Steve Moakler loves to sing for the everyman.
That’s what drove much of his last LP, last year’s stellar Steel Town. It was all over 2014’s almost-as-good Wide Open, especially songs like “Humble Operations” and “Rather Make a Living.” It was certainly there in “Riser,” the song that he and Travis Meadows wrote for Dierks Bentley back in 2014—and the song Bentley loved so much that he built an entire album around it. Like Bruce Springsteen, someone who has become an increasingly evident influence on Moakler’s music over the course of his last three albums, Moakler has a talent for finding beauty in unexpected, unglamorous places.
“Finding beauty in unexpected and unglamorous places” is more or less the mission statement of Born Ready, Moaker’s second album in 15 months. The title track and leadoff single is about long-haul truckers, while early highlight “Breaking New Ground” turns hard labor into a metaphor for perseverance and resilience. Even the album’s big love story song gets the title “One of the Boys,” underlining the everyman theme further.
Still, the characters in these songs aren’t faceless. Moakler’s biggest talent might be for penning hooks—see the infectious, foot-tapping “Hard Not to Love It,” or the instant-singalong of “Crazy Does”—but he’s also the kind of storyteller who can turn quick, smart turns of phrase into rich and organic scene-setters. In “One of the Boys,” Moakler captures a moment in time so vividly that you feel like you’re living it. The night, the friends, the bar, the half-priced drinks, the beautiful girl strolling out of the crowd, the instant attraction, the music, the dancing, the end of the night coming too soon. It’s a love story we’ve probably heard a thousand times in songs—the lyrics of the final chorus even reference that fact—but few writers have ever captured it as deftly as Moakler does here. He takes the tropes and inhabits them, until the song lives and breathes like it’s your own memory.
Such is the case for a lot of the songs on Born Ready. Particularly effective is “Chesney,” a lilting ballad that sounds just like a summer night. “You’re a coke and rum, you’re a trip around the sun/You’re a hammock in the trees, yeah baby/You’re a long July, best one of my life/That cracked CD you gave me/Chesney,” Moakler sings in the first verse. The song is about how music and romance and summertime and long nights sometimes bleed into each other until they become inextricably intertwined. Eventually, those things fade away one by one: the girl, the summer, the nights of youth. But somehow you still have the songs, and they can still bring everything else roaring back, in bright, booming color. “Chesney” is one of those songs that will make you feel nostalgic from the first time you hear it, because we’ve all been there. Again, the story is familiar, but that doesn’t mean that hearing it told in this way won’t make your heart beat a little bit faster.
The highest compliment I can pay Steve Moakler is that listening to him always makes me want to write songs. What he’s so good at—and what very few writers can do as effortlessly—is making it feel like there’s a song waiting anywhere, in anything. They’re out there waiting somewhere on the highway (“Slow Down”), hiding in a cracked CD case at the bottom of a nightstand drawer (“Chesney”), or sitting on your birthday cake at the end of your third decade on the planet (“Thirty”). They might be out at a bar, or behind the wheel of a truck, or on the departures board at an airport. The thing about artists like Moakler is that you can tell that they love writing songs. Writing songs is their way of making sense of the world, of marking time, of documenting moments—both significant and not. There’s no sense of obligation or work to his music, because every song he sings is a piece of who he is. A song like “Hard Not to Love It” could be a hit for any A-lister in country music right now—maybe even Kenny Chesney himself—but no one else could ever sing it as well as Moakler does, because no one else could quite capture the palpable joy he pours into his songs. I’m sure most artists truly love music, but not many make sure you know it as much Steve Moakler.