw within the songwriting that happens several times on the track list, something that all but the more trained ears might miss, but it could be just enough to keep it in the mediocre category. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it the “almost hook.” There are these moments when Cagle is just getting to the payoff of the chorus, but then it seems he doesn’t know what to do with his voice, because the melody line doesn’t take him anywhere—and the result is a flat anti-climax to what could otherwise have been a killer hook. It doesn’t happen just once. It happens in the opening track “Got My Country On,” and on “I’ll Grow My Own,” and in a few other places, too. It’s a weakness in the songwriting that causes some otherwise outstanding lyricism and melody lines to trip up at the finish line, and while it’s subtle, it could be enough to turn people off without them really knowing why they don’t like it. Sadly, it’s also one of those nuances that can make the difference between a good album and a great one.
And so I’m torn. I’m torn because I’m sort of pulling for Chris Cagle—I see the potential in him. Back In the Saddle has enough going for it that it would be a welcome addition in the music libraries of country fans, but I don’t know if it’s enough to take him to the next level. Cagle might be stuck with “moderate” success for just awhile longer.
ALBUM RATING: 3 Stars (out of five)