Jim Lauderdale is the rightful heir to Buck Owens, who once, in a Billboard ad, briefly bowed to country-music tastemakers who found his Bakersfield honky-tonk beat a little too indebted to rock ‘n’ roll—then turned right around and issued a hopped-up version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” But hard-edged albums like 1994’s Pretty Close to the Truth having faltered even as stars like George Strait and Patty Loveless championed Lauderdale as a writer, his fifth record (on his fourth label) moves toward the middle of the road. Even with the blues and soul inflections toned down, though, Lauderdale can’t help laying down some of the most tuneful, thoughtful stuff coming out of Nashville; almost as admirable is his commitment to an aesthetic that nods toward alt-country verities while never engaging in that subgenre’s snobbery. He does, after all, remember enough about Music City’s glory days as both a commercial and artistic hub to co-write with the likes of Harlan Howard (“We’re Gone”) and one-time George Jones duet partner Melba Montgomery (“What Do You Say to That”). And he knows enough about the values of humanity over abstract traditionalism that he closes Whisper with a gospel duet with Ralph Stanley. Pretty Close (still in print on Atlantic) is the place to start with Lauderdale, but country listeners who think “it all sounds the same” these days could do lots worse than checking this one out.—Rickey Wright