Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 6: Naptime Blues

After a crazy week and a looong deep dive into Randy Travis’s career, I am honestly burnt down to cinders right now, and would like nothing more than a good three-day siesta. The blog must go on, however, and so I decided to trot out the first LITS of the year to at least give me a chance to rest while I pondered the tracks that appeared.

The concept of LITS is simple: Hit the shuffle button on my old iPad, listen to ten songs chosen by whatever random number generator Apple uses (which could end up being anything from sizzling singles to deep album cuts to songs not even remotely related to country music), make a snap judgement on how good or bad the songs are, and produce a highly-subjective ranking of the impromptu playlist.

Is this silly and without purpose? Absolutely, but it’s also a chance to potentially introduce folks to some different songs/artists, and potentially introduce people to some great material that they had forgotten or missed. Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is.

The Contenders

Song #1: Sammy Kershaw, “I Want My Money Back”

Okay, this wasn’t really the song I wanted to start out with. I hit play, close my eyes, and…I’m immediately smacked across the face with a loud, bouncy bass and a prominent pair of fiddles. A double-shot of Starbucks espresso couldn’t have done a better job waking me up…

Thankfully, the title track and leadoff single from Kershaw’s 2003 album is actually pretty decent, offering a darkly-humorous take on the financial frustrations of middle-class America (a take that’s no longer a laughing matter seventeen years later). Despite a few questionable production decisions (what’s with the weird vocal effects on the bridge?), the mix some solid tone and energy to the table, and Kershaw is one of those underrated, likeable 1990s artists that deserves to be remembered more than he is. I may not appreciate the rude awakening, but I guess I’ll get over it.

Song #2: George Strait, “Lead On”

Now that’s more like it. If I had a word to describe the title track and final single from Strait’s 1994 album, it would be relaxed, taking its time with its tone and tempo, but never bogging down under its own weight. The song should be required listening for any artist trying to avoid being a creepy Metro-Bro act, because despite being a booty call at its core, it deftly sidesteps any questions from the press by a) giving both parties a voice, b) making the decision a consensual one, and c) imbuing its characters with honesty (the guy screwed up his last relationship, and he admits it). George Strait pours on the charm like it was maple syrup, and the pop-tinged production gives the track an inviting softness that makes it easy on the ears. One could argue *yawn* that it’s the sort of track someone could fall asleep to, but I’m okay with that right now…

Song #3: Carolyn Dawn Johnson, “I Don’t Want You To Go”

…And then CDJ comes in and ruins the mood. Let me rest, darn it!

All complaining aside, the third single from Johnson’s 2001 debut album Room With A View (and her last stateside hurrah) is pretty decent on balance. Unlike me, the narrator here has no intention of falling asleep anytime soon, and while the writing is a bit generic, Johnson infuses the protagonist with so much spunk that you can’t help but feel for them and their wrecked sleep schedule. The production backs her up with a lot of noise (this track always felt noticeably louder than most of my library), but the guitars and fiddles match Johnson’s attitude and energy, and make the song fun enough to compensate for its stale tale

But seriously, can I get some slower material next?

Song #4: Toby Keith, “Stays In Mexico”

My iPad doesn’t have hands, so this is as close to flipping me off as it can get.

Not only is it borderline-frenetic, but it’s a generic “Mexi-Bro” track chock full of gratuitous drinking, cheating, and ephemeral sugar highs. Keith comes across as a slimy voyeur, the characters are flat and unlikable, the production cranks the noise up to 11 with in-your-face guitars and a horn section, and frankly, the whole thing is so over-the-top that it’s not that much fun in the end. I didn’t want to listen to Johnson right now, but I wouldn’t want to hear this song at any time for any reason. Next!

Song #5: Marty Stuart Ralph Mooney, “Crazy Arms”

A steel guitar solo? I can dig it.

Mooney is credited with writing the song (although more recently, Paul Gilley has been labeled as the true composer), but it’s pop-culture impact is undeniable (it’s one of Ray Price’s signature songs), and Stuart had Mooney lay down an instrumental version for his 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. The funky chord progression that opens every verse and chorus is instantly recognizable, and the pedal steel gives the track a warm, smooth feel that transforms it from a lost-love lament to a happier, reflective tune. (If you’re going to contradict the lyrics like this, the best thing to do is get rid of them completely.) My main complaint is that the song is far too short, and could have used a few other instrument to trade the melody around with. Still, something’s better than nothing, and anything’s better than “Stays In Mexico.” You’re back in my good graces, iPad…for now.

Song #6: Randy Travis ft. Shelby Lynne, “Promises”

…Don’t push your luck, iPad.

I said yesterday that I was a fan of everything from Storms Of Life to Under The Influence, Vol. 2, but Travis’s 25th anniversary duet album is by far the weakest in his discography. None of the covers even come close to the original tracks, and “Promises” is no exception: The overproduction (strings, fiddle and steel) deliver the message far less pointedly than the acoustic-guitar-only mix of the original, Travis doesn’t sound great, he and Shelby Lynne (who?) have no vocal chemistry, and the rewriting neede to turn the song into a duet felt clumsy and half-baked. It’s better than “Stays In Mexico,” but there’s no need for this retread when the original was that good. Hey iPad, how about a Travis original to clean up this mess?

Song #7: Randy Travis, “I’d Surrender All”

Wait, you actually listened to me?

The final single from Travis’s 1991 album High Lonesome didn’t reach the height of its sibling singles, but I always felt it measured up from a quality standpoint. The lyrics don’t offer much novelty beyond the “hairspray in the air” line, but Travis is such an emotive singer (his note-holding was especially poignant here) and the production’s light touch, use of minor chords and crying steel guitar gave the song a strong melancholic vibe that put you squarely in the narrator’s corner (even if the song insinuates that they’re clearly to blame for the breakup). I just heard this thing last night during my discography crawl, but it’s the sort of song I could listen to over and over again.

