Moreso than other popular genres, country music is generally kind to second-generation performers, with the offspring of both A-list superstars (Rosanne Cash, Pam Tillis) and lesser-known industry players (Natalie Maines, Chely Wright) building successful careers that hold up independent of their lineage. Falling into the former camp are Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen, first cousins and sons of Jeff Hanna and John McEuen, founding members of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Preceded by a well-received cover of “Lowlands” they recorded for Circle III (the album that marked the 30th anniversary of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken) and a deafening buzz from Nashville, Hanna-McEuen stands to establish the two cousins as artists worthy of their pedigree. And, if not the strongest debut album shipped from Music Row in 2005 (Miranda Lambert’s Kerosene casts quite the shadow), Hanna-McEuen is more immediately impressive than the year’s debuts from fellow legacies Shooter (son of Waylon) Jennings and Holly (granddaughter of Hank) Williams.
The most compelling elements of Hanna-McEuen’s sound stem from the interplay between their individual talents—both men are accomplished guitarists and fine, expressive singers, and it’s the way they construct their vocal harmonies (which, on the chorus of opener “Fool Around,” recall the best of The Louvin Brothers) and supporting guitar structures that elevates Hanna-McEuen above mainstream country’s other “duo” acts. Unlike Brooks & Dunn, for instance, Hanna and McEuen split the spotlight evenly, and unlike Montgomery Gentry, they’re actually good musicians. Since they sing dual lead vocals on most tracks, perhaps the best comparison is to Big & Rich, though Hanna-McEuen’s harmonies are more adventurous and lacking in hoyay. Again, that’s the real selling point of Hanna-McEuen: it sounds fantastic, as executive producer Jeff Stroud (who has worked with what seems like every major artist in Nashville since 1980) foregrounds Hanna’s and McEuen’s innate talents.
It’s interesting that the album’s weakness is its songwriting, since, with the exception of “Read Between The Lies,” all of the songs were written by either Hanna or McEuen with separate collaborators. With too many of the tracks bogged down in the genre’s tendency toward cutesy wordplay (“Fool Around” fares worst, though “Rock And A Heartache” puts up a good fight) and mundane storytelling (“Prayer For You” has been written and recorded thousands of times over, and just as well), Hanna-McEuen would do well to turn the same critical attention to the content of each other’s songwriting as they do to the way they perform those songs. If the writing is too pedestrian to live up to their fathers’ legendary work, Hanna-McEuen nonetheless gives promise that they’re likely to get there eventually and establishes a solid foundation for what should be an artistically rich career.