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"It was time for me to make the album I always wanted to make. If that's walking out on a limb and picking the songs myself, then so be it. If you know the music is right and it feels good, you have to go with it."

That's Ty Herndon talking about "Steam," the fourth album of his celebrated, hit-laden career and a landmark effort that brings together the Ty we know from tender ballads such as "What Mattered most" and "Living in a Moment" with the energetic stage performer who routinely rocks the house with his fiery stage presence and muscular musical attack.

"I wanted to let my hair down a little bit, show the side of Ty you see when you see me live." explains Ty, who was a stage vet in Texas before he signed his record deal. "People come expecting to see 'An Evening with Ty Herndon,' maybe black tie or something. When they leave, they're sweating. it's more like they've gone to see Bonnie Raitt or something. You can see the ballads, but you also see there's an entertainer there that's not going to let you sit in your seat."

And you surely won't sit still when you're listening to "Steam." Kick off with the upbeat swing of "Lookin' For The Good Life" and rolling into the guitar-drenched rock of the title track -- another Herndon smash hit that preceded the release of the album -- "Steam" is upbeat and exuberant, bouncy and gritty, lively AND lusty.

"I wanted to create an album that you just put in your car and you drive," he explains. "It doesn't have to be about anything deep. It's about feel-good music."

This is no accident, of course, but rather the result of careful planning and acting on a creative course Ty has been thinking about for some time. "I've been a dreamer my whole life," he explains. "I'll sit around and think about something; 'That'd be cool.' I'm trying to stop dreaming so much and instead, make reality come true."

The path to "Steam" started with Ty's selection of producers on this album -- Anthony Martin, Jim Cotton and particularly Joe Scaife, who's worked with one of Ty's all-time favorites, K.T. Oslin. Before starting work on the album, they came on the road to see Ty perform and concurred that what they saw whipping up a fury on stage had not been adequately represented on record.

But more than that, they sensed an attitude that Ty projected in concert that also had to be captured on "Steam." "This album needed to be confident, sexy and cool," Ty explains. So he and the producers began searching for songs that would serve that purpose, with Ty taking a greater role than he ever has in selecting the songs for the album -- including the buoyant "In A New York Second," the rootsy "That' What I Call Love" and the full fury of "A Love Like That."

The litmus test for each of the 10 tunes on "Steam" was whether they worked in front of an audience; in fact, Ty road-tested each of them before committing them to the album. And, he also recorded a demo with his road band so that the studio musicians who worked on the album would better understand the feel he was looking for on each track.

One of the songs actually has a long history with Ty. He's been performing brassy, bloozy "You Can Leave Your Hat On" -- a Randy Newman song popularized by Joe Cocker -- for seven years and it's become a fan favorite at his shows. His record company and fan club have received stacks of mail pleading with him to put the song on a record. And, since Ty is the kind of guy who refers to this fans as "Friends," he couldn't help but be moved by the groundswell -- further honoring his friends by marking it "by fans' request" on the album cover.

"The last two albums it didn't fit," he explains. "You've got to have a common thread that at least makes a little bit of sense. And, since this album has songs like 'Looking for The Good Life,' 'Steam,' 'I've Been Looking For A Love Like That' -- very grooving fun, confident songs, it finally made sense. I said 'Yes, we'll do this song."

Do not for a second think that Ty has abandoned his emotional side, however. Accenting "Steam's" buoyant feel are gentle, reflective numbers such as "I Can't Do It All," "No Mercy" and "Pray For Me," the latter of which mines the spirituality that Ty learned as a youth in Alabama, being raised in and around the church. Then there's "Putting The Brakes On Time" a smooth, rolling song fattened by swelling organ and spiced by a twangy pedal steel that bemoans the too-fast pace of life ("We can't take the time to breathe") and calls for a return to a time when we would "stop to watch the grass grow" or "sip an iced tea from the back porch swing."

All of this makes "Steam" a culmination of Ty's career to this point and the first step towards the future. It comes from a solid foundation, of course -- three albums that have sold more than 1.5 million copies and three No. 1 hits ("It Must Be Love," "What Mattered Most," "Living In A Moment"), which have made him a leading force in country music during the mid- and late- '90s. And, as we've already established, his reputation has only been enhanced by this powerhouse live shows.

With "Steam," however, Ty feels that he's ready to take things even a notch or two higher; to that end, he's decided to look as good as he sounds, starting an exercise regime through which he's dropped 25 pounds and added some noticeable muscle mass for an appearance that compliments the brawny sound of "Steam."

"I think I've grown up a lot," says Ty, who's been singing and entertaining since he was seven years old. "I've developed confidence in Ty, and as a person. I've learned to separate my career and my life, and because of that everything is centered physically, spiritually, mentally. I'm a better friend, a better husband, a better boss and a better musician. I'm just thinking real clearly; I'm real sure about what I want and where I'm going."

And "Steam" certainly makes you want to go along for the ride.

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