With what passes for mainstream country nowadays forgoing any direct relation to "country," as it dives headlong into maudlin pop-music territory, it's ironic that Mike Ireland makes a living on the fringes of the genre by dabbling in the sounds of country music's first accused "sell-out" era -- the Nashville Sound. Popularized in the late '60s by record producer Billy Sherrill, the Nashville Sound was defined by lush strings, soaring vocals, and a nearly (Phil) Spector-ian layered production. Reviled by country purists of the times, Sherrill's sound became clichéd over the years and is probably still the most freely associated archetype in country music history. On his debut disc, Learning How to Live
, an odd marriage of Nashville Sound and SubPop rock, Ireland comes off as the man Tammy Wynette was damn sure gonna stand by. Horns and strings are plentiful, but so are the themes of heartache, drinking, divorce, anger, and even murder. Ireland has a penchant for capturing the very spirit of Sherrill's vision for country music, and not unlike Sherrill's efforts, the music really shimmers when it frames a fantastic lyric. Between labels and with a second disc in the offing, Ireland and his band Holler continue on by endlessly touring, bringing terrific live performances of a sound once thought to be dead to both the savvy and the uninitiated country music fan. While Shania-era country blands itself to death in attempts to cross over to the pop world, Ireland keeps a true sense of country in his music and a bit of reverence for what country was when country wasn't cool.