The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: September 20, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the 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. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
2. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
3. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
4. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
5. Luke Bryan, “Waves” -1 (4/10)
6. Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” +2 (7/10)
7. Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
8. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
9. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
10. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
11. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
12. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
13. Luke Combs, “Cold As You” 0 (5/10)
14. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
15. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
16. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
17. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” -2 (3/10)
18. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
19. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
20. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
21. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
22. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
23. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
24. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
25. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
26. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
27. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
28. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
29. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
30. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
31. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
32. Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” +2 (7/10)
33. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
34. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
35. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
36. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
37. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
38. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
39. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
40. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
41. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
42. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
43. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
44. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
45. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
46. Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” 0 (5/10)
47. Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” 0 (5/10)*
48. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
49. Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” +1 (6/10)
50. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” +2 (7/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) -1
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +6
Overall Pulse +5
Change From Last Week
+1 🙂

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “To Be Loved By You,” 3/10

Gone:

  • Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” (recurrent)
  • Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” (dropped below #50)

Leaving:

  • Luke Bryan, “Waves” (down from #3 to #5)
  • Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” (down from #1 to #6)

In Real Trouble:

  • Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” (down from #24 to #26, lost its bullet)
  • Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” (holds at #32, but gained only twenty-two spins and 126 points)
  • Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” (down from #48 to #49, but lost its bullet again)

In Some Trouble:

  • Lauren Alaina ft. Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” (up from #35 to #34, but gained only thirty-two spins and forty-six points)
  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (down from #36 to #37, gained only thirteen spins and fifty-four points)
  • Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (down from #41 to #42, gained only thirty-five spins and eighty-five points)
  • Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” (holds at #46, but gained only eleven spins and lost points)
  • Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” (up from #49 to #48, but gained only twenty-three spins and seventy-three points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” (up from #39 to #35)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Cold As You” (holds at #13)

Bubbling Under 50:

  • Crowded out of Country Aircheck once again…

On The Way:

  • Chris Young ft. Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”
  • Niko Moon, “Paradise To Me”

Overall Thoughts: This was an interesting week: With two A-listers (Rhett and Bryan) drifting towards recurrence this week, a ton of higher-quality spins were released back into the wild, allowing even songs that couldn’t bank a ton of airtime to at least point half-decent point gains. With both men stuck on the charts for now, however, the chart was stuck in stasis, with a good sixteen songs failing to budge from their slots (and a bunch more only moving one slot up or down). Rhett seems to be fading faster than Bryan, so there’s a good chance both tracks go recurrent next week, which should allow the escalator to stop moving once again.

In terms of the overall chart score, Pearce & McBryde helped push the Pulse a bit higher this week, but I don’t see this being a long-term trend (especially since Jones ended up getting pushed out to make room). The Pulse remains in a precarious position, and it’s going to need a lot more intervention to stay positive.

On the coronavirus front, is there finally some reasons for optimism? Daily case counts are beginning to drop on a national level (although there are still some local hotspots), and while it will still take a few weeks for the daily death averages to start dropping, current models predict that we’re going to see a steady decline in cases and deaths over the next six months…provided people get their kids vaccinated and a new variant doesn’t pop up (Mu remains concerning, but for now Delta seems to be crowding it out) The vaccination rate sits a hair below 55% right now, but given the promising data from Pfizer regarding the vaccine’s effective for children and the eventual vaccine guidelines from OSHA, that number should start to climb in the next few weeks.

Still, the fact remains that the coronavirus will be with us for another winter, which means it’s imperative that we keep following best practices:

  • Wear a mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers, creating an animated PSA…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

Those kinda-sorta optimistic models are dependent on us taking the necessary steps to contain and control the virus, so let’s all resolve to do our parts and make a big push to get this pandemic off life’s highway and on to the exit ramp where it belongs.

NASCAR 2021: Who made the Chase?

https://www.nascar.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2021/08/31/2021-TrackAnalysis-625x340.jpg
Image from Nascar.com

As I famously said many years ago, “even a blind nut find a squirrel once in a while.” (Yes, I know it’s wrong; that’s why so many people remember me saying it.)

Back in 2016, before the blog took on its familiar music/gaming format, I wrote a few scattershot posts about sports, including a defense of Buck Showalter, a tribute to David Ortiz, and a eulogy for José Fernández. Among these random posts was an attempt to peer into the crystal ball and predict the future of NASCAR—specifically, which drivers would be part of the sport’s playoff system in 2021? At the time, NASCAR had a wave of promising young talent both on the track and on the horizon, one that had made me bullish on the future prospects of the league and its place within the American sports hierarchy. Which ones would eventually lead the sport to glory?

To be honest, at things stand right now the answer is “none of the above.” Personally, I’m no longer the avid race-watcher I used to be, (although part of this is because I refuse to pay for TV when YouTube exists), and apparently I’m not alone. The downward trend NASCAR was looking to reverse in 2016 just kept on going, with the series seeing both a 50% drop in television ratings and a significant drop in in-person attendance over the last five years. Despite its influx of promising talent, NASCAR remains a niche sport far from the minds of most Americans, a sport whose stereotypical fan is fast becoming an empty bleacher seat.

Still, I made a prediction about the 2021 Chase years ago, and I was curious to see just how well that take had aged. My Splatoon 2 map predictions were pretty bad, but perhaps my NASCAR intuition turned out a bit better? Let’s go to the tape and find out:

Predicted To Make 2021 ChaseActually Made 2021 Chase
Kyle LarsonKyle Larson
Ryan BlaneyRyan Blaney
Martin Truex Jr.Martin Truex Jr.
Kyle BuschKyle Busch
Chase ElliottChase Elliott
Alex BowmanAlex Bowman
Denny HamlinDenny Hamlin
William ByronWilliam Byron
Joey LoganoJoey Logano
Brad KeselowskiBrad Keselowski
Jimmie JohnsonKurt Busch
Carl EdwardsChristopher Bell
Austin DillonMichael McDowell
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Aric Almirola
Erik JonesTyler Reddick
Kevin HarvickKevin Harvick

…Dang, that’s a lot better than I expected. I nailed 11 of the 16 drivers, including the entire Top 10! So where did things go wrong with the other five?

