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Shelton, McGraw and Chesney make places in the middle

Shelton, McGraw and Chesney make places in the middle
Blake Shelton performing at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio in 2012. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Is Blake Shelton country music's youngest traditionalist or its eldest bro?

You could think of the 38-year-old singer either way when he appeared on the Grammy Awards in January with three of the genre's wizened veterans. Performing "Okie from Muskogee" alongside Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, Shelton was savoring his proximity to the legends who had inspired him.

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But he also brought a visible smirk to Haggard's song about the sanctity of old-fashioned values. "We don't make no party out of loving," he sang, even as his sparkling eyes seemed open to the idea.

A natural bridge-builder whose affability makes him a perfect fit as Nashville's delegate on "The Voice," Shelton maintains that delicate balance on his shrewd new album, "Bringing Back the Sunshine," which came out Tuesday and immediately topped the iTunes chart. It's the kind of country record where the singer can recall ignoring hip-hop as a kid in favor of "George and Keith and Vern and Alabama," then turn around and pull off a pretty convincing hip-hop song.

But if Shelton is a uniquely smooth operator, he's not the only guy in his position. Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, both of whom released new albums last month, are also figuring out how to fit between the restrained country stars of a previous generation, such as George Strait and Alan Jackson, and the rowdier young men on their way up, including Sam Hunt and the bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line. Their effectiveness varies.

You can tell that Shelton, who's set to perform Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl, is thinking about his place in Nashville. Near the end of "Bringing Back the Sunshine," he offers up "Good Country Song" -- about the qualities enshrined in just such a tune – then follows it with "Anyone Else," which appears to take aim at a fellow star unwilling to give Shelton his due.

"Are you ever sincere?" he asks over a moody, slow-motion shuffle, "Did they treat you like this when you showed up here?"

The indignation is bracing, a potent new trick Shelton may have picked up from his wife, Miranda Lambert. But it's the exception on "Bringing Back the Sunshine," which otherwise emphasizes Shelton's equanimity in polished party songs like "Just Gettin' Started" and the optimistic title track. This ability to shift mind-sets comes easily to him, at least in part because he believes it's no big deal.

Which doesn't mean he's not strategic in his approach. One of Shelton's signature moves is gently lampooning a device while using it, a means of keeping a foot in two camps at the same time. Last year he scored a huge hit with "Boys 'Round Here," in which he rapped about not being able to do the Dougie, the popular hip-hop dance; here, he rides a similarly effective groove in "Buzzin' " as he admits that his "twerking … still ain't working yet."

Springy hip-hop beats drive other songs on the album, including the cheerful come-on "Gonna" and "Neon Light," about finding hope in a bar after a breakup. But Shelton settles down (and ages up) in "Lonely Tonight," a pleading, Porter-and-Dolly-style duet with Ashley Monroe, and the seductive "Sangria," which shimmers like something from Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" – honest roots music for a part-time Angeleno born in the mid 1970s.

At 47, McGraw has a longer memory than Shelton, and he relies on it for "Meanwhile Back at Mama's," the highlight from his 13th studio disc, "Sundown Heaven Town." It's a borderline-gothic country-folk ballad, untouched by hip-hop, about pining for "the things you thought you'd never miss in a world gone crazy as this."

Yet as convincingly mournful as McGraw sounds against the song's austere setting, the rest of "Sundown Heaven Town" suggests he's not ready to commit to a style that might turn off his younger listeners. So he juices "Dust" with whoa-oh-oh vocals borrowed from Coldplay and layers the Auto-Tuned sex talk of "Lookin' for That Girl" over a dinky club track.

That kind of outreach has paid off for McGraw before, as when he and Nelly scored a country-rap hit in 2004 with "Over and Over." Here though, the oily, overworked music feels less eager than desperate, especially compared to the more instinctive blend of country and dance elements in current hits like Hunt's "Leave the Night On" and "Burnin' It Down" by Jason Aldean.

Chesney oozes no such desperation on "The Big Revival," where the 46-year-old proudly owns his over-the-hill status in songs such as "If This Bus Could Talk," detailing the decades he's spent on the road, and "Wild Child," a warm (if faintly patronizing) tribute to a woman more adventurous than he is.

"You never heard of her favorite band unless you been to Bonnaroo or Burning Man," Chesney sings, happily resigned to his middle-aged tastes. As usual, he exercises those preferences – booming drums, arena-rock guitars – with muscled confidence; rest assured that "Drink It Up" and "Beer Can Chicken" will survive the coming winter for use next summer.

Though the result is certainly more dignified than McGraw's record, it's far less lovable than Shelton's, which makes you wonder: What good is "The Big Revival" if it's not creating converts?

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Twitter: @mikaelwood

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