Song #8: Mel Tillis, “Detroit City”

It’s not Bobby Bare, but it’s not bad.

Tillis is the original songwriter of “Detroit City,” but he gave the song to Bare because his stutter made it nearly impossible to get through the spoken-word section after the second verse. When Tillis covers the song live, he tends to ad-lib with the audience as he does in the video above to avoid the spoken section, but in the recording I have he doesn’t even go through the second verse! Tillis does a decent-enough job on the part of the song he does cover, but leaving a job half-finished like this make me feel a little cheated by the performance. It’s okay, but it’s not peak Tillis or “Detroit City,” so I don’t see it doing well on this list.

Song #9: Clint Black, “Spend My Time”

Wow, This is exactly what I was looking for!

Randy Travis is my favorite singer, but Clint Black is the unquestioned #2 in my personal rankings. I’ve always enjoyed his clever turns of phrase and how he can work his way around a topic, and the title track and leadoff single of his 2003 album is a prime example of his work. The piano-driven production establishes a calm, reflective mood, but the writing keeps its eyes on the future as it ponders the present and future passage of time, and Black brings enough optimism to the table to make the character feel earnest and believable. On top of this, the song suits my current subdued mood, while also gently prodding me to keep going and imagine better days ahead. This song is in the running for my favorite Clint Black tunes of all time, and it will definitely compete for the top spot on tonight’s list.

Song #10: Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton, “We’ve Got Tonight”

This isn’t a terrible song to end on. Sure, it’s a sappy, saccharine love song with the sort of pop styling that drive country music to the brink in the post-“Urban Cowboy” 1980s, but there’s a real gentleness behind the piano-and-strings production and Rogers’s surprisingly dialed-back delivery, and Easton’s part turns up the dial with extra power and electric guitars (which Rogers has no trouble keeping up with). The pair has solid vocal chemistry, both singers feel earnest and sympathetic, and even though this is essentially the same booty call as “Lead On,” having both voices in the mix make things at least feel above board and consensual. It’s a harmless, not-quite-memorable track that keeps the post from ending on a downer.

The Results

Position Song
1. “Spend My Time”
2. “I’d Surrender All”
3. “Crazy Arms”
4. “Lead On”
5. “I Want My Money Back”
6. “I Don’t Want You To Go”
7. “We’ve Got Tonight”
8. “Detroit City”
9. “Promises”
10. “Stays In Mexico”

 

Clint Black may be #2 in my heart, but he’s #1 on tonight’s list. “I’d Surrender All” is good, but “Spend My Time” has more atmospheric production and more interesting writing, outpacing both Travis’s track and Mooney’s steel shuffle. Sadly, there was a bit too much energy provided by some of the tracks, and now I’m wide awake with no hope of rest for another few hours. For a list like this, however, I suppose the trade was worth it.

The next question: How do I “Spend My Time” now that I have it? I guess I have to start grading assignments again…thanks a lot, iPad.

Exhuming Things That’s Better Left Alone: What Happened To Randy Travis?

Image from The Boot

When it comes to Randy Travis, it would be quicker to list what hasn’t happened to him than what has.

The roller coaster that is Travis’s life spent most of the 2010s on a downhill slope: Metaphorically-crippling financial trouble, literally-crippling strokes, divorce, drinking, family drama, and…well, the less said about 2012, the better. Both his early years and recent history have been marred by trouble, but in the eye of this storm sits a decade where Travis was arguably the king of country music (which contains a few years in the 1980s where Travis was inarguably the king of the genre). He doesn’t get the name-drops that George Strait or Alan Jackson get these days, but he’s commonly credited from pulling country music out of its post-Urban-Cowboy malaise and ushering in the neotraditional movement that dominated the airwaves for the rest of the millennium. For all the troubles that have befallen him, Travis remains a revered figure in Nashville, and Sam Wilson declared that his career deserved a closer look:

This request hits close to home for me, as I consider Randy Travis the greatest country singer of all time, and I’m not sure I can really do this topic justice without reading his recent biography (which my fellow Kyle over at SCM found to be incredibly frank and candid). A cursory look at Travis’s career, however, indicates that the craziness of the past decade was nothing more than a coda to Travis’s musical career: His last Billboard #1 came in 2002, and his only notable appearances since then were as a duet partner on Carrie Underwood’s 2009 “I Told You So” cover and as a silent participant in the 2016 “Forever Country” collab. His mainstream career was over long before all this you-know-what hit the fan, so what happened? How did Travis’s career collapse?

As I tried fitting the pieces back together, a strange narrative began to emerge: Country music didn’t put Randy Travis out to pasture as much as Travis struck out on his own looking for greener pastures. He treated country music the same way I treated Pokémon Sword: He conquered the story mode, played through the post-game content, and then set the game down and started looking for a new challenge. Ironically, the man who never seemed to wear a cowboy hat wore three hats over the course of his career, and was the rare artist who got to close the door on his career himself.

Act I: The Singer

When Travis signed with Warner Bros. in 1985, country music (to put it mildly) was not in a great place. After the movie “Urban Cowboy” spurred the genre to massive crossover success in the early 1980s, the industry crashed hard as the trend began to wear out its welcome. Record sales went into freefall, radio singles were lambasted for being formulaic and soundalike, and the industry’s target demographic was graying as a new generation of consumers turned to other genres for sustenance. (“Formulaic”? “Soundalike”? This sounds like every Boyfriend country review I’ve written in the past four months.) A “new traditionalist” movement had started to emerge, but despite the presence of artists like future king George Strait, the movement had yet to find a true leader that would lead it into the spotlight.