  • Carl Edwards: Five years ago, I confidently declared that Edwards would be in the mix, saying he “hasn’t gone on the record with any retirement talk…and as one of the fittest drivers on the circuit, his age shouldn’t play a big a role in the decision.” Naturally, Edwards abruptly retired about five seconds after I wrote that, and was last seen sailing across the ocean. While the move may have immediately ruined my prediction, you have to respect a man who made such a tough call and seems so at peace with it all these years later.
  • Michael McDowell: On the opposite side of the spectrum, McDowell is a also-ran who got lucky and won a restrictor-plate race to notch his first Cup win after fourteen years on the circuit. Anyone who tells you they had McDowell making the Chase this year is a liar.
  • Jimmie Johnson: Johnson had been a fixture in the NASCAR playoffs since the playoffs became a thing, and I said that “I’ll believe Johnson’s run of excellence is over when I see it, and not a moment before.” That moment came in 2018, when Johnson barely made the Chase, got eliminated in the first round, and lost both longtime sponsor Lowe’s and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus. He didn’t make the playoffs at all in 2019 or 2020, and seeing the writing on the wall, he stepped aside following the 2020 season. He may not be in the 2021 field, but with seven titles on his mantle, he’ll be on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore for many years to come.
  • Kurt Busch: I’m not entirely sure why I left Busch off of my prediction list. He was a year older than Edwards, and seemed to be bouncing between teams a lot, so maybe I figured he was on the downside of his career? His results, however, have been both respectable and consistent over the years, and though he’s switching teams again after this year, I’m starting to think he may still be a factor in the 2026 Chase.
  • Erik Jones: Young NFL quarterbacks are barely given any leash before their teams starting looking for the next big thing to replace them, and Jones wound up getting the same treatment from Joe Gibbs Racing. After performing well in the Xfinity series in 2016 and spending a year in the 78 car, Jones made the Chase in 2018 and 2019…and then got bounced from JGR in 2020 in favor of a driver who was a year-and-a-half older than he was. He found himself on the outside looking in driving the 43 this year, but mark my words: He’ll be back.
  • Christopher Bell: Bell was a contemporary of Byron’s in the Truck series back in 2016, and while he actually finished higher than Byron in the overall standings, Byron’s game was a lot more flashy (he had seven wins that year compared to Bell’s one), so he was the guy that caught my attention. Since that year, however, Bell’s track record is pretty impressive, with a Truck series championship and two Xfinity series top-fives, so you can kind of see why Gibbs made the move to replace Jones with Bell. I’m not sure I would have made that same move, but Bell did make the Chase this year, and we’ll see if he can keep up his momentum going forward.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: This was a risky pick from the start, as I noted at the time: “Stenhouse will certainly be around in another five years, but will he ever show enough speed to break into the NASCAR playoffs?” The answer turned out to be “no”: Not only was he a middle-of-the-pack driver for the last five years, but his propensity to winding up in crashes earned him the nickname “Wrecky Spinhouse.” (For a while, it seemed like there were five certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne, and Danica Patrick all crashing out of a race.) In the end, not even Roush Racing would stand behind him, dumping him for Chris Buescher a mere month after signing Stenhouse to a new two-year contract. He’s spent the last two years getting the same old mediocre results with JTG Daugherty Racing, and whatever championship window he had is probably closed.
  • Tyler Reddick: Reddick was basically a less-impressive version of Christopher Bell in 2016 and wound up as a part-time driver the next year, so I really didn’t see him as a legitimate 2021 Chase contender. Back-to-back Xfinity championships in 2018 and 2019, however, changed the trajectory of his career, and Richard Childress Racing brought him to the big leagues the next year. Don’t be surprised to see him not only make the Chase in 2021, but contend for the Cup as well.
  • Austin Dillon: This is probably the biggest surprise for me. I figured Dillon was primed for bigger and better things after making the Chase in 2016, praising “his Newman-esque consistency” and saying that “it’s only a matter of time before he finds his way to Victory Lane.” Such trips have turned out to be few and far between for Dillon since then, and he’s mostly been treading water on the playoff border ever since (he just missed the cut this year after a crash in the final regular-season race at Daytona). His career results look awfully similar to Stenhouse’s to my eyes, so you have to wonder how long he lasts in the 3 car before either he or his grandfather Richard Childress decide it’s time for a change.
  • Aric Almirola: If you’re in the “drivers aren’t athletes” camp (for the record, I’m not), Almirola makes a pretty solid case for your argument. This dude was a nothingburger back in 2016, stuck in a second-tier (or maybe even third-tier) ride with Richard Petty Motorsports and watching his results falling as fast as NASCAR’s attendance figures. A switch to Stweart-Haas Racing after 2017, however, turned the man into a monster, and he hasn’t missed the Chase since. (Alex Bowman saw the same transition happen after jumping to Hendrick Motorsports full-time; looking back, I’m honestly surprised I chose Bowman over Kurt Busch for the last slot on my list.) You have to be a good driver to make it in the Cup series at all, but Almirola and Bowman demonstrate the painful reality that if you don’t have the money and the hardware behind you, you’re not going anywhere. As long as Almirola’s in the No. 10, he’s a threat to make this list in another five years.

So where does the sport go from here? While I won’t make any predictions for what the Chase will look like in 2026, my gut feeling is that it will look remarkably similar to the current Chase. Some of the current veterans (Harvick, Hamlin, Kurt Bush, Truex, maybe even Keselowski) will likely ride off into the sunset, but the core of the group here is primed to make noise for at least a few more years. I’m not sure what the sport’s talent pipeline looks like, however, and even if there are some exciting new faces ready to take flight, NASCAR just isn’t the draw that it used to be. (Honestly, cars in general aren’t the draw they used to be; a 2016 survey found that nearly two-thirds of Americans consider their car to be just another appliance.) Despite the sport’s willingness to tinker with its formula (the Chase itself, the implementation of race ‘stages’ back in 2017), nothing seems to be catching the peoples’ attention, and I have no idea what else they can do to recapture the magic.

There will be a Chase for the Cup in 2026. The question will be if anyone cares by then.

Song Review: Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”

Just when you think country music has run out of tricks…

Two days ago, I declared that “the chart’s descent into negative territory is now inevitable” “unless someone miraculously rides to the rescue,” and I specifically called out Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde’s new collaboration as a possible savior to the Pulse score. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the pairing, as neither one has found consistent chart success (Pearce has a single solo Top Ten to her name after “Next Girl” had its plug pulled at #15, but it’s one more Billboard Top Ten than McBryde has after “Martha Divine” crashed and burned at #59), and Pearce in particular has thrown some seriously mediocre singles at the radio over the last few years. What we got in the end was “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” a story of two people who find themselves caught up in an unwanted love triangle, and while it’s not quite on the level of Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’s “Does He Love You,” it’s a strong performance for both artists that does a nice job capturing the mixed emotions of the scenario, and might end up bailing out the Pulse as a result.

