Freddy Powers, Johnny Bush, Randy Rogers, Jason Boland, Eric Hisaw, Leo Stokes, and George Strait

Country Mile

Texas Platters

Talk about a horse of a different color: Big & Rich, the songwriter-performers who brought bling-bling to Nashville on "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," contribute the decidedly un-bling title track to Austinite and longtime Merle Haggard guitarist Freddy Powers' My Great Escape (Hag). Powers co-wrote the album's other 11 songs, each as comfortable as an old boot, Hag crooning what it's all about on "Old Country Singer." Johnny Bush has been around longer than some of the titles on his excellent Honky Tonic (BGM), as in "Did We Have to Come This Far to Say Goodbye" and the hilarious "Leave My Mama Out of This." Duets with Kevin Fowler and Stephanie Urbina Jones, sparkling covers of jukebox essentials "I'll Be There" and "What Made Milwaukee Famous," and jovial horseplay with Cooder Graw on Willie Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk" prove there's a lot more to Bush than "Whiskey River." (He wrote that, you know.) The vets still have a leg up on young bucks Randy Rogers and Jason Boland, whose new offerings are promising but uneven. Produced by Radney Foster, Rogers' Rollercoaster (Smith) can't quite escape Pat Green's frat-centric shadow, although "Ten Miles Deep" is toothier than anything on Green's bland new Lucky Ones. On the sleepy, subdued Somewhere in the Middle (Smith), Boland shoots for the warts-and-all style of his hero Billy Joe Shaver – who duets on a scruffy "Thunderbird Wine" – but he and producer Lloyd Maines should've tightened the screws a few notches. And maybe sprung for a case of Red Bull. Faring better are Eric Hisaw, whose Another Great Dream of You EP carries on the stout yet sensitive twang of his Thing About Trains debut, and newcomer Leo Stokes, whose Good Place to Start is fiddle-heavy classic dance-hall country that never goes out of style. Neither does George Strait, whose 50 Number Ones (MCA Nashville) opens with current chart-topper "I Hate Everything." Heavy on the ballads that the ladies so adore, 50 is loaded with calfskin-smooth examples of why Strait is rightly considered country's own Sinatra. Speaking of ladies, in the wake of all this testosterone, it's worth mentioning that the 2004 song to beat is Austinite Pauline Reese's melancholy "One Less Honky Tonk." Here's hoping there's always at least one honky-tonk around for her to play.

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