Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing – Keith Urban
The last year has been full of ups and downs for Aussie Keith Urban, from his June marriage to mega-actress Nicole Kidman to his October check-in to a rehab center for alcohol abuse. The heartthrob balladeer ended 2006 with the release of his latest Capitol Records CD, Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, and he chose a good way to get back on track.

One of Urban’s biggest musical influences is Steve Wariner, and Wariner would have to salute Urban for the picking and crooning on “Faster Car.” Ronnie Dunn stepped in to co-sing the mover “Raise the Barn,” a song inspired by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” shows off the singer’s more serious side and his knack for beautiful melodies. B+

Taking the Long Way – Dixie Chicks
OK, the trio of Texans known as the Dixie Chicks probably clucked more than they should have in the last few years. Regardless, these ladies sure know how to cut a good album, and that’s exactly what Taking the Long Way is.

It’s been four years since Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire recorded a brand-new studio album. This work finds the ladies more mature and humble. A bonus DVD is included, which features live performances from AOL Sessions, new interview footage with record producer Rick Rubin and the video for the album’s first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The Chicks penned all 14 of the songs, with occasional help from the likes of Sheryl Crow and Keb’ Mo’. “I Like It” and “I Hope” are among the prime cuts. A-

I Loved Her First – Heartland
Alabama – both the state and the band – has been uber-instrumental in the launch of Heartland, whose debut single “I Loved Her First” recently ascended to the top spot on the country singles chart. The six members of Heartland hail from Huntsville, Ala., and grew up listening to the mega-band from just an hour away, across Sand Mountain in Ft. Payne. “Alabama had been such a huge influence,” drummer Todd Anderson says. “Alabama was the first concert I went to when I was 6 years old, and they were the greatest band in country music. When we were fortunate enough to play the JuneJam, it really summed it up. There were no other career options after that.”

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And did we mention Heartland chose to record this hit CD down the Tennessee River in the Alabama recording capital of Muscle Shoals? “Freebird in a Firebird” celebrates the glory days of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band gets soulful on “No Getting Over Me,” and “Judge a Man by the Woman” is certainly worth a spin, showcasing lead singer Jason Albert’s pipes. B

Songs of Inspiration – Alabama
Just when you thought Randy Owen and the guys from Alabama were off farming, watching TV, playing with grandkids or running a college (Owen is on the board of trustees for his alma mater, Jacksonville State University), along comes a new CD. Songs of Inspiration is the first release of new recordings from Alabama in more than five years, and it’s also the band’s first all-religious album.

Perhaps the best tracks of the 15 packaged here are the old-timey proven greats: “In the Garden,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” Owen offers two strong originals to close the album, “One Big Heaven” and “Rain,” and says this CD has been a project he’s long wanted to release. Now that they’ve checked this off, perhaps Owen and the boys can give us another great country release real soon. C+

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