The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: November 17, 2019

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. Luke Combs, “Ever Though I’m Leaving” 0 (5/10)
2. Old Dominion, “One Man Band” +1 (6/10)
3. Thomas Rhett, “Remember You Young” +2 (7/10)
4. Keith Urban, “We Were” 0 (5/10)
5. Russell Dickerson, “Every Little Thing” +2 (7/10)
6. Jon Pardi, “Heartache Medication” +1 (6/10)
7. Kenny Chesney, “Tip Of My Tongue” -2 (3/10)
8. Lady Antebellum, “What If I Never Get Over You” +1 (6/10)
9. Dustin Lynch, “Ridin’ Roads” -2 (3/10)
10. Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell, “What Happens In A Small Town” +1 (6/10)
11. Miranda Lambert, “It All Comes Out In The Wash” 0 (5/10)
12. Sam Hunt, “Kinfolks” -2 (3/10)
13. Dan + Shay ft. Justin Bieber, “10,000 Hours” -2 (3/10)
14. Jason Aldean, “We Back” -1 (4/10)
15. Jimmie Allen, “Make Me Want To” -1 (4/10)
16. Garth Brooks ft. Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar” +1 (6/10)
17. Kane Brown, “Homesick” +1 (6/10)
18. Jordan Davis, “Slow Dance In A Parking Lot” +1 (6/10)
19. Blake Shelton ft. Trace Adkins, “Hell Right” -2 (3/10)
20. Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” +3 (8/10)
21. Midland, “Mr. Lonely” +3 (8/10)
22. Kelsea Ballerini, “Homecoming Queen?” +1 (6/10)
23. Luke Bryan, “What She Wants Tonight” -2 (3/10)
24. Ryan Hurd, “To A T” 0 (5/10)
25. Brett Young, “Catch” +1 (6/10)
26. Maren Morris, “The Bones” 0 (5/10)
27. Riley Green, “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” 0 (5/10)
28. Jake Owen, “Homemade” 0 (5/10)
29. Trisha Yearwood, “Every Girl In This Town” +1 (6/10)
30. Dylan Scott, “Nothing To Do Town” -1 (4/10)
31. Travis Denning, “After A Few” 0 (5/10)
32. Scotty McCreery, “In Between” +1 (6/10)
33. Caylee Hammack, “Family Tree” 0 (5/10)
34. LoCash, “One Big Country Song” 0 (5/10)
35. Michael Ray, “Her World Or Mine” 0 (5/10)
36. Carly Pearce & Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” 0 (5/10)
37. Eric Church, “Monsters” 0 (5/10)
38. Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” +1 (6/10)
39. Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are” -2 (3/10)
40. Gabby Barrett, “I Hope” +2 (7/10)
41. Florida Georgia Line, “Blessings” +1 (6/10)
42. Morgan Wallen, “Chasin’ You” 0 (5/10)
43. Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart” +2 (7/10)
44. Billy Currington, “Details” -1 (4/10)
45. Chris Young, “Drowning” 0 (5/10)
46. Carrie Underwood, “Drinking Alone” 0 (5/10)
47. Justin Moore, “Why We Drink” -1 (4/10)
48. Hootie & The Blowfish, “Hold On” +1 (6/10)
49. Caroline Jones, “Chasin’ Me” 0 (5/10)
50. Rodney Atkins, “Thank God For You” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +6
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +4
Overall Pulse +10
Change From Last Week -2 😦

Best Song: “Mr. Lonely,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Hell Right,” 3/10
Mode Scores: 0 (18 songs)

Gone:

  • Cole Swindell, “Love You Too Late” (recurrent)
  • Tim McGraw, “Thought About You” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell, “What Happens In A Small Town” (down from #1 to #10)
  • Russell Dickerson, “Every Little Thing” (down from #4 to #5)
  • Midland, “Mr. Lonely” (holds at #21, but loses its bullet with non-trivial losses and still hasn’t recovered on the daily charts. It pains me to say this, but I think it’s time to read this song its last rites)

In Real Trouble:

  • Keith Urban, “We Were” (up from #6 to #4, but remains much weaker than its competition and isn’t a threat to take #1)
  • Midland, “Mr. Lonely” (down from #20 to #21, gained only ten spins and fifty-eights points)
  • Trisha Yearwood, “Every Girl In This Town” (up from #30 to #29, but gained only twenty spins and ninety-five points)
  • Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” (up from #40 to #38, gains only nine spins and loses points)
  • Honestly, if you’re below #40 and aren’t Underwood, Moore, and Chris Young, you might want to start looking over your shoulder.