The production isn’t much to write home about, but it’s an understated, solemn effort that sets a suitably-serious mood for the song. We’re confronted once again with the usual guitars and drums, but the instrument tones are darker and a bit muted, keeping the focus squarely on the subject matter while also impressing the importance and significance of the issue upon the audience. The dobro is becoming a major part of Pearce’s sound, and it gets ample screen time here (including the lead role on the bridge solo) as a way of breaking up the guitar monotony and accenting the atmosphere that they create. (There’s a keyboard deep in the background as well, but it’s barely noticeable and doesn’t add a ton to the sound—in fact, it’s probably only here because you’re contractually obligated to put a keyboard of some sort in a “serious” country song.) It’s the sort of arrangement that favors simplicity and calm over overproduction and a high-octane sound, a wise move given that it wouldn’t take much to overwhelm both the vocalists and the story with volume and energy. The producer knows their role here, and they do just enough to provide support to the subject matter without becoming the center of attention. It may not be a terribly interesting sound, but it shouldn’t be, and given the pieces around, it doesn’t have to be.

The biggest contrast between “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” and “Does He Love You” is the vocalists that are involved: Frankly, neither Pearce nor McBryde are in McEntire’s or even Davis’s league in terms of sheer vocal power and presence (which translates into the sound as well: The producer on “Does He Love You” had the freedom to add a few more pieces and turn the song into a true power ballad, knowing that there’s no way in heck he could ever overwhelm the women behind the mic). However, that’s not to say that Pearce and McBryde drop the ball here: Instead of trying to make the song a super-emotional tearjerker, both artists use a more-plainspoken delivery to convey both their weariness and disbelief to the listener, as if they’re still trying to process the whole mess themselves. Much like the best of Tom T. Hall‘s discography, Pearce and McBryde approach the song as a story and they tell it like one, without excessive passion or judgment (except perhaps towards themselves). This sort of performance is second nature to McBryde, but we haven’t really heard something like this from Pearce since “Every Little Thing,” and I was pleasantly surprised (and even a little impressed) at how much vocal chemistry the duo demonstrated on the choruses (they’ve sung one song together and they’re already a better pair than Tyler Hubbard and Brian “Mr. Invisible” Kelley). In other words, I like Pearce and McBryde as a pair, and there’s a part of my brain that wonders whether a Brooks & Dunn-like pairing could reverse both artists’ lackluster chart results…

Unlike a lot of the team-up tracks on the radio these days, this song was actually written as a duet, with two distinct narrators who find out that they’ve been unknowingly romantically involved with the same person. I absolutely love how the song starts, as the “other woman” gives a detailed account of how they wound up in this predicament despite their best intentions (as they said, “they never wanted to be that girl”). The mentioning of the spouse’s family history in the second verse was a brilliant move as well, making their realization that they wound up in a situation they thought they were primed to recognize and avoid a real gut punch for themselves and the audience. Anger would have been the easy angle to play here (and it might have worked well in the story—remember what happened to Martha Divine?), but instead both narrators restrict judgement only to themselves, discussing how they feel on the bridge without ever discussing each other and making themselves seem more sympathetic in the process. (Their feelings towards the third person in this triangle are never explicitly mentioned, but it’s still pretty clear that they’re the bad guy. Also, when are cheating lovers in country songs going to wisen up and start buying burner cell phones?) It’s a really well-constructed piece that challenges your assumptions when it comes to who’s right and who’s wrong in a scenario like this, and it’s the sort of deep, thought-provoking track that I wish we had more of on the radio right now.

“Never Wanted to Be That Girl” isn’t quite “Does He Love You,” but it’s a strong offering from Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde in a year that’s had far too few quality singles reach the airwaves. With a great story, some solid vocal performances, and production that sets the mood and then wisely gets out of the way, this was an easy, enjoyable listen that demonstrates the direction I’d really like to see country music go in. This genre needs to look beyond the beer, trucks, and Friday nights and give us more songs rooted in stories and experience, imparting lessons learned and providing hard-earned, mature perspectives that make us think about the world and the people in it.

Is this song going to keep the Pulse from going negative? Probably not…but at least it might delay it for a while longer.

Rating: 7/10. This one is definitely worth your time.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: September 13, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the 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. Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” +2 (7/10)
2. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
3. Luke Bryan, “Waves” -1 (4/10)
4. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
5. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
6. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
7. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
8. Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
9. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
10. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
11. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
12. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
13. Luke Combs, “Cold As You” 0 (5/10)
14. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
15. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
16. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
17. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
18. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” -2 (3/10)
19. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
20. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
21. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
22. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
23. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
24. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
25. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
26. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
27. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
28. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
29. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
30. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
31. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
32. Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” +2 (7/10)
33. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
34. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
35. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
36. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
37. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
38. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
39. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
40. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
41. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
42. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
43. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
44. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
45. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
46. Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” 0 (5/10)
47. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
48. Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” +1 (6/10)
49. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
50. Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” +1 (6/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) 0
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +4
Overall Pulse +4
Change From Last Week
-3 😦

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “To Be Loved By You,” 3/10

Gone:

  • Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” (recurrent)
  • Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” (down to #54; I expected this one to “get run over by several tracks,” but not to get kicked out the chart entirely!)
  • Brett Young, “Not Yet” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Luke Bryan, “Waves” (down from #1 to #3)
  • Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” (up from #31 to #47)

In Real Trouble:

  • Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Can” (down from #22 to #23, lost its bullet)
  • Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” (up from #33 to #32, but gained only nine spins and ninety-eight points)
  • Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” (up from #49 to #48, but gained only thirty-seven spins and ninety-four points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Toby Keith, “Old School” (up from #39 to #38, but gained only eleven spins and forty-two points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” (up from #41 to #37)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Cold As You” (up from #14 to #13. It’s pace is surprisingly slow, but it may be getting held back by “Forever After All,” which would still be #9 if it wasn’t officially recurrent)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Chris Young ft. Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”
  • Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”

Overall Thoughts: It wasn’t surpising to see the floodgates open as Bryan and Pearce combined to release over 2,000 spins back into the wild, but it was surprising to see those spins filter all the way down to the bottom half of the charts (especially given Hunt’s big debut), leading to only a few songs winding up in the Pulse’s traditional trouble categories. The top of the chart remained mostly frozen in place, but the departure of Moore, Green, and Young (paired with Pearce’s rapid collapse and imminent exit) led to some notable position gains at the bottom of the charts as well.

The overall Pulse, however, remains in a precarious position: There are only five songs in the Top 50 with a score above a 6/10, and three of them are currently in the Top Ten, which means that unless someone miraculously rides to the rescue (maybe the Pearce/McBryde collab isn’t bad, or maybe Midland finally makes a move back onto the chart), I think the Chart’s descent into negative territory is now inevitable. The genre has fallen into a real malaise (which, admittedly, reflects how the entire country feels at this point), and I’m not sure what it will take to get it out of its funk.