Travis’s major-label debut “On The Other Hand” famously flopped the first time it hit the radio and died in the high sixties on Billboard’s airplay, but after its follow-up “1982” made it to #6 in 1986, Warner Brothers made the bold, now-famous move to re-release “On The Other Hand”…which only went on to became Travis’s first #1, earn the ACM’s 1986 “Single Of The Year” award, power Travis’s debut disc Storms Of Life to triple-platinum status, and send Travis’s career into the stratosphere.

The next few years saw Travis dominate country music in a way that even Luke Combs could only dream of. The explosion of Storms Of Life onto the scene made a sophomore slump inevitable, but Travis had only four words in response:

Even today, over thirty years after the track hit the charts, I still hear “Forever And Ever, Amen” on mainstream radio from time to time. The song has become one of the cornerstone songs of country music, and it turned 1987 into the year of Randy:

  • The Song Won: CMA Single of the Year, ACM Single of the Year, ACM Song of the Year.
  • The Album (Always & Forever) won: ACM Album of the Year.
  • Randy won: CMA Top Male Vocalist, ACM Male Vocalist of the Year.

And then for good measure, the trio cleaned up at the 1988 AMA Awards (Favorite Country Male Artist, Album, Single, and Video) and capped it off with a freaking Grammy award for ‘Best Male Country Performance.’ Oh yeah, and did I mention the album sold five million copies?

Travis was now the face of the neotraditional movement in country music, and he spent the rest of the decade cleaning up: Two more double-platinum albums, a streak of seven consecutive number one hits, a constant nominee for prominent awards (though not that many wins), and praise and worship from the artists that would eventually knock him off the throne (most notably Garth Brooks).

By the time the musical consciousness of a certain blogger awoke in the early 90s, Travis was no longer the dominant force he had been in the last decade, but he still had a strong, consistent presence near the top of the charts. Wikipedia’s single discography table may not look terribly impressive on first glance, but that’s because Travis had the clout to start dabbling in risky projects like Heroes & Friends (an album of duets with everyone from Dolly Parton to B. B. King to Clint Eastwood) and Wind In The Wire (an album of cowboy songs for a TV movie that you can’t even find on YouTube). In terms of gambling with a thriving career, the only recent comparison I can think of is Brad Paisley’s release of his guitar-centered album Play in 2008, but Travis seemed to be playing with house money, and his mainstream releases (including This Is Me, the first album I ever purchased) still had staying power.

That staying power, however, disappeared with the release of Travis’s 1996 album Full Circle, with none of the radio singles even reaching the Top Twenty. Suddenly, the usual trouble signs started to appear: The noticeable sales dropoff, the switch from Warner Bros. to Dreamworks in 1997, the brief sugar rush of You And You Alone giving way to the crash and burn of A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, and so on. Outside of a miracle single in 2002 (don’t worry, we’ll get there), Travis was effectively done in country music.

So what happened? Well, we already concluded that the late-90s Shania Twain-fueled push back towards pop-country brought down everyone from Alabama to Lee Ann Womack, so that could be a likely candidate. In truth, by the time country music turned away from Travis, he already had one foot out the door.

Act II: The Actor

(Editor’s Note: Ha! I had no idea Rusty “The Logger” Dewees was in Black Dog.)

Randy’s discography started to tail off in the 1990s, but his filmography suddenly began in earnest, starting with some recurring roles on popular TV shows (Matlock, Touched By An Angel) and ending with Travis starring alongside the likes of Rob Lowe (Frank & Jesse, 1994), Patrick Swayze (Black Dog, 1998), and Matt Damon and Danny Devito (The Rainmaker). In all, IMDb lists lists twenty-seven acting credits for Travis from 1992 to 2000, and when compared to the twenty-three radio singles released over this same period, it means Travis was actually more prolific as an actor than as a musician!

I recall a prominent country music voice (I think it was Ralph Emery?) saying years ago that Travis’s career fell off when he started thinking “movie star” and making a push in Hollywood. The correlation isn’t a great one: This Is Me‘s April 1994 release date followed a year of Travis making cowboy movies yet produced four Top Ten singles, and You And You Alone performed well despite its 1998 release date (Fun Fact: The album has what I would call my favorite Randy Travis single “Out Of My Bones,” and I’m still personally offended that Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” blocked it from becoming a Billboard #1.) Still, he made an ominous statement in 1994:

“I see myself always working on albums — as long as we can sell a few, as long as there’s a reason to keep making them.”

Full Circle wound up selling less than a few albums two years later. Was this the impetus that pushed Travis away from music and back towards acting? (Also, tossing a heavy movie schedule on top of a busy music/touring schedule seems like a tough assignment for anyone, and it’s fair to wonder if Travis’s attention was divided and his focus started to drift. I still think those albums were great, but I seem to be in the minority.)

Despite a few high-profile co-stars, Travis was never more than a bit player in Hollywood. The Rainmaker earned some notable plaudits, but no one was raving about Travis’s turn as Billy Porter, and ultimately…well, his star on the Walk of Fame is for music, not movies. Eventually, even he seemed to realize he was Michael Jordan playing baseball, and his filmography decreased dramatically after 2001. By now, country music had mostly moved on from Travis’s neotraditional sound, but there was another genre that was more than willing to catch a falling star.

Act III: The Farmer, The Teacher, The Hooker, And The Preacher

Starting with 2000’s Inspirational Journey, Travis become a full-time gospel act, singing gospel standards and releasing only faith-infused country tracks to country radio. It’s an oft-overlooked phase of his career, even if it produced the last major hit of his career.