In Some Trouble:

  • Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” (holds at #20, but gained only seventeen spins and took a surprising triple-digit point loss)
  • Ryan Hurd, “To A T” (holds at #24, but gained only seven spins 127 points)
  • Dylan Scott, “Nothing To Do Town” (what is going on with this song? It’s up from #31 to #30 with a great week compared to its competition – is the Metro-Bro comeback giving it new life?)
  • Michael Ray, “Her World Or Mine” (holds at #35, but gained only fourteen spins and lost points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Kane Brown, “Homesick” (up from #22 to #17)
  • Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are” (up from #43 to #39)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Even Though I’m Leaving” (up from #2 to #1, doesn’t appear to be moving over for Old Dominion)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

Overall Thoughts: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new label for a new era! I’ve been calling the recent trend a resurgence of the old Metropolitan sound, but the industry has settled on another term: “Boyfriend Country.” Honestly, I like Zack‘s name better:

The sound is the same, but the subject matter is a bit different: Instead of objectifying women and reducing them to moneymaker shakers, these dudes declare their undying love and devotion to their partners, laying it on so thick that it’s hard to take them seriously (especially with the slick guitars and drum machines behind them). “Dudes” is unfortunately the right term, because once again female artists appear to be getting sidelined on the airwaves despite a strong showing at the recent CMA awards.

This week also brought another surprise: Despite no major single debuts, spins remained pretty hard to come by, as we saw yet another large group of four-digit point gains on the chart. (At least the group was a bit more diverse this time around, as Morris, Pardi, and Lady A joined the usual suspects like Hunt, Dan + Shay + Biebs, Bryan, Rhett, Lynch, Old Dominion, and of course Thanos.) The shortened benches are making it really hard for newer artists to break through the radio blockade (even Andress took a major hit this week), and makes me even more concerned that the Nashville sound is going to become even more slick and standardized going forward.

I swear, this genre is going to turn me into a grumpy curmudgeon yet (if it hasn’t happened already).

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

Song Review: Matt Stell, “Everywhere But On”

Well…At least Matt Stell’s moving in the right direction?

Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but Stell’s “Prayed For You” stood out from the crowd thanks to the sheer momentum the song built up and carried throughout its run. Although I found the song to be forgettable and mediocre, it struck a chord with enough people to not only top the country charts, but to also crack the Top 40 on the Hot 100. However, it’s the sophomore slump that catches a lot of artists flatfooted, and Stell is about to take his turn in the hot seat with the follow-up single “Everywhere But On.” Adhering to the ageless wisdom of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Stell offers pretty much the same experience here than he did on “Prayed For You,” albeit with a bit more melancholy than optimism this time around. That may work for some people, but although I’d call this a slight improvement over his debut, I don’t find this song to be any more compelling this his last one.

That “slight improvement” is decidedly not reflected in the production for this track. The overall sound suggests that the same cast of characters from the debut hit returned for the sequel, but every change seems like it was for the worst: The percussion sounds more-obviously synthetic than before, the keyboard has been scrapped entirely is was not replaced, and the usual acoustic/electric guitar combo is left to carry the melody as boringly as possible. The good news is that at least the tone feels a bit more suitable for the subject matter: The darker instrument tones, minor chords, and moderate-to-slow tempo return, but they feel more at home on a long-distance lost-love story than the actually-happy song that was “Prayed For You.” Sadly, the complete lack of energy returns as well, as the song plods a bit too much for the listener to get lost in the story and feel for the narrator’s plight. I called “Prayed For You” “a drug-free alternative to Unisom,” and this sound is even more forgettable and sleep-inducing than that.

Stell’s vocal performance on this song is a mixed bag as well. On the plus side, the song lets him stay deep within his comfort zone by not testing his range or flow, and he at least sound moderately more invested in the story this time around (although I’d still like to hear more power and punch in his delivery). The problem is that Stell remains the same nondescript, uninteresting artist that he was the last time we heard him, and if you stuck any of the other faceless male singers coming out of Nashville behind the mic, the song wouldn’t sound any different. The audience feels for the dude’s plight a little bit, but ultimately it’s not enough to invest any real emotional capital in the track. Stell comes across as just another guy trying to outrun a lost love, and my response is more “yeah, we all got problems pal” than anything else. I know “Prayed For You” performed well, but I really don’t know what people see in this guy.