Things look mixed on the coronavirus front, but “mixed” is an upgrade from the “flat-out awful” we’ve been staring out the last few weeks. While the death count continues to climb, daily new-case averages appear to be leveling off nationwide (although some hot spots are still popping up), and while the vaccination rate remains at a paltry 54%, this should increase as President Biden (and an increasing number of employers) impose vaccine mandates. (In truth, the whole “nationwide mandate” narrative is a little overblown, given that the eventual OSHA guidelines will allow folks to avoid vaccination as long as they submit to weekly tests.) Given that the consensus seems to be that the incentives offered thus far have helped a little but not a lot, I support bringing the other half of the carrot-and-stick approach into play, because (I’ve I said before) we need to do everything we can to get people vaccinated and protect both them and the people around them from the virus.

At this point, y’all know what to do:

  • Wear a mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

We don’t have a ton of time before winter, so we all need to do our part now try to get this virus under control as soon as possible. There will be an end to all this someday, but how quickly we reach that future will depend on our actions in the present.

Song Review: Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)”

Sorry Caroline Jones, but…wait, is this a decent song for a change?

Mailboat Records has been pushing Jones to country for several years now, and up to this point they’ve had little to show for their efforts: Of the five singles Jones has released to the radio, none of them have even cracked the top fifty on Billboard’s airplay chart (and given how mediocre “Chasin’ Me” and “All Of The Boys” were, this wasn’t much of a surprise). This year, however, Jones took a page from the female empowerment anthems that have been slowly growing in number lately, and released “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable),” setting some strict relationship boundaries while being backed by a beat with some bounce. I wasn’t expecting much going into this review, but I’m actually kind of impressed by what I’ve found here: There have been quite a few songs singing the praises of strong women recently, but very few of them have been this much fun to listen to.

It all starts with the production, which stands as an example of how to take a typical guitar-and-drum mix and turn it into something exciting. The electric guitar (which Jones handles herself, including on a solid solo) has a bright, rollicking sound, and the percussion, while perhaps a bit too reliant on Grady Smith’s favorite clap track, gives the song a lively, back-porch feel. The pair teams up with a fiddle (which sounds great during its solo turn, but honestly should be have used a lot more, at the very least as a background space-filler) to create a barnburner of a mix with tons of momentum and energy to burn. While the song places an unfairly-heavy burden on the sound (more on that later), this arrangement is more than up to the task, as it mixes the song’s strong, confident message with a fun, positive vibe that can get everyone tapping or dancing along. I’ve given Jones’s production team a fair bit of grief for having too many empty sonic calories in her sound, but this time I think they got the balance just right.

I’m still not 100% sold on Jones as a vocalist, but at least this track seems to play to her strengths. There aren’t any real technical issues (although I feel like some of the lines try to cram too many syllables into a line), but Jones doesn’t have the power or presence in her delivery to sell a heavier, more-serious approach to this topic. Playing up the ‘fun’ angle of the song, however, allows her to bring some personality and attitude to the table, making the narrator feel more three-dimensional while earning the audience’s respect and empathy. Jones may not a big-voice balladeer like Carrie Underwood or Mickey Guyton, but her narrator is in total control of this situation, and when she declares that nothing is happening here without her approval, you believe her. After struggling with more sensual or emotional performances on previous singles, I think Jones may have found a niche as a Miranda Lambert-type artist who brings some serious confidence to the table, and while she lacks Lambert’s sharper edge in her delivery, she’s more than capable of getting her message across here.

As far as the lyrics go, I think the writers had the “write” idea (this is what you get when you start watching DashieXP videos while writing a review), but the song feels surprisingly unfinished to me. The narrator strikes a confident tone with the hook, declaring that they won’t be pushed around and that “I wouldn’t want to be you when I want you gone,” and the “park your truck facing out” line is a nice touch. (There’s also some unexpectedly rough and direct language here; I like how they use this to amplify the narrator’s attitude, but I’m kind of surprised to see a buttoned-down format like country radio let a line like “you ain’t getting in my pants” onto the airwaves.) The issue is that the lyrics get repetitive quickly: The opening “come in, but don’t make yourself comfortable” block used up getting used three times, the other verses only vary the wording slightly, we get what passes for a chorus repeated twice, and that’s all. The “whoa-oh” part is a complete waste of time, and the instrumental breaks run a bit longer than they ought to, making it feel like the writers gave up about halfway through the track and tossed in a bunch of filler to stretch the song to three minutes. The problem with loading up your song with attitude is that it puts the focus squarely on the writing, and when it’s this undercooked, it makes it seem like you really didn’t have that much to say. It’s a good thing that the other pieces of this song are so strong, because the writing left a lot to be desired despite its good intentions.

Despite its shortcomings, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” turns out to be an enjoyable,and while its messaging is held back a bit by the incomplete writing, the solid efforts from both Caroline Jones and her producer more than make up for it. Listening to mainstream country music this year has been a bland and rarely-enjoyable exercise, so it was nice to hear a song that created a fun, upbeat atmosphere while avoiding the nihilistic, devil-may-care trap that got us stuck in the Cobronavirus era to begin with. Whether or not the radio will embrace this track is still to be determined, but much like Lainey Wilson did with “Things A Man Oughta Know,” this song gives Jones the chance to re-introduce herself to the world on better terms, and perhaps find a more-permanent home on the radio and in the genre.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a chance and see what you think.

Song Review: Sam Hunt, “23”

Would it kill Sam Hunt to release an interesting song for a change?

Sam Hunt made his name in the mid/late 2010s with his “unique” fusion of genres and mediocre talk-singing delivery, but lately he seems to have faded into the background as more artists adopt his sound, his output becomes more sporadic, and his songs become more and more uninteresting. Sure, tracks like “Hard To Forget” and “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” eventually made it to #1, but there was nothing that really stood out about them, and they were forgotten the moment they went recurrent. (Seriously, when the most interesting thing about your songs over the last eighteen months is Webb Pierce, you’ve got a problem.) Now, Hunt has closed the book on the Southside era barely a year after the album was released (that’s what happens when you wait four singles before dropping the LP), and has dropped “23” as the presumed leadoff single for his third album (it’ll be out just in time for the holiday season! …of 2023). Sadly, this is a bad-faith story from a resentful narrator that never answers the question “Why should we care about this?”, and the listener tunes it out before the second verse arrives.