From an award perspective, Travis’s impact in gospel actually looks pretty similar to his arrival in country music. Consider his haul of Dove Awards:

Song/Album Award
Inspirational Journey Best Bluegrass Album (?), 2001
“Baptism” Country Song Of The Year, 2001
Rise And Shine Country Album Of The Year, 2003
Worship & Faith Country Album Of The Year, 2004
Passing Through
Country Album Of The Year, 2005
Glory Train
Country Album Of The Year, 2006
Around The Bend
Country Album Of The Year, 2009

(Another Fun Fact: The Country Album Of The Year award was not given out in 2001 because there weren’t enough eligible nominees!)

You get the distinct feeling that gospel was not used to or ready for an artist of Travis’s stature to drop into their laps, and they lavished him with praise, even for albums like Passing Through and Around The Bend that were decidedly not gospel discs. There’s one award that’s missing from the table, however: The “miracle single” I mentioned earlier, and the 2004 Song Of The Year:

I’m not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but calling this track a “miracle single” might actually be underselling it. Not only was it a gospel hit, it unexpectedly caught fire on the mainstream country charts, reaching #1 on the country charts, cracking the Top 40 on the Hot 100, and earning a Song Of The Year award from the CMAs. (Putting my critic hat on for a second, this remains one of the great story songs of the new millennium, and the combination of warm, uplifting production and Travis’s exceptional baritone makes this a sheer joy to listen to.) The song catapulted Travis back into the country music conversation, and was likely the reason he tried to rejoin the genre with Passing Through soon afterwards. The sell-by date had passed on Travis’s mainstream career, however, and he wound up playing out the string on the gospel side of the fence for a few more years.

Conclusions

Looking back at Randy Travis’s career, its demise feels like an own goal more than anything the genre or musical climate did. After a long stint at the top of the mountain, Travis caught the acting bug and decided to start a second act in Tinseltown, and his career eventually caved in under both internal and external pressures. Given his 2000s-era success in gospel music, I feel like a dedicated Travis could have squeezed a bit more mileage out of mainstream tenure, even a distracted Travis produced some of my favorite songs of the era. Still, even with his voice stolen by the 2010s stroke (and thus his recording career being over period), it’s hard to quibble with his career choices. How many people in the world get to be a rock star and a movie star? Even if Travis’s second act wasn’t nearly as fruitful as his first, the totality of his impact is deep enough to gain entry in the select group of upper-tier country legends.

Personally, as a fan of everything from Storms Of Life to Under The Influence, Vol. 2, I’m sad for what appears to be a premature end to his musicmaking, but I wouldn’t have him change a thing about his career. Country, gospel, or film: To me, he will always (& forever) be the best.

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: January 19, 2020

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-reborn Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Dan + Shay ft. Justin Bieber, “10,000 Hours” -2 (3/10)
2. Jon Pardi, “Heartache Medication” +1 (6/10)
3. Lady Antebellum, “What If I Never Get Over You” +1 (6/10)
4. Maren Morris, “The Bones” 0 (5/10)
5. Sam Hunt, “Kinfolks” -2 (3/10)
6. Dustin Lynch, “Ridin’ Roads” -2 (3/10)
7. Jimmie Allen, “Make Me Want To” -1 (4/10)
8. Kane Brown, “Homesick” +1 (6/10)
9. Jason Aldean, “We Back” -1 (4/10)
10. Luke Bryan, “What She Wants Tonight” -2 (3/10)
11. Garth Brooks ft. Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar” +1 (6/10)
12. Jordan Davis, “Slow Dance In A Parking Lot” +1 (6/10)
13. Jake Owen, “Homemade” 0 (5/10)
14. Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” +3 (8/10)
15. Brett Young, “Catch” +1 (6/10)
16. Riley Green, “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” 0 (5/10)
17. Carly Pearce & Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” 0 (5/10)
18. Kelsea Ballerini, “Homecoming Queen?” +1 (6/10)
19. Travis Denning, “After A Few” 0 (5/10)
20. Ryan Hurd, “To A T” 0 (5/10)
21. Morgan Wallen, “Chasin’ You” 0 (5/10)
22. Gabby Barrett, “I Hope” +2 (7/10)
23. Scotty McCreery, “In Between” +1 (6/10)
24. Eric Church, “Monsters” 0 (5/10)
25. LoCash, “One Big Country Song” 0 (5/10)
26. Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix” +1 (6/10)
27. Michael Ray, “Her World Or Mine” 0 (5/10)
28. Caylee Hammack, “Family Tree” 0 (5/10)
29. Trisha Yearwood, “Every Girl In This Town” +1 (6/10)
30. Florida Georgia Line, “Blessings” +1 (6/10)
31. Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” +1 (6/10)
32. Carrie Underwood, “Drinking Alone” 0 (5/10)
33. Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are” -2 (3/10)
34. Justin Moore, “Why We Drink” -1 (4/10)
35. Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart” +2 (7/10)
36. Jon Langston, “Now You Know” -2 (3/10)
37. Billy Currington, “Details” -1 (4/10)
38. Chris Young, “Drowning” 0 (5/10)
39. Kip Moore, “She’s Mine” +1 (6/10)
40. Rayne Johnson, “Front Seat” -2 (3/10)
41. Rodney Atkins, “Thank God For You” 0 (5/10)
42. Jameson Rodgers, “Some Girls” 0 (5/10)
43. Eli Young Band, “Break It In” 0 (5/10)
44. Hootie & The Blowfish, “Hold On” +1 (6/10)
45. Miranda Lambert, “Bluebird” -1 (4/10)
46. Runaway June, “Head Over Heels” +2 (7/10)
47. Lauren Alaina, “Getting Good” +2 (7/10)
48. Chris Janson, “Done” 0 (5/10)
49. Chris Stapleton, “Tennessee Whiskey” 0 (5/10)
50. Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +1
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +6
Overall Pulse +7
Change From Last Week -2 😦