So where’s this “slight improvement” I hinted at three paragraphs ago? Mostly it’s in the writing, which is essentially a copy of Tim McGraw’s “Everywhere”: Narrator breaks up with their partner, hits the road looking to find a new life, and yet still hallucinates about their ex everywhere they go. The “I’ve moved everywhere but on” hook is at least moderately clever, and while this one’s a bit lighter on details compared to McGraw’s song (for example, we get no indication of why the couple parted ways, and the locations they mention are beyond generic), the ones we get are surprisingly novel. For example, we learn more about the narrator’s occupations this time (“loading trucks, pouring coffee, pouring concrete”), and I really like the “mail’s still going to mama’s house” line because it emphasizes how temporary and fragile the narrator’s home life is and how lost they are in the world. This is basically the guy from Jason Aldean’s “Rearview Town” a few months after leaving, suddenly realizing that both the world and their ex’s memory are bigger than they originally thought. It’s the sort of story that builds a bond of sympathy between the artist and the listener, and it’s a shame that everything else here stretches that bond to its breaking point.

Overall, “Everywhere But On” is just “Prayed For You” with a sadder story, and that’s not enough to keep my interest. The writing is definitely a step up from before, but the bland sameness of the production and Matt Stell’s vocals leaves me just as unimpressed as I was the last time I heard him. The road to the top is a lot rougher and steeper the second time around, and I doubt that this track brings enough novelty and flavor to the table to make it back to the summit.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve got better things to do with your time.

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Done”

Wait, didn’t I just review this song? Twice?

Chris Janson just can’t get country music to take him seriously. When he sticks to lightweight, alcohol-fueled ditties like “Buy Me A Boat,” “Fix A Drink,” and “Good Vibes,” he gets a decent chart position and a little buzz, but the minute he tries to say something more substantial like with “Holdin’ Her” or “Drunk Girl,” he’s either kicked off the escalator early (#20 peak for “Holdin’ Her”) or is made to wait an inordinate amount of time for a lesser amount of praise (“Drunk Girl” took about a year just to reach #7). Now, however, Janson thinks he’s found an opening: The current fad in the genre right now is men promising women the moon and stars and listing all the ways they’ll change if the women reciprocates their interest (and if the woman does not, the guy hangs around like a stalker until they do). Janson’s got a ready-made story for this sort of schtick (heck, “Holdin’ Her” already tells the story of how Janson’s wife turned his life around), so he trimmed out the details, polished up the sound, and shifted his hyperbole machine into high gear. The result is “Done,” a less-interesting, more-radio-friendly origin story that is indistinguishable from the last few songs I’ve reviewed. Quality-wise, this splits the difference between Dillon Carmichael’s decent “I Do For You” and Mitchell Tenpenny’s decidedly-not-decent “Anything She Says,” and doesn’t quite reach the threshold of getting the listener to pay attention or care.

There isn’t a whole lot to the production here, both in terms of the instruments or the general atmosphere. At it’s core, this is the same old guitar-and-drum arrangement we’ve come to expect from today’s country music, although the guitars are a bit slicker than Janson’s previous work. (There’s a keyboard here as well, but unlike the mood-setting classic sound from “Drunk Girl,” we get a higher-pitched, synthetic-sounding instrument that’s constrained to long-winded chords that try to make the atmosphere feel a bit more expansive and spacious.) The tempo is a bit faster, and the drums at least attempt to drive the song forward, but at the end of the day there isn’t a lot of energy or emotion created here. The minor chords try to inject some seriousness into what is otherwise a brighter, optimistic mix, but it falls far short of the anthemic feel it’s going for, and mostly fails to catch the listener’s attention. The mix stands out only for how much it doesn’t stand out, and calling it “generic” undersells just how nondescript this sound is.

Janson can be an earnest, charismatic artists when he’s in his element, but this track is nowhere close to his comfort zone. Part of the problem is that the song really doesn’t seem terribly suited to his voice: It makes him stand on his toes to reach his upper range the whole time, and really forces him to exert a lot of energy to maintain his tone and power. As a result, he sounds like an engine that’s seconds away from overheating, and his delivery lacks the crispness and poise he usually exhibits. Frankly, he sounds really uncomfortable at points during the song, especially when the chorus pushes him to find another gear that he really doesn’t have. As a result, he doesn’t have enough cycles left to transmit his feelings to the audience, and while they certainly believe that he loves his