Although the third album by alternative rock/post-grunge band Staind had a very commercial edge in places, a commercial feel which the band retained over each subsequent release, few could have predicted that their frontman Aaron Lewis’s first solo release would be a country record. Despite making his name with hard rock music, Lewis was raised on country and has chosen to put his stamp on it with ‘Town Line’ – a five song EP featuring guest spots by Chris Young, fiddle player Charlie Daniels (best known for his 1979 hit ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’) and the legendary George Jones.

The single release ‘Country Boy’ has a strong acoustic base, coupled with an almost marching quality on the drums. Despite a great use of slide guitar and a definite rootsy feel, it’s clear why this was chosen as the lead track. The vocal is unmistakably that of Aaron Lewis, and here, his heartfelt delivery keeps in line with the sound of Staind’s power ballads. Despite occasional scraping fiddle from Daniels (who also delivers a slightly cringe-worthy monologue at the close), it’s the perfect vehicle for breaking listeners in gently.

At times elsewhere, things get a little more country. Obviously, Lewis’s style isn’t one of old-school country and western syrupiness, but it’s not always as influenced by country-rock as you’d expect either. The most country-rock number, ‘Vicious Circle’ sounds like a country re-working of a Hootie & The Blowfish ballad. Beneath atmospheric and twanging electric guitar work, it’s the acoustic guitars, lapsteels and dobros which provide the heart of the number. Naturally, these instruments are a world away from Staind’s world of hard rock. The spaciousness of the arrangement allows Lewis the room to deliver a very powerful performance. It’s definitely the stand-out track, with each of the elements sounding very strong indeed.

A re-recording of the Staind number ‘Tangled Up In You’ offers the most uninspired track. While Lewis’s performance is faultless and the harmonies on the chorus are pleasing, overall, it presents little difference to the original recording. The Staind original was an acoustic lament anyway – and the only concession to making the number fit the country mould is the addition of a soft lapsteel throughout. A harmony vocal from Alexa Carter, which becomes most obvious at the song’s close, adds a little extra something, but it’s hardly a groundbreaking performance. ‘The Story Never Ends’ is probably the most country influenced track. It’s music-television new-country by numbers as opposed to a old-school hoedown, but again, Lewis sounds comfortable in his country shoes. Chris Young’s harmony vocals provide some great backing on a well-constructed chorus.

Lewis takes his country influences fairly seriously throughout this release. While this change in direction may seem odd at first, nothing sounds unnatural – he has a definite feeling for this musical style. If country music is good enough for Hootie’s Darius Rucker then it’s good enough for others (though, make no mistake, Lewis’s solo debut doesn’t get quite that country) but even so, it’s hard to say whether many Staind fans will embrace Aaron Lewis’s change of direction here. This is a release that is undoubtedly going to be too country for most Staind fans, yet not country enough for country music fans…but even so, it presents a short, yet solid set of songs.

[The five new recordings are augmented with two bonus versions of ‘Country Boy’, in both acoustic form and a radio edit]

March 2011