Best Song: “More Hearts Than Mine,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Now You Know,” 3/10
Mode Scores: 0 (18 songs)

Gone:

  • Thanos, “Even Though I’m Leaving” (someone finally snapped their fingers enough times to make this disintegrate)
  • Thomas Rhett, “Remember You Young” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Lady Antebellum, “What If I Never Get Over You” (down from #1 to #3)
  • Dustin Lynch, “Ridin’ Roads” (down from #3 to #6)

In Real Trouble:

  • Caylee Hammack, “Family Tree” (up from #29 to #28 despite losing its bullet with a triple-digit point loss because it passed…)
  • Trisha Yearwood, “Every Girl In This Town” (down from #28 to #29, lost its bullet with a 200+ point loss)
  • Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” (up from #32 to #31, but gained only fifty-six spins and fifteen points)
  • Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart” (up from #37 to #35, but lost its bullet with triple-digit point losses)
  • Billy Currington, “Details” (up from #38 to #37, but gained only fifty-three spins and seventy-six points)
  • Hootie & The Blowfish, “Hold On” (holds at #44, but lost its bullet and hasn’t had any momentum for a while)

In Some Trouble:

  • Luke Bryan, “What She Wants Tonight” (up from #12 to #10 despite a surprisingly weak showing, gaining only twenty-eight spins and thirteen points)
  • LoCash, “One Big Country Song” (up from #27 to #25, but gained only two spins and eighty points)
  • Carrie Underwood, “Drinking Alone” (up from #33 to #32, but gained only twenty-one spins and seventeen points)
  • Chris Young, “Drowning” (up from #40 to #38, but lost its bullet)
  • Kip Moore, “She’s Mine” (up from #41 to #38, but gained only ten spins and lost points)
  • Rodney Atkins, “Thank God For You” (up from #43 to #41, but gained only thirty-three spins and fifty-four points)
  • Eli Young Band, “Break It In” (up from #45 to #43, but barely keeps its bullet by breaking even on spins and losing points)
  • Lauren Alaina, “Getting Good” (down from #46 to #47, gained only twenty-nine spins and twenty-one spins)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You” (debuts at #50)
  • Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix” (up from #36 to #26)
  • Morgan Wallen, “Chasin’ You” (up from #26 to #21)
  • Jameson Rodgers, “Some Girls” (up from #47 to #42)
  • Miranda Lambert, “Bluebird” (up from #50 to #45)

Should Audition For The Walking Dead:

  • Chris Stapleton, “Tennessee Whiskey” (the song is nearly five years old and it’s back again? Someone needs to put a stake through this already…)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

Overall Thoughts: After last week’s massive flushing, the escalator appears to be back on track this week.

Outside of a few moves in the lower half of the chart (to be honest, that #50 debut feels a bit low for a Shelton/Stefani collab), there was little movement to speak of on the charts. Losing Rhett was a slight blow to the Pulse, but it will recover quickly once Lynch leaves and Dan + Shay + Bieber starts falling (especially with Little Big Town and Carmichael waiting to pounce). The first floatsam of 2020 made its appearance on the blog this week, but most of it is small potatoes (Lynch’s single being the major exception), so I don’t think the chart has much to worry about in the short term.

Given the mix of loving vs. losing songs I’ve heard lately, however, I get the feeling that country genre (much like everything else in 2020) has no idea where it’s going right now. Leaning into Boyfriend country and veering back towards traditionalism seem equally likely at this moment, so I’ll be very curious to see what microtrend hits the radio next. (Let’s hope it’s a good one…)

So what do you think? Are the numbers better or worse than you expected? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Song Review: Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House”

If Dustin Lynch feels the need to burn something, I suggest he start with the master tape of this track.

I anointed Blake Shelton as the head of the group of artists that receive zero love from me, but Dustin Lynch has a pretty senior position in this party as well. Outside of “Good Girl” (5/10), Lynch hasn’t received anything higher than a three from my song reviews, and I consider him one of the worst offenders of the Bro-Country and Metropolitan eras. Country radio, however, can’t get enough of this guy (seven of his last eight singles have earned airplay #1s), so Lynch hasn’t had much of a need to change up his terrible formula. Considering the circumstances, I suppose we’re lucky to get what we did when Lynch released “Momma’s House” as the third single from his just-barely-released Tullahoma album. It’s slightly less obnoxious than Lynch’s previous release “Ridin’ Roads,” but it’s still nothing more than a generic, forgettable rant along the lines of Sam Hunt’s “Break Up In A Small Town,” and it doesn’t convince the listener that the tale is worth commiserating over.

The production feels like a really odd choice for a song as depressing as this one claims to be. It opens with some bright, happy acoustic guitar and mandolin riffs backed with some light snare, and even as the mix slowly morphs into something more conventional (first the unnecessary snap track appears, then the electric guitars rise up, and finally the token banjo and full drum set jump in), those acoustic riffs remain a central piece of the arrangement, and the overall vibe of the mix feels surprisingly cheeful and optimistic, even with the slower tempo and usual dose of minor chords tossed into the pile. Considering that the narrator’s “momma’s house” is the only thing standing between them and federal arson charges, saying that the mix clashes badly with the writing is an understatement. By undermining the frustrated, melancholy feel of the lyrics this badly, whoever produced this mess leaves the listener completely confused as to how they should fell about the song, and blunts the impact the track leaves behind.

