Nobody took Ricky Van Shelton very seriously when he recorded his first album, Wild-Eyed Dream, in 1987. His pipes were better than average, but his jacket-cover pose — all prime beefcake straining the fibers of a sexy undershirt — made him seem too much of a pretty-boy. And his songs tended to play things too safe. Three platinum albums later, and with Backroads, Van Shelton has succeeded precisely because of his refusal to take musical chances and his manipulation of his image. Van Shelton is the country crooner for the GQ generation, all his rough edges neatly filed off or hidden under his fashionable horseman’s duster. This album, with its jumpy rockabilly tunes, purring ballads, and ”Rockin’ Years” duet with Dolly Parton, shows off his considerable technical skill to its greatest advantage. With more muscle than heart, and more heart than wit, Van Shelton will never be mistaken for an original talent. But he is undeniably one of the genre’s smoothest assimilators — and operators. B+

  • Music