Baby-cheeked Wade Hayes may only be 25 years old, but he's been a professional musician for a dozen years and he has already developed that understated baritone drawl that served his heroes George Jones and Merle Haggard so well. Perhaps that's why Oklahoma's Hayes sounds like a seasoned honky-tonker on his debut album, Old Enough to Know Better
, while so many of his fellow "baby hat acts" sound like hotel-lounge singers still trying to get used to the sound of a fiddle.
Don Cook, who leaned in a country-rock direction as producer for the Mavericks and Brooks & Dunn, tilts toward old-fashioned honky-tonk as Hayes's producer. Cook also contributes four of his own songs (including "Kentucky Bluebird," which he wrote for Keith Whitley), and Nashville legend Harlan Howard adds two more. Three of the best tunes, though, come from Hayes and his cowriter Chick Rains. As a result, Old Enough to Know Better boasts far better material than the usual hackwork given to young crooners in cowboy hats.
Hayes digs into the songs with his deep, resonant baritone and ponders the conflicts that complicate a man's life. On Cook's ballad, "What I Meant to Say," Hayes holds out certain notes as if to suggest all the feelings he still can't find words for. On his own ballad, "I'm Still Dancin' with You," the reluctance in his voice describes his breakup with a recent lover even better than the lyrics. The title track, another Hayes-Rains composition, has a Brooks & Dunn-like dance rhythm, but Hayes's weary, guilt-ridden vocal undermines the words' carefree, partying attitude. --Geoffrey Himes