With a smoky, guitar-born melody to lead the charge forward, Cory Keefe kicks out a seductive introduction to his debut album I’ll Keep It Country in “Deeper Well” that could make just about anyone a believer in modern Nashville, but don’t think this is the only fire he’s starting on this record. As we’ll discover in the tempered “She Calls Me Cowboy” and full-bodied title track, Keefe isn’t interested in changing the country music model as loyal fans have come to appreciate it in years past. Instead, he wants to join an elite group of artists to bring the genre back to the forefront of American pop culture, bringing to mind the likes of Garth Brooks and Randy Travis numerous times in I’ll Keep It Country.
“Till Now” picks up the pace a bit, but its sweetest element may well be the delicate way Keefe balances his clandestine vocal harmony with the sweeping rhythm beneath his words. He’s got a lot of self-control, which is one of the biggest issues I see his rivals struggle with when trying to make a rookie album as polished as I’ll Keep It Country is, and it allows for even his looser jams in “Where There’s a Beer There’s a Way” and “I Just Want You” (with Lorrie Morgan) to sound defined by structure over showboating. His natural panache takes center stage in the balladic “That’s Where I Want to Take Our Love (And Settle Down)” and strutting “Young Man Old” the same, proving to be uncontainable regardless of the material’s swing.
There’s no disputing that “Damn Strait” could be a lead single thanks to the enormity of its climax, but you could probably say the same for “Brotherly Love (featuring Dustin Keefe)” due to the latter’s unstoppably endearing harmonies. “Anything” is the greatest critical experiment on I’ll Keep It Country, but it doesn’t break from the creative trajectory of the other songs here entirely. The fluidity of the song is definitely poppy and flirtatious with a folky sensibility I don’t usually hear a lot of in mainstream country, and placed side by side with “When I Breathe” makes its pleasant anomalies all the more impossible for us to ignore. I’ve got a good feeling about the chances he’s taking here, and moreover, what they could yield in his next trip to the recording studio.
I’ll Keep It Country finishes up with a rock-flavored country hoedown via “Going Home” that makes me very curious to see what kind of energy Cory Keefe is going to bring to his live shows in 2021, and with any luck I’ll have the chance to find out for myself by the time summer comes around. His sound would likely make for the perfect companion to a long, hot day spent under American blue skies with a cold beer in one hand, and while I don’t know enough about him to say whether or not he’s going to jet from obscurity to superstardom this year, he’s undeniably delivering some of the best country music I’ve heard in years with this debut album.
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