The production here may be the usual guitar-and-drum mix everyone else used at its core, but it’s got some of the usual twists that you expect from a Sam Hunt record: The drums are mostly synthetic here, and the electric guitars are buried in so more reverb that it’s hard to tell exactly what they are (Electric? Pedal Steel?). The more-classical instrumentation Hunt was experimenting with on songs like “Hard To Forget” is mostly gone, but the one instrument that survived this purge is the dobro (it fact, given that is gets the bridge solo here, you could argue that it’s thriving), and it’s the one thing that helps the sound stand out a bit from the crowd. The major issue here is that the sound can’t seem to decide what mood it wants to set: The percussion is too busy to give the song a reflective or sad feel, but the instrument tones are a bit too neutral to make the song feel upbeat or positive. The sound is caught in an awkward position between a club banger and a solemn ballad, and it doesn’t provide any solid cues for how the listener should feel about the whole thing. In the end, this is a forgettable arrangement that passes through the listener’s mind without leaving a trace, and frankly it’s the least of this track’s issues.

Hunt himself sticks to a more-conventional delivery this time around, but I really don’t like his attitude on this track. The range and power demands here are minimal and he’s got plenty of practice with the faster portions of a song like this, but his voice lacks any tone and texture, and he sounds surprisingly detached from the story he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about. Unfortunately, the not-so-subtle digs present in the lyrics betray him, and he winds up looking like a fraud, failing to play it cool while underneath he still burns at being rejected by his ex all those years ago. His claim that he wishes happiness on his partner feels hollow and disingenuous, and it seems like the memories the pair shared together is something that Hunt feels he can lord over them all those years later, as if they’re proof that the other person can never truly move beyond their lowbrow roots. In other words, it’s not a good look for the narrator, and instead of feeling sorry for them, the audience is left wishing they would get over themselves and just move on.

The writing here is the time-honored tale of a narrator who’s been left behind by someone who’s chasing bigger and better things out in the world, a time-honored trope in this genre. Ostensibly this song is about a narrator reflecting on the time they spent with their ex, wishing them the best and declaring that no matter where they go, they’ll “never be 23 with anyone” but each other. It’s a nice (if not terribly engaging) sentiment, but if you scratch the surface a darker thread emerges: The narrator makes a lot of insinuations that their ex is inauthentic and not true to their roots, talking about how they’re probably marrying someone “that really impresses your father,”that they might “straighten out your accent in the city, like your folks ain’t from Mississippi,” and that they might now “drink some wine in California” and are “so sophisticated” with “those skirts you always hated.” The narrator also makes a point of rehashing the night their ex dumped them “telling me your mind is changed,” making it pretty obvious that a) the narrator is not over the breakup, and b) they’re really unhappy with the other person about it. It reminds me a lot of Lee Brice’s irritating “That Don’t Sound Like You,” where the narrator thinks that they know the other person’s “true” self, and that they’re betraying both themselves and the narrator by moving on and doing different things (and they’re absolutely certain that the other person thinks that way too, with lines like “when you drink too much, I bet you’re thinking ’bout back when.” News flash, bro: People are allowed to change their minds and try (and even like!) different things, and with your mention of things like finding “grown up friends” and getting caught “in-between real love and real life,” even you’re admitting that your ex is maturing and finding their place in the world (and by comparison, you’re not). The whole mess feels like pointless sour grapes to me, and the listener is left wishing that the narrator would take a hint from their departed partner and get a life.

“23” is nothing more than a whiny tale of woe that isn’t worth listening to, a wolf in nostalgic sheep’s clothing that fails to conceal its true nature as a bitter rant from someone who just needs to grow up and move on. Both the writing and Sam Hunt himself drive this thing into the gutter with their insufferable attitude, and the producer can’t seem to decide if they want to lean into the negativity or use a dance beat to persuade people to ignore it. The result isn’t quite as annoying as “Parker Denning,” but it’s not far off, and it stands as another example of the “entitled, thin-skinned frame of mind” I’m hearing from Nashville lately, and we need to put a stop to this right now.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: September 7, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the 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. Luke Bryan, “Waves” -1 (4/10)
2. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
3. Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” +2 (7/10)
4. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
5. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
6. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
7. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
8. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
9. Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
10. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
11. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
12. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
13. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
14. Luke Combs, “Cold As You” 0 (5/10)
15. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
16. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
17. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
18. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
19. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
20. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” -2 (3/10)
21. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
22. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
23. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
24. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
25. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
26. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
27. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
28. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
29. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
30. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
31. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
32. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
33. Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” +2 (7/10)
34. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
35. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
36. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
37. Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” -1 (4/10)
38. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
39. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
40. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
41. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
42. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
43. Brett Young, “Not Yet” +1 (6/10)
44. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
45. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
46. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
47. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
48. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
49. Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” +1 (6/10)
50. Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +4
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +3
Overall Pulse +7
Change From Last Week
0

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “To Be Loved By You,” 3/10

Gone:

  • Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist” (recurrent)
  • Larry Fleet, “Where I Find God” (dropped below #50, “Thank you!” ad in CA)

Leaving:

  • Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” (down from #3 to #7)
  • Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” (up from #12 to #31)
  • Brett Young, “Not Yet” (down from #41 to #43 and lost its bullet with a 275+ point loss. This thing is history)

In Real Trouble:

  • Lauren Alaina ft. Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” (holds at #36, but gained only seven spins and lost points)
  • Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” (up from #38 to #37, but lost its bullet)
  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (up from #39 to #38, but gained only forty-seven spins and 109 points; I need to see more strength from this one before I pull it off this list)
  • Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” (up from #43 to #42, but lost its bullet)
  • Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (up from #45 to #44, but gained onlt forty-one spins and 131 points)
  • Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” (down from #46 to #47, bullet-less for a second consecutive week)

In Some Trouble:

  • Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” (holds at #11, but gained only seventy spins and twenty-six points)
  • Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” (up from #16 to #15, but gained only six spins and six points)
  • Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” (up from #27 to #26, but gained only sixteen spins and lost points)
  • HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” (holds at #30, but gained only twenty spins and seventy-eight points)
  • Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” (down from #32 to #33, gained only six spins and fifty-one points)
  • Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” (down from #33 to #34, lost spins and gained only forty-two points)
  • Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” (up from #49 to #48, but gained only twelve spins and one point)
  • Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” (re-enters at #49, but gained only ten spins and sixty-two points; why is still song still here?)
  • Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” (re-enters at #50, but gained one spin and lost points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” (up from #34 to #28)
  • Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” (up from #37 to #32)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Cold As You” (up from #17 to #14)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Sam Hunt, “23”

  • Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story”
  • Morgan Evans, “Love Is Real”
  • Chris Young ft. Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”

Overall Thoughts: Bryan’s camping at the top of the escalator and Rhett and Wilson’s duel pushes for the week to come turned this week into a gut check: With spins fairly hard to come by (especially in the lower half of the charts, you either had to focus on the quality of your spins or cross your fingers and try to live another day. Despite both Pearce and Fleet bowing out early, a lot of songs posted some seriously disappointing numbers, especially Alaina/Pardi (how do you get 10 adds one week and just seven spins the next week?), Green (look for this one to get run over by several tracks next week, possibly even by Smith/Old Dominion’s weak track), Bentley/BRELAND/HARDY (for whatever reason, the radio is simply not picking up what they’re putting down), and Young (this thing has been treading water for months; if it’s not toast it ought to be). Hunt’s likely-to-be-massive debut won’t make things any easier next week, so at this point any songs that are wavering better batten down the hatches and hope that things improve by October.

