2009’s Traveling Circus acknowledges some dark clouds hanging above the American horizon. Vassar has long been one of country music’s most adept storytellers, and his skills at lyric portraiture don’t fail him here. Tunes like “Lemonade,” “John Wayne” and “Tequila Town” depict the hard times of everyday folks with an empathetic touch. “A Year from Now” and “Everywhere I Go” probe the depths of lingering heartache, while “She’s On Her Way” sensitively explores the bonds between father and daughter. Brightening the album’s mood is the bouncy, ‘70s-sounding “Save Tonight for Me” and “Bobbi With an I,” a booty-shaking celebration of a burly cross-dresser’s exploits. Vassar veers away from character studies for an excursion through his own past in “Where Have All the Pianos Gone,” an elegant number paying homage to keyboard icons like Billy Joel and Elton John. As before, Vassar maintains a high standard of songwriting craft on Traveling Circus — but more than that, he edges away from his comfort zone to portray the shadows threatening the American Dream.