Forget coastal rap beefs; bitter feuds between pop divas; or rock'n'roll's most infamous sibling rivalries. Despite what you may assume, music's most interesting point of contention is the one between mainstream and alt country, which aren't so much branches of the same genre as completely opposed M.O.'s, with detractors dismissing one as twangy pop and the other as rusty traditionalism. Few artists can pull off straddling that divide like Donovan Woods, but he does it time and again on his new LP, Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled.
The burgeoning troubadour hails from Sarnia, Ontario, but he's no mere hometown hero. Rather, Woods has written for country's biggest names in the genre's international capital, counting Nashville royalty like Tim McGraw and Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley among the artists who have covered his songs. In the same vein as all-time great country scribes like Kris Kristofferson, Donovan is now releasing his own take on the latter song. His rendition of "Leaving Nashville" is far more hushed than Kelley's, with spindly strings as opposed to the Antebellum frontman's grandiose accompanying piano and dramatic vocals. Woods makes the song sound worn and lived in, and therefore all the more relatable and effective.
Much of Hard Settle is equally low-key, contemplative and melancholy, especially "They Don't Make Anything In That Town," "We Never Met" and "Between Cities," but the opening track has a much tougher edge, with Woods adopting a raspy delivery reminiscent of early Steve Earle. The most distinctive song on the LP, though, is "Do I Know Your Name?" It boasts lighting-quick fingerpicking and even more rapid singing, along with grand sweeping percussion and keys that will lift listeners to the stratosphere. Indeed, Woods is not above the occasionally surging flourish that so many of his Nashville pals are known for; he just knows how to use those dramatic shifts to greater effect.
By balancing such fringe and mainstream elements so effortlessly, Woods looks poised to finally bring those disparate camps together. Before long, it'll be Tim McGraw looking up to Woods, and not the other way around. (Meant Well)