The bi-annual examination of the Power Gold rankings came out this week as well, and the big news here is just how much turnover there was: “Nearly a quarter of the list are new entries,” including seven debuts within the Top Ten! It seems that PDs are starting to decide what songs/artists will stand the test of time from the late 2010s, and the results aren’t all that encouraging:

  • If you needed more evidence that Morgan Wallen paid exactly zero price for his behavior earlier this year, look no further than “Whiskey Glasses” debuting a the top of the Power Gold list. The article insinuated that most of Wallen’s work has yet to become gold-eligible, so unfortunately his presense on this chart will likely increase over the next few years (similar to how Luke Combs has increased his presence to put six songs on this chart).
  • I’m not a huge fan of most of the songs that joined the Power Gold party this time around, but maybe some of the older cruft is finally be cycled off the airwaves? Well, not exactly: The monster Metro-Bro hits of the 2010s seem to be trending downward, but they’re still there, and are likely to pester us for a few more years.
  • While the turnover was enough for CA not to mention that a few artists were representing half the charts, female representation in Power Gold hasn’t improved much: The article claims there are only “four women with six songs” here, but a closer look at the list indicates that there’s only one woman (Carrie Underwood) with any notable presence here: Miranda Lambert is down to a single song, “Meant To Be” was more of a Florida Georgia Line song than a Bebe Rexha one, and apparently they counted Lauren Alaina for being featured on “What Ifs.” (Lady A and Thompson Square are also present, but only have three songs betwen them.)
  • The loss of “Where The Green Grass Grows” means that “Something Like That” is the last song standing from the 1990s, and at #88 I don’t expect it to last much longer. Based on the number of times I’ve heard Chris Owen talk about the throwback 2000s sound in newer songs, it seems like the 2000s are starting to take the “new old sound” mantle away from the 1990s, although in fairness the 2000s don’t have many reps on the Power Gold list either (just eleven by my count).

On the whole, I’m just not encouraged with the makeup of the airwaves at this point, and with the Pulse still in a precarious position, I’m hoping some decent reinforcements arrive soon.

On the coronavirus front, things look really bad right now. The front edge of the current surge is starting to recede in some of the early hot spots, but daily new case averages are still climbing on the whole, health care rationing is now on the table (Idaho is already doing it, and Hawaii is preparing for it), children now make up over 25% of the nation’s weekly COVID-19 cases, and the death toll is still increasing (we’ve now surpassed the 650,000 death mark) and likely will do so for quite a while. With a stubbornly-low vaccination rate now sitting around 53%, we’re pretty much at the mercy of the virus in the short-term, and with the possibility of other illnesses making a return this fall and winter (RSV has been surging recently, and flu season is just around the corner), I honestly have no idea what the rest of the year has in store for us.

Giving in and giving up, however, are not an option, so we need to keep following best practices and do our best to keep COVID-19 and whatever else pops up this year at bay:

  • Wear a mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity. There may be questions about how long they protect you, but they do protect you from severe outcomes, and boosters shots that will be rolled out over the next few months will help keep that protection strong.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. If it takes making the vaccine easier to access, make it happen. If it takes mandating masks or vaccines in certain environments, sign the order. If it takes going on the road to combat misinformation or alleviate unfounded fears, book your travel and spread your gospel. At this point, we need all the help we can get.

It may not feel like all this amounts to much right now, but every severe illness and death that we can prevent counts (especially if you’re the one that’s saved!). We owe it to ourselves and our communities to do what we can to keep each other safe and eventually bring this pandemic to an end, whenever that may be.

Song Review: Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now”

Songs like this are why mainstream country music frustrates me so much.

I consider Tenille Arts to be the better of the two Tenilles on country radio, and I was really on the first two singles of hers that I reviewed, “Call You Names” and “Somebody Like That.” Unfortunately, country radio didn’t share my enthusiasm: “Call You Names” never ended up charting, and “Somebody Like That” took fifteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1. (Yes, there were some behind-the-scenes issues regarding who was promoting the song, but your song is on the chart so long that you end putting two songs in the Top 15 on the Canadian charts in the meantime, the song didn’t have the impact you wanted.) The message came through loud and clear that Arts’s work had to stick closer to the script to have a chance of gaining airplay traction, so that’s exactly what they did: Love, Heartbreak, & Everything In Between was set aside, and “Back Then, Right Now” was released as the U.S. market’s leadoff single for Arts’s upcoming Girl To Girl album. In two words, the song is painfully formulaic, relying on generic buzzwords and a confusing nostalgic wish to ingratiate itself with the American audience, and it’s a significant step down from her earlier work.

It’s sad to see that after Arts’s last producer Alex Kline became the first solo female producer to get a country #1, this time the reins were handed to industry veteran Dave Pittenger instead, and the change doesn’t seem to be for the better. The production here takes the basic guitar-and-drum formula and swaps in a mandolin to lighten the sound, and while it certainly provides a more-positive vibe for the track, it feels a little bit over-the-top in the end (especially when combined with the random synth notes the fill the gaps between the lyrics), The steel guitar is used just enough to satisfy Billboard’s ‘country’ algorithms and doesn’t add much to the song overall, and what sounds like an electrified dobro add a single riff and then heads for the exit. The bright, overly-sweet feel of the mix is an awkward fit for the lyrics: The narrator wishes for a return to a simpler, more-fun time, but there’s no hint of this longing in the sound; instead, it seems like everything’s just fine “right now,” so what’s the point of bringing back “back then”? (The lyrics have an even bigger problem in this regard, but we’ll talk about that a bit later.) In other words, this is a saccharine summer mix on a song that isn’t a good fit for it, and it leaves the listener confused as to what the point of the track actually is.

Arts is a capable vocalist, but she runs into the same problem as the production—in fact, I’d say she’s more responsible for the song’s ill-fitting vibe than the mandolin is. There are no technical issues with the performance, as Arts’s clear, effortless delivery lets her breeze through the track’s moderate range and flow demands without breaking a sweat. The problem, however, is that her tone and demeanor is so positive and upbeat that it makes her call to return to another era ring hollow. Honestly, she’s in a no-win position here: She could bring a bit more seriousness to the table and draw a sharper contrast between the present and the past, but then she’s stuck in the same spot that Blake Shelton was on “I Lived It,” forcefully encouraging a return to the past that isn’t the nirvana they think it is. (Additionally, as a relatively-unknown artist who’s under 30, she doesn’t really have the experience or gravitas to make a case like this, and it makes the listener question if she really knows what she’s asking for.) Arts is simply the wrong singer for this kind of song, and despite the talent and charisma she’s displayed in the past, she just can’t sell this sort of story.