Of course, when it comes to selling the story, Lynch doesn’t do himself any favors with his vocal performance either. His flat tone and wooden flow during the verses fail to endear him to the audience, and even though he tries to inject a bit more passion on the choruses, he just doesn’t have the charm or charisma to make the narrator feel sympathetic or relatable. If you close your eyes and ignore the lyrics as you listen, you wouldn’t get the sense from Lynch’s delivery that the narrator was in all that much distress (heck, he uses the exact same tone on “Small Town Boy” and “Ridin’ Roads”). As a result, the listener doesn’t find this sob story to be all that exceptional, and thus doesn’t see a need to care about it (especially when the production is standing behind Lynch screaming “Don’t listen to him! Everything’s fine!”) I feel like even a veteran artist would struggle to reconcile a nasty sound/subject matter mismatch like this one, which means a weaksauce act like Lynch doesn’t have a chance.

Speaking of weaksauce, can we talk about this bolted-on hook that barely fits with the rest of the writing? In truth, it’s a bit of a deke: When you see a title like “Momma’s House,” you think “oh great, another unimaginative, paint-by-numbers, ‘I’m so country!’ ode to mom, God, and pickup trucks.” Instead, the narrator spends the entire song whining about how a breakup has destroyed their relationship with their hometown by constantly reminding them of the love that was. “Momma’s house,” however, is only mentioned as the thing keeping the narrator from burning the whole place down, and it feels detached from the rest of the impersonal references (parks, bars, parties, etc.). There’s nothing here that truly brings the town to life and allows us to walk with Lynch as he travels on his tour of pain, and the cookie-cutter relationship moments don’t shine any light on the situation either. (And don’t get me started on the nonsensical “I feel your love, I hear your laugh, got them take me way on back” line, which makes my inner grammarian retch.) It just feels like the writers didn’t put a whole lot of effort into the song, which you can’t really blame them for given that the producer pretty much ignored the lyrics anyway.

“Momma’s House” is what happens when the parties involved can’t come to an agreement about the song identity. The producer went one way, the writers went another, and Dustin Lynch just shrugged and threw down the same flavorless performance that he always does. The result is a song that cannot justify its own existence, as it tries to be too many things and winds up being none of them. This track has been done before and done better (see: Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell’s “What Happens In A Small Town”), so there’s no point in wasting your time and energy on this nonsense.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Adam Doleac, “Famous”

No, Adam Doleac, they’re not “Famous,” and if you keep dropping tracks like this, you won’t be either.

Just when I wonder if the Boyfriend country is starting to lose steam, Nashville reminds me that they’re all in on this train, and they’re going to ride it until it falls off the tracks and crashes into the mountainside. The latest young, faceless male to fall off their assembly line is Adam Doleac, a Mississippi native and ex-college baseball player who released a self-titled EP in 2017 but hasn’t yet made an impact on mainstream radio despite some sizable SiriusXM support. He finally scored a major-label deal with Arista late last year, and is pushing a brand new single “Famous” as his official debut song. Unfortunately, the song is Boyfriend country at its blandest, and while it’s not as obnoxious as peers like “Kinfolks” or “10,000 Hours,” there’s also nothing here worth recommending or paying attention to.

Much like the San Francisco 49ers offense, you know exactly what you’re getting the moment this song steps off the bus. The track opens with a deep-throated electric keyboard and a prominent clap track, both of which feel surprisingly cold and synthetic, and while the producer tries to add some warmth and humanity with some dobro riffs and background steel guitar, the mix never shakes the chill of that opening blast of noise. (A super-slick electric guitar also jumps in for a brief cameo on the second verse.) “Blast,” however, is a bit of an overstatement: There’s very little volume, tempo, or energy here, putting a lot of pressure on the lyrics and exposing just how weak the writing really is. There’s the slightest hint of a groove here, but that’s all your get, and the vibe is far too sterile and clinical to even approach feeling romantic. In short, it’s a cheap-feeling mix that feels like it was pulled out of someone’s Downloads folder, and it doesn’t complement the singer or subject matter at all.

Vocally, Doleac comes sounds like an off-brand Brett Young, except with little of Young’s tone or charm. The track doesn’t tax Doleac’s voice much, which is probably a good thing because he falls on his face whenever he strays from his comfort zone. He voice loses all power when he drops into his lower register (he gets really breathy at the end of verse lines), and in those brief moments when he starts half-talking instead of singing, you need to get the kids and pets out of the room, because he goes completely off-key and sounds terrible. (Seriously, it’s been a while since I’ve cringed as hard as I did when Doleac drops that “you might not be” line at the end of the bridge.) On top of this, he fails hard trying to sell the story, and the audience just doesn’t care about his lame pick-up attempt or how famous the other person should or should not be. In short, this is about as bad a debut performance as it could have been, and the listener can’t turn the page on this drivel and move on to the next song fast enough.

And then we get to the lyrics, which are about as lazy and cookie-cutter as you could imagine. The narrator tries to pick up someone by telling them “they look famous,” and…yeah, that’s about as far as the story goes. The “famous” hook is beyond weak, and while there are some unexpected details tossed in, they don’t actually contribute to the story. The narrator spends the entire first verse declaring how out-of-the-loop they were, wastes the second pointlessly trying to figure out where he “knows” this person from (“Do you do the weather, do you read the news?” Who cares?) The narrator may come across as a lot less pushy than in other recent Boyfriend country tracks, but that’s because their train of thought seems aimless and meandering, to the point where you wonder whether they’re actually interested in whoever they’re talking to. Everything that’s left (the bar, the dress, the random location name-drops, the “gotta know what your name is” line) is so stock it should have a Getty Images watermark stamped across it, and the listener has walked away by the second chorus looking for someone with something more interesting to say.

If you took Brad Paisley’s “Cover Girl” and tried to answer the question “How could I make this song worse in every possible way?”, the result would sound a lot like “Famous.” The production is cold and ill-fitting, the writing is haphazard and rambling, and Adam Doleac’s delivery is mediocre at best and earache-inducing at worst. Doleac is just another guy singing just another Boyfriend country song, and he somehow fails to meet even those low standards. Country music releases have ranged from “meh” to excellent so far this year, but this one’s a certified clunker, and considering how long it took Doleac to reach this point, I doubt we’ll hear much more from him going forward.

