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The CMAs And Old Dominion Showcase An Elastic, Expansive Country Style


This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker watched the recent Country Music Association Award Show and was mightily impressed with a duet between Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake. He's also been listening to the debut album of the band Old Dominion called "Meat And Candy," and here's the album and that TV appearance as more proof that the definition of country music is becoming more elastic. Here's how Timberlake led into the duet on his song "Drink You Away."


JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Nashville, how you feeling tonight? Can I put a little Memphis up in here? (Singing) Yeah, here we go. Bittersweet thing, could this be a dream or just the same nightmare that keeps me awake?

CHRIS STAPLETON: (Singing) Feel it in my brain...


STAPLETON: (Singing) ...Toss out the pain. Pour a little up now for the love that we made.

TIMBERLAKE AND STAPLETON: (Singing) And I feel it in the morning. You're still here in the morning. I see you, but you're going to telephone the doctor, I'm not OK. The bottom of the bottle to fill this empty heart up. A thousand proof don't change the truth. I tried it, but I can't - I can't drink you away. I've tried Jack, I've tried gin, I've tried all of them in. I can't drink you away.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: TV award shows are usually planned and scripted to create crowd-pleasing moments that seem spontaneous, which made the high point of the recent broadcast of the Country Music Association Awards a real surprise. The night featured a series of rock and pop stars duetting with country stars. And on paper, matching the smooth Justin Timberlake with the sandpapery Chris Stapleton was an intriguingly quirky notion. Show co-host Brad Paisley introduced them by saying we would hear the Nashville sound meets the soul music of Memphis. He was right and then some. The duo started singing "Tennessee Whiskey" from Stapleton's recent album, "Traveller," which I reviewed for FRESH AIR. Then they segued into Timberlake's song "Drink You Away," and you couldn't help but lean toward the TV screen letting the pleasure and passion of the musicians pour into you. With harmonies from Stapleton's wife, Morgane, they traded versus. Stapleton's rumble proved remarkably elastic and wry. Timberlake phrased like an R and B crooner and a soul shouter. Delicacy met power.


STAPLETON: (Singing) You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey. You're as sweet as strawberry wine. You're as warm as a glass of brandy. Honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time.

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I looked for love in all the same old places. Found the bottom of the bottle's always dry. But when you poured out your heart, I didn't waste it 'cause there's nothing like your love to get me high.

STAPLETON: (Singing) You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey. You're as sweet.

TUCKER: The cameras panned across the audience of industry insiders and fans, which until that moment, had been politely attentive. Now they were on their feet clapping to the beat, their mouths open to sing along, to cheer, their faces creased with joy - happy shock. It was one of those moments when barriers of genre and hardened notions of what constitutes country or pop collapsed. A new band trying to keep those barriers down is Old Dominion, which has had a big hit with this song "Break Up With Him."


OLD DOMINION: (Singing) Hey girl, what's up? I know it's late, but I knew you'd pick it up. No, I ain't drunk. OK, maybe I do have a little buzz, but that song came on and I just thought what harm could come from one little call? I know you say you're taken, but I say, girl, you're taking too long to tell him that it's over. Then bring it on over. Stringing him along any longer, girl, is just wasting precious time. Girl, you know I can't wait. Rip it off just like a Band-Aid. The way you look at me, girl, you can't pretend. I know you ain't in love with him. Break up with him.

TUCKER: Old Dominion is a quintet of singer-songwriter musicians who between them have written hits for Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley, The Band Perry and songs for the TV show "Nashville." Their album was produced by Shane McAnally, best known as a songwriter in which capacity he is immensely successful - the current high priest of pop country. Together, they all make country music that shows the influence of hip-hop and dance music and which can set the teeth of purists on edge. Check out, for example, the jittery stutter beat of "Wrong Turns."


OLD DOMINION: (Singing) Stopped and got a little gasoline at the old B and P. Rolled around and wound up in the middle of BFE. Spinning these wheels down a road that we ain't never seen. Who knows where we are? I get a little more lost every time I look in her eyes. It's hard to keep my hands on the wheel when she's looking so fine. I ride down any back road that she wants me to drive with the seat laid back running fingers through my hair watching miles go by like she just don't care. Looking at me with one thing on her mind. Whoa, I guess I'm making all the right wrong turns tonight.

TUCKER: "Meat And Candy" is both an enjoyable and a calculated album - very clever and very self-conscious. It certainly has none of the spontaneity that made the performance of Timberlake and Stapleton at the CMAs so surprising. But Old Dominion's music shares with that TV moment a desire to upend expectations of what country music is supposed to do, how authentic country music is supposed to sound. It's not a revolution, but it's a welcome evolution with the potential to become something more substantial and long-lasting.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, signing away your right to sue. New York Times reporter Jessica Silver-Greenberg says Supreme Court decisions now permit fine print in customer service agreements for everything from cell phone service to nursing homes that force consumers to take their complaints to binding arbitration preventing them from joining in class action lawsuits - hope you can join us. In honor of Veteran's Day, we're closing with music performed by the Bay State Winds of the United States Air Force. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.