The lyrics, in which the narrator advocates for bringing back the good old days and reveling in the things they enjoyed when they were younger, are where this track completely falls apart. Longtime readers will recall that I personally can’t stand tracks like this, but I’ve got some particular bones to pick with this drivel:

  • The song spends all its time hyping up the past, but it doesn’t talk about the present at all, relying on the listener to fill in the gaps and compare it to their personal situation. If you don’t already think the past is superior to the present, this song won’t sway you with its non-existent argument.
  • The language here relies primarily on overused country clichés (you’ve got your “tailgate sippin’,” “Friday night lights,” “slow ridin’ down a throwback road,” and even jams together random buzzwords like “cold can full moon” and “map-dot hallelujah”), and is mostly just a laundry list of these phrases. Despite a brand-name drops (DQ, Kodak), the scenes themselves are so stock that they probably violate Getty Image copyrights, and they do nothing to hold the audience’s interest.
  • My biggest issue with this song is this: The song uses all the same scenes and turns of phrase that everyone else uses presently, but they use them to describe the past, so the past sounds the exact same as the present…so what’s the point of the song again? Why are we calling for a return to a different time when there’s no apparent difference between then and now? Substitute “Chevrolet” for “Pontiac” and “smartphone cameras” for “Kodak,” and you’ve pretty much got 2021 (or at least pre-pandemic 2020). In other words, this song has absolutely no point and thus fails to even justify its existence.

“Back Then, Right Now” is a poor attempt to salvage a weak attempt at a nostalgia trip and turn it into a lightweight summery track that’s already missed its seasonal window (although after “Somebody Like That,” maybe 19th & Grand is targeting next summer as its peak). Tenille Arts and the producer try a little too hard to sell a vibe that the song doesn’t really justify, and the lyrics are just a grab bag of “country” phrases whose only value is that they might win someone a Buzzword Bingo game. The whole mess feels like a calculated-but-lame effort to crack the commercial algorithm that is country radio and finally get Arts some radio momentum, and that’s probably what irritates me the most about this track. I’m still high on Arts as a performer, but this is another example of a lesser-known artists having to bend to Nashville’s will and play the same old game, and we’re all worse off for it.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Why Do Record Labels Keep Recordings In The Vault?

It’s been said that you should always leave people wanting more, but what’s left out is that there’s a limit to how long people will wait for it.

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Randy Travis’s iconic debut album Storms Of Life, Warner Bros. is releasing a deluxe version of the album next month, complete with remastered version of all ten tracks. Of course, a guy like me (who now has a CD and three cassette copies of this album) isn’t all that keen on re-buying the album, so the label is trying to sweeten the pot by including a deluxe-edition exclusive: Three never-before-released tracks that were recorded around the time Storms Of Life was being together. The first of these, “Ain’t No Use,” which actually appeared on Randy’s 1982 album Live At The Nashville Palace back when he being billed as Randy Ray, was recently released on YouTube as a teaser for the upcoming album.

“Ain’t No Use” has that classic Travis sound and is a solid song in its own right, but it’s not hard to see why it didn’t make the cut for Storms Of Life: Its faster tempo and reliance of louder electric instruments would have felt slightly out of place on the album. (“My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)” is probably its closest contemporary, but its sound is slicker and a bit more subdued than “Ain’t No Use.” Sonically, this track has more in common with “What’ll You Do About Me” from Always & Forever, or maybe High Lonesome‘s “Better Class Of Losers.”) Still, there’s nothing in the rules that says all the songs on an album have to have a common sonic thread: Travis’s cover of Brook Benton’s “It’s Just A Matter Of Time” sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of Travis’s entire discography with its prominent piano and string section, but it’s a darn good song that wound up as a #1 hit. “Ain’t No Use” could have been slotted darn near anywhere into the Storms Of Life track list, and no one would have said a word.

So this begs the question: Why wasn’t “Ain’t No Use” put on Storms Of Life, or some other album? Why did we have to wait 35 years for this track to see the light of day? And what about the rest of the “20 sides” that Kyle Lehning says he and Travis recorded but didn’t put on Storms Of Life? Even if the three new tracks are from those sessions, that’s still seven more that are buried somewhere in Warner Bros.’s archives (“Fool’s Love Affair” was a demo from the early 1980s that predated Storms Of Life). Where are they, and why haven’t we heard them?

Recording material and then just sitting on it is nothing new in the music industry, and we’ve run into the issue several times in past deep dives (Toby Keith having to buy back How Do You Like Me Now? from his label, The Band Perry having several albums shelved during the course of their career, etc.). But after already investing in the artists and the recordings, why would a label just sit on the finished product? There are a couple of reasons for doing so, and surprise surprise, it’s all about the money:

  • Depreciation: Labels think of artists as cannon fodder investments, and they’re loath to do anything that might devalue their holdings. For example, if a lead single falls flat after being sent to radio, the label may decide it’s not worth throwing good money after bad trying to push an EP or LP that a) the public will either ignore or reject, and b) will label their artist as ‘bad’ or ‘unsuccessful.’ This can happen at anytime in an artist’s career: The Band Perry’s Rick Rubin-produced follow-up album was deemed detrimental to their image/career, while Keith’s fifth album was initially rejected despite eventually becoming a multi-platinum disc.
  • Appreciation: However, just because a song isn’t useful to a label now doesn’t it mean it won’t be useful later. Artists change labels all the time, and if an artist that didn’t find success on your roster suddenly blows up in the service of someone else, you’ve got a cache of hits that you can toss out with minimal promotional effort (someone else is doing that work for you) and use to cash in on the artist’s newfound fame. A great example of this is Steve Wariner (a man who found success on four different labels, and thus a man for whom it’s notoriously hard to find a comprehensive compilation of his hits). After Wariner moved from RCA to MCA and hit his stride in the mid/late 1980s, RCA not only released a Greatest Hits package of their own recordings, they packaged up a bunch of unreleased songs and dropped them a year later as Down In Tennessee, trying to draft behind Wariner’s MCA offering Life’s Highway and wring a few more dollars from their ex-employee.
(Mental note: Put Steve Wariner on my deep dive list, on the off chance that I ever get back to writing those.)