Rating: 4/10. Avoid this junk.

Song Review: Brandon Lay, “For My Money”

When the ad after the video is more fun than your song, you’ve got a problem.

Brandon Lay is just another faceless young male singer off Nashville’s assembly line, but he’s been trying to convince the world for the better part of two years to save a space for him in country music. His weaksauce argument has fallen on deaf ears so far, as neither the generic “Speakers, Bleachers And Preachers” nor the unimaginative “Yada Yada Yada” could crack the Top 40 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Now, Lay is changing up his formula and hoping the third time is the charm with his new single “For My Money.” The song is a mess of contradictions whose pieces don’t fit together quite right, and only confirms the prosecution’s claims that Lay simply doesn’t deserve a spot on the airwaves right now.

The production isn’t a terrible mix on its own merits, but it doesn’t feel like a great fit for this particular song. It tries to establish a dark, dangerous mood early on, using exclusively minor chords and leaning on deep-throated guitars and low-fi drums for the majority of the track (there’s a brief snap/clap track appearance, but if you blink you’ll miss it). The surprise is that the arrangement actually does a decent job creating a ominous-yet-raunchy atmosphere for the song, but what’s not a surprise is that is clashes badly with the transactional, tongue-in-cheek nature of the narrator’s relationship. This is supposed to be a fun, lighthearted song in a similar vein t0 Trace Adkins’s “Marry For Money,” but for some reason the producer tried to turn in into a foreboding sex jam closer to Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses” (as much as I loved that song, it only made it to #33 on the radio, so why the heck do so many people try to copy it?). The mismatch between the sound and subject matter leaves the listener completely confused as to what the song is supposed to be, and while it’s a catchy mix in a vacuum, it feels like empty sonic calories when attached to this track.

Similarly, Lay’s performance here suggests that he’s not ready for primetime just yet. The song traps him almost exclusively in his lower register, but he sounds comfortable enough there to keep the song moving, which is more than I can say for his flow (those “ooh-oohs” on the bridge fall somewhere between choppy and cringeworthy). The major issue is that he plays the song so straight with his tone that it’s really hard to tell whether or not he’s being serious about the whole situation (and if he isn’t, he doesn’t sound like he having any fun with the story). He gives me the distinct feeling that he’s no more interested in a deep, committed relationship than his money-grubbing partner is, and that the attraction from his perspective is purely physical (which makes him completely unsympathetic and uninteresting as a character). Lay simply doesn’t demonstrate the chops to reconcile the differences between the production and writing, and he fails to hold the audience’s attention or leave any impression as a result.

It’s hard to say whether the production or writing is more at fault for this mess, but unlike the sound, the subject matter doesn’t feel like it could stand up on its own merits. The transitions here feel exceptionally jarring: The narrator spends a verse discussing their partner’s opulent tastes, immediately declares “she only loves me for my money,” and then details his poorly-thought-out, unbelievable ruse to keep the pair together (seriously, no real person is going to believe that Ferrari-in-the-shop, overseas-phone-call ploy for more than thirty seconds), all because…he like the way they kiss? Presenting the relationship as this cold and transactional is a major turn-off, and it keeps the listener from even enjoying the comic value of the narrator’s Pinky-and-the-Brain-level scheme. It’s not fun, it’s not clever, and it’s certainly not sexy, so…what are we still doing standing around listening to this schlock?

“For My Money” is the sonic equivalent of a third-grade art project: Lots of random things precariously glued together, drawing only a confused “Huh?” from anyone who sees it. Some of the pieces (the dark, groovy production, the off-the-wall writing) might work by themselves, but they make absolutely no sense when mashed together, and Brandon Lay isn’t a strong or charismatic enough singer to pull it all together into a cohesive whole. It says a lot about Lay’s career up to this point that despite all these problems, this still might be his best radio release, which isn’t a good sign given how long it’s taken him to get to this point. “For My Money,” there are way better ways to spend your time than listening to this.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way for this track.

Kyle’s Picks For Smash Bros. Ultimate Fighters Pass #2

Fighters Pass #1 has been spoken for. Who got next?

This morning, Masahiro Sakurai revealed the final member of the first Fighters Pass for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate…and despite the fact that I swore they said all the new characters would be third-party at some point, it was Professor Byleth from Fire Emblem: Three Houses who graced our livestreams for forty minutes. The Internet reacted to this news with its usual patience and self-restraint, but as I’ve said before, I can’t get too worked up over a game I don’t actually play.

To be honest, I see Super Smash Bros. Ultimate a bit like Sakurai does: It’s not so much a fighting game as it is a celebration of the history of gaming. When I consider how I feel about a character in the game, I don’t really care about how easy or fun they are to pay a, but instead I like to look at the series they represent and how they fit into the history of gaming. To me, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a museum where you can play with all the exhibits, and gain an appreciation for how we’ve reached this point in time.

That being said…the second Fighters Pass for SSBU was also slightly fleshed out, most notably with the reveal that there would be six new characters added to the game over the next two years. Speculation started immediately (although in truth, we all had plenty of speculation left over from the last few character reveals): Which characters would be included? Everyone has their favorites, of course, but I wanted to flip the question a little bit: Instead of the characters I want in SSBU, which characters would help best tell the story of gaming? If we were to recount the history of video games from start to finish, what non-Smash characters would we not be able to leave out?

The problem, unfortunately, is that to include every important character across gaming history, we’d need a lot more than six slots! (We should also stick to positive contributions: E.T. is a prominent figure in gaming history, but I’m not a Smash Bros. slot should be awarded for almost destroying the entire industry.) There’s some level of subjectivity within any list like this, but I tried to put long-term impact over personal feelings to decide who deserves to receive one of those fateful wax-sealed envelopes.

