Beneath the standard country-music conceits of A Little More Livin’, Trent Willmon is afraid. A Little More Livin’ is a funny record, using humor to mask the uneasiness that accompanies the collision of machismo with the far more troubling, elusive and tantalizing prospect of satisfying, and keeping, a good woman. Musically, it’s satisfying—if hardly groundbreaking—with anthemic choruses that undercut the straightforward verses and plenty of atmospheric guitar and fiddle.
A native of Amarillo, Texas, the 33-year-old Willmon is a competent singer who can sound a bit too calculating. Like Brad Paisley, Willmon often comes across as unknowable and technocratic, and when he tries to express a big emotion he usually telegraphs it. So, in “Good Horses to Ride,” a piece of received Western-mythos songwriting by Willmon and David Frasier, he inserts an unnecessary pause in the line, “He’s got good horses to ride.” Throughout A Little More, he sounds insincere and a touch sententious. As do many country singers, he professes belief in the traditional male virtue of underplaying emotions while overplaying his presentation of those emotions.
The relaxed “Ropin’ Pen” illustrates the limits and the virtues of Willmon’s vision, even as it works as a beautifully performed and recorded piece of music. “Twenty-thousand-dollar horses and then there’s my old stick / But we’re all the same the minute we ride in / To the ropin’ pen,” he sings. It’s an idealized portrait of male bonding, with a nagging sense of insecurity coloring Willmon’s tale of friendship that transcends class barriers. “We don’t do it for the money; hell, we’re always broke,” Willmon declares.
“Ropin’ Pen” has its heart in the right place, but it’s unintentionally bathetic, as when Willmon tells the story of his friend Nathan, who “lost a couple wives, half the fingers on his hands.” Willmon seems far more comfortable with this sort of hard-luck tale than with the struggles of everyday life. Or it could be that the simplistic moralizing of a song like “Ropin’ Pen” doesn’t carry the same sort of weight as Willmon’s comic attempts to rationalize his relationships with women.
A Little More Livin’ is a conceptual work in the same way as, say, Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. The difference is simply one of idiom, since Willmon seems as obsessive about sorting out his feelings about women as does Costello. “Sometimes I Miss Ya” finds the singer “laid up on a creek bank with a cold one in my hand,” wondering what happened to his relationship with a classy woman with “big-city ways.” And “Sometimes I Miss Ya” contains the record’s emblematic line: “You can’t blame a country boy for tryin’.”
What bothers Willmon in “Sometimes I Miss Ya” is the changeable nature of women. “I sold all the cows and put it down on a house / You just had to have / You changed your mind but that’s all right / We only lost about 9 or 10 grand,” he sings. He gets off one of the record’s masterstrokes when he declares, “By the time your boyfriend-slash-lawyer / Came to pick you up in his shiny new Jaguar / I was flat broke,” sarcastically emphasizing the word “slash.” And as a pop-music conceit, these lines recall a couplet from Imperial Bedroom: “A year after the wedding, he broke all their china plates / He’s in prison, now she’s running with his mates.”
Like Costello, Willmon inhabits an imaginary landscape where fantasies run amok, marriages break up, men go broke trying to be breadwinners and nasty things happen in the name of love. Willmon’s songs occur in a playground of exurban rural space, while Costello prefers the perfumed bedrooms of the upper classes; still, the British-Invasion materials Costello uses are no more or less artificial than Willmon’s Music Row guitar moves.
Where A Little More Livin’ gets complicated—where the humor seems uneasy—is on two songs about Willmon and women. “So Am I” finds Willmon working on his car while his wife hangs out clothes. “That old Maytag’s broke / And so am I / But she loves the life we’re livin’,” he sings. This being country music, his wife is named Daisy, the song is set in Mississippi and poverty is described as an idyll: “We love the life we’re living / Feels so good skinny-dippin’ / Skin drippin’ and long legs kickin’.”
“On Again Tonight” doesn’t treat marriage as an ideal state; in fact, this song describes a marriage that has either ended or is about to. “Space is a beautiful thing / When you need some room,” Willmon sings. “I don’t know about you / But I’m lonely right now.” “On Again” demonstrates how songwriting can use banal details to open up a narrative: Willmon invites his wife to “drink my best bottle of wine,” and then offers to come to her place, where he’ll drink “her best bottle of wine.” One gets the sense that her wine is better than his.
Where Willmon brings his fear (and his life, if not his wife) under control is the brilliant “Surprise,” where his tone manages to be both ribald and detached and the narrative very funny indeed. In this song, Willmon feels guilty about working too much and decides to go home early, which is always a mistake in a pop song. “I dropped that bottle of wine / When I flipped on the light,” he sings. And what does he see? His friend and his wife in bed, with her in “leather and spikes” and him “handcuffed to the bed.”
Although you might surmise that Willmon is getting his comeuppance, the song takes the usual expected unexpected turn. “The judge gave her all I had / And did the same for my friend / His Lexus and his house / All went to his spouse,” Willmon sings, in a formulation that is worthy of Costello. Willmon ends up with his ex-friend’s ex-wife, moves into the “ex-high-rise,” contemplates a trip to Disneyland, and gloats, “Yeah, I knew he was rich, but damn / Hell, I can retire.” Trent Willmon might pine for the wide-open spaces, but “Surprise” proves that sometimes Disneyland is enough stimulation for any country boy.