From a business perspective, all of this makes sense: Your goal is to make money, and that means doing anything you think will maximize profits and minimize losses. From an artist’s perspective, however, it’s not just money that they’re wringing out of you—it’s the blood, sweat, and tears that you sacrificed in the name of the creative process to make a song the best that it can be. To put all that time and effort into something just to have some suit effectively toss the whole thing in the back of a storage closet is equal parts disheartening and infuriating.

“We spent so many hours, weeks, months on that [music]…You pour your heart and soul into it, and they don’t have any idea how much time or work [went into it]…they just shelve it.”

Eric Gunderson of Love and Theft, as told to Joseph Hudak, February 2015

Even if the music eventually does to come to light, it may miss its window of opportunity and wind up making a small fraction of the impact (and money) that it could have back in the day. That’s kind of where I fall on “Ain’t No Use”: I like the song, and the new cuts will help move a few deluxe copies of Storms Of Life, but the truth is that Randy Travis is an afterthought in today’s country music landscape, and most consumers will simply yawn and move on. Can you imagine what would happened if these cuts had appeared on an album like Always & Forever or Old 8×10, or perhaps even anchored a whole new disc back in the late 1980s? The ROI would have been a heck of a lot higher, and both Travis and Warner Bros. would have reaped the benefits.

In today’s digital age, I’d argue that there’s little reason to shelve a song or an album, unless you’re really sure it’s an absolute career-killer. Courting radio airplay remains a costly endeavor, but the consolidation of the industry means that there are fewer tastemakers that you need to convince (this also leads to problems such as playlist homogenization, but that’s a rant for another post), and the rise of streaming services means that getting a song exposure is just a matter of getting yourself on the right Spotify playlists (or possibly the right social media platforms). Why not throw a new single/EP/album out there and see what the people think? Sure, oversaturating the market is a risk, but there’s got to be a happy medium between an immediate release and waiting 35 years to do it.

I’m glad that “Ain’t No Use” is finally getting its moment in the sun, but in the future, let’s not make artists wait forever to get their music to the public. Let the people decide if something is a hit or not, and don’t let someone’s hard work sit around and go to waste.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: August 30, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the 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. Luke Bryan, “Waves” -1 (4/10)
2. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
3. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
4. Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” +2 (7/10)
5. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
6. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
7. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
8. Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist” -1 (4/10)
9. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
10. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
11. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
12. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
13. Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
14. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
15. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
16. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
17. Luke Combs, “Cold As You” 0 (5/10)
18. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
19. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
20. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
21. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
22. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
23. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
24. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
25. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” -2 (3/10)
26. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
27. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
28. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
29. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
30. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
31. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
32. Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” +2 (7/10)
33. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
34. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
35. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
36. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
37. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
38. Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” -1 (4/10)
39. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
40. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
41. Brett Young, “Not Yet” +1 (6/10)
42. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
43. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
44. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
45. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
46. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
47. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
48. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
49. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)*
50. Larry Fleet, “Where I Find God” +2 (7/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +1
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +6
Overall Pulse +7
Change From Last Week
0

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “To Be Loved By You,” 3/10

Gone:

  • Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” (recurrent)
  • Keith Urban ft. Pink, “One Too Many” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” (down from #1 to #3)
  • Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist” (down from #5 to #8)
  • Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” (up from #13 to #12, but the label pulled the plug and it’s already down to #19 on the daily charts)

In Real Trouble:

  • Brett Young, “Not Yet” (up from #43 to #41 and managed to stave off elimination, but still only gained ten spins and sixty points)
  • Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” (holds at #35, but gained only fourteen spins and lost points)
  • Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” (up from #39 to #38, but gained only forty spins and ninety-two points)
  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (up from #41 to #39, but gained only thirty-nine spins and 175 points)
  • Toby Keith, “Old School” (up from #42 to #40, but lost its bullet)
  • Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (holds at #45, but lost its bullet)
  • Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” (holds at #46, but lost its bullet)
  • Larry Fleet, “Where I Find God” (down from #49 to #50, bullet-less for a second consecutive week with another 200+ point loss)

In Some Trouble:

  • Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” (down from #16 to #18, gained only twenty-four spins and fifty-eight points)
  • Lauren Alaina ft. Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” (holds at #36, but gained only nine spins and sixty-nine points)
  • Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” (up from #44 to #42, but gained only fifty spins and ninety-two points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” (up from #48 to #37)
  • Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” (up from #40 to #34)
  • Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” (up from #6 to #2, but was this a final push?)
  • Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” (up from #47 to #43)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Cold As You” (up from #19 to #17)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story”
  • Morgan Evans, “Love Is Real”
  • Chris Young ft. Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”

Overall Thoughts: This week is basically an extension of last week. The window for newer artists that closed last week was officially nailed down this week, as McGraw rejoined the party, Urban refused to leave, Brown went up after a big debut, and (sigh) Wallen made a massive jump into the into the top forty. (Bentley had a decent week as well, which may mean his previous swoon was temporary.) On the flip side, we saw a number of bullet-losses in the forties this week, and while the worst stuff got thrown out last week, the mediocre-to-decent stuff seems to be next on the chopping bock (I wouldn’t be sad to see Keith go, but I would miss Brothers Osborne, Rucker, and Fleet). The charts remain stuck in a bland, boring funk right now, and they’re mired so deeply that I’ve started to question my role as a reviewer: Is this a systemic problem with the genre right now, or am I just getting too old to listen to new songs anymore? Regardless, this isn’t a friendly landscape for non-established artists or anyone that doesn’t fit Nashville’s narrow mold, and I’d like to see a change in direction sooner rather than later.

On the coronavirus front…well, the parts of the country where this current surge started are starting to see their new case averages decline, but said declines are molasses-slow compared to how fast they grew, and there are still a lot of places around the country where case numbers continue to rise (and while cases may be starting to level off, the number of deaths are growing rapidly and will probably do so for a while—the death numbers tend to lag behind the case and hospitalization numbers by a few weeks). The vaccination rate is rising but remains unacceptably slow (we’re currently at 52.4% of the population, a long ways away from the immunity threshold for Delta), schools all across the country are dealing with virus outbreaks, and…good grief, is there another variant on the way? There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Things look pretty bleak right now, and are likely to remain that way for at least the next month. 

We can get through this, however, and we can minimize the needless death and suffering with our time-tested best practices:

  • Wear a mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity. There may be questions about how long they protect you, but they do protect you from severe outcomes, and boosters shots that will be rolled out over the next few months will help keep that protection strong.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. If it takes making the vaccine easier to access, make it happen. If it takes mandating masks or vaccines in certain environments, sign the order. If it takes going on the road to combat misinformation or alleviate unfounded fears, book your travel and spread your gospel. At this point, we need all the help we can get.

I know that the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be drifting farther away rather than getting closer, but if all of us do our part, we can keep ourselves, our communities, and our world safe. At this point, we owe it to each other to do nothing less.