So who do I think should make the cut? My six picks are as follows:

Image from Wikipedia

Choice #1: Crash Bandicoot

This feels like a no-brainer to me. When the console wars of the 90s began in earnest, Crash Bandicoot was essentially the face of the Sony Playstation, a mascot meant to rival Nintendo’s Mario and Sega’s Sonic. Mario and Sonic have been in Smash for over a decade now, so where’s the third member of the triumvirate? The series has been a huge commercial success and has already appeared on the Nintendo Switch, so it’s long past time to recognize that it was a three-character battle for supremacy back in the 1990s, and that Crash was a formidable contender.

Image from Wikipedia

Choice #2: Lara Croft

To be honest, there were three characters that defined the early Playstation era in my mind: Cloud Strife (already in Smash), Crash Bandicoot (see above), and Lara Croft, the protagonist of the Tomb Raider series. It’s true that much of her early appeal came from the series’s blatant objectification of the character, but grittier reboots from later years distanced themselves from this image and pushed a deeper and darker story to make the character more interesting (and more palatable to modern gaming sensibilities). The commercial impact of the game in undeniable: The series has sold 74 million units worldwide and spawned several movies, and Croft has even been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most successful video game heroine.” Sony’s contributions to gaming have been under-represented in Smash Bros. up to this point (for obvious reasons), so bringing both Crash and Lara to the series would go a long way towards closing that hole.

Image from Amazon

Choice #3: Steve/Alex

How many ‘Game of the Decade‘ nods does a title have to win before we acknowledge it with a Smash Bros. invitation? Minecraft is more than the best-selling game of all-time, it’s a worldwide phenomenon that spawned a massive social media/influencer community and remains the sandbox game a decade after it launched. How much reach does this game have? So much that my old freaking research group built a model nuclear power plant in the game as a teaching tool to get kids excited in careers in STEM and the power industry! The tools Minecraft provide an endless opportunity to build, create, and experiment, and the impact the game has had over the last decade is more than enough to deserve a call from Sakurai.

Image from Fandom.com

Choice #4: Scorpion

Let’s see: We’ve got Street Fighter and Fatal Fury in the game now, so what iconic fighting franchises are we missing? With apologies to the Tekken series (which has actually outsold MK by a few million according to VGsales), the lack of a Mortal Kombat character feels like the most glaring omission at the moment. Mortal Kombat was a revelation when it debuted back in the early 1990s, and its gory aesthetic was so over-the-top that it spurred the creation of the ESRB to rate each game’s ape-appropriateness. The series remains a popular draw today (MK X had sold almost 11 million copies as of last April), which is probably why we haven’t seen any representation in SSBU (they’d be cannibalizing their own audience). Still, in terms of its legacy and impact, this franchise deserves to be featured in our gaming museum.

So why Scorpion? To be honest, he’s probably the most recognizable character from the series, even more so than protagonist Liu Kang or Scorpion palette swap Sub Zero. Plus, that spear would open up some really battle mechanics (perhaps similar to Byleth’s Sword of the Creator?). It’s time for Nintendo to tell Scorpion to “Get Over Here!”

Image from Fandom.com

Choice #5: Jim Raynor

Real-time strategy games are badly under-represented in Smash Bros., and since I can’t think of any good character choices from Warcraft, the nod for this slot goes to the Mar Sara marshal of yore. Starcraft was a huge game back in the late 1990s, and the long break between the 1998 original game and 2010’s Starcraft II meant this thing had incredible staying power (the kind that SSBU is aiming for, actually). It’s considered one of the seminal RTS games ever made, it’s sold over 17 million games in its history, and was even instrumental in building the esports competitive scene. You can’t talk about gaming without bringing up the impact of Starcraft, and while its lack of recognizable characters is an obstacle (did anyone actually play the single-player campaign?), Raynor gets the nod here due to his sheer seniority if nothing else. (Although I have to admit, all of Sarah Kerrigan’s various transformation would make for an interesting moveset…)

Choice #6: Here’s where we can get a little crazy. A repeat representative from an iconic franchise might fit: Chun Li from Street Fighter, Tails from Sonic The Hedgehog, perhaps even (gasp!) Waluigi? (Sorry Geno fans, I love Super Mario RPG, but the lack of a true sequel means neither Geno nor Mallow has the track record to deserve inclusion here.) Overwatch characters like Tracer are proposed quite often, and maybe Xenoblade has done enough to deserve the final spot.

For this list, however, I propose we bring back a character better known for his movies than his games:

Image from Hollywood Reporter

That’s right: Bond. James Bond.

GoldenEye 007 was the anti-E.T. when it arrived on the Nintendo 64 back in 1997. Yeah, sure, the game had a single-player experience that mirrored the movie and all, but much like Starcraft, the real action was in the multiplayer scene. It remains the console’s third-best-selling game of all time (it outsold Ocarina of Time, for crying out loud!), and it is often cited as not only one of the best FPS games of all-time, but one of the best games period. James Bond’s long cinematic history gives the character more longevity than anyone else of the roster, and GoldenEye gives it the video game cachet it needs to qualify for SSBU. (Yes, I know Goku is in a similar situation and has already been ruled out from appearing, but Dragon Ball games have never felt like touchstone titles the way GoldenEye did.) Make it happen, Nintendo. (But please no Oddjob; we have enough trouble taking on Pichu.)

None of these characters make actually make it into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as playable characters, but they all deserve to be included in the game somewhere. If SSBU is truly the game to end all games, then we should ensure that historically significant games and franchises like the ones above get their time in the spotlight.

Editor’s Note: But we still want Tails in the game too. 😉