Up through Pure B.S., Shelton’s go-to producer was Bobby Braddock. Braddock produced Shelton’s first three albums as the sole producer, produced the large majority of the tracks on Pure B.S., and then one re-recording off of Starting Fires, a repeat track from Pure B.S.
On Starting Fire, Scott Hendricks became Shelton’s go-to producer. And while Shelton, with some notable exceptions, has continued to make contemporary country, when Hendricks took over production duties is when Shelton’s music began including a heavier pop influence. It seems that Shelton has even indicated his own knowledge that his music has drifted as he has made reference to his new album (still being produced by Hendricks) returning to more country roots.
But the truth is, Shelton’s music was much closer to true country music when Braddock was his producer. Even if his chart success was more sporadic, his music was definitely of higher quality. There were less duds on his albums during this first era of his career. Pure B.S. was arguable his best and most diverse album, and even if it had three different producers, it was still closer to what made Shelton likable to begin with.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Shelton’s quality of music has diminished in its entirety. In fact, with perhaps the exception of “Boys Round Here,” I really still couldn’t see any of Shelton’s songs as being real cross-overs. But his albums have become less consistent. It’s become easier to skip tracks with each album. The title tracks of both of his EPs (“Hillbilly Bone” and “All About Tonight”) were throwaways in quality. Red River Blue easily had three tracks you could skip over and not be missing a thing (“Ready to Roll,” “Get Some,” and “Hey”). And Based on a True Story… had another three throwaway tracks (“Boys Round Here,” “Small Town Big Time,” and “Lay Low”). However, Based on a True Story… did actually have some very high quality album cuts (“I Found Someone,” “Frame of Mine,” and “Do You Remember”).
I would also be remiss not to note that since Starting Fires, Shelton’s albums and EPs have only included four tracks that he wrote or co-wrote. Pure B.S. contained four tracks on its own that he wrote or co-wrote. From his first album through Pure B.S. (his fourth album), he wrote or co-wrote eleven of his songs. That’s a notable difference. Especially considering that the four tracks from this second portion of his career are actually among the more standout songs on the albums. And on his earlier albums as well, his writing stood out among the songs on the albums. Bringing Back the Sunshine contains no tracks to which Shelton contributed to the writing.
It remains to be seen how Bringing Back the Sunshine will meld with this theory. So far, “Neon Light” has proven to be a solid effort at a return to his earlier work. (And while judging by song titles isn’t necessarily a good idea, as titles can be deceiving, from the track listing of Bringing Back the Sunshine, only one title (“Buzzin’”) gives an indication of the bro-country trend.) Therefore, it will remain to be seen if this has been Shelton’s material or his production (or a combination of both) that has been the issue with his inconsistency.