A Tip of the Hat to Country

** 1/2 CLINT BLACK "Put Yourself in My Shoes" RCA

Black's 2-million-selling debut album last year presented a newcomer who seemed more than just another wide grin under a wide brim--though he proudly sports both. Not only could he sing real purdy, but he could write, with songs such as "Killin' Time" offering new twists on the old bar-stool philosophizing and straying from the Strait and narrow path.

But instead of staking out his own niche with this follow-up, the Texan strives too hard to be all things to all fans. He's a honky-tonk swinger here, a restless balladeer there, a working stiff, a lover . . . never just Clint Black. He's capable of keen observations and neat turns of phrases, but often settles for such things as "No man is an island, but I'm still all alone"--one in a sea of nautical cliches in the Jimmy Buffett-like "Gulf of Mexico."

When he hits, he hits high: "The Old Man" is an impressive meditation on mortality, with Black musing, "Will I ever be the old man who's too far gone?" But more often the album hinges on the music (expertly executed, but there's not a lick that's not recycled) and Black's voice (he's good, but hardly the pure singer that, say, Randy Travis is). And that leaves pretty much just the grin and the brim.

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