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Kristin Chenoweth

Some Lessons Learned – 2011 (Sony Masterworks)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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CDs by Kristin Chenoweth

If someone were to propose the following: let's take a Broadway Baby with an operatic voice, throw in a copious set of Diane Warren songs and call it a country album, would you run for the hills? This project had red flag written all over it. The smart money would have expected the female version of Josh Groban in a cowboy hat: an album filled with more syrup than all the Waffle houses in the South.

Welcome to one of the biggest surprises of the year, and the best country conversion since Jewel and Darius Rucker. Chenoweth (of "Wicked" and TV/film fame) clearly understands that songs with broad reach and sass help keep the genre alive. So she offers chucklers like What Would Dolly Do, with the refrain "W-W-Double-D" and I Want Somebody (Bitch About) . I Didn't, another smile-widener, brings the full-on honky tonk. We're also treated to Dolly herself, who penned Change - that Partonesque imprint of simplicity with deep emotion is unmistakable and given great reverence here.

As a singer, Chenoweth's voice has a deep stockpile of tricks. She deftly wrings feeling out of the dolesome numbers without overdoing it - no small feat for someone who can sing above High C. But major credit must be given that the production team didn't offer up yet another country record overloaded with "love gone wrong" songs. They reach deeper, exploring more reflective themes about life (the title track, I Was Here)and death (Borrowed Angels). Chenoweth never doubts the sincerity or plausibility of what she's doing, even when it's getting slightly corny (What More Do You Want.

One would like to see a bigger variety of songwriters (Nashville's full of them) up ahead. But Chenoweth may have wanted to dip her toe in the water with some trusted friends. She proves on this record she belongs at the country table, with no need to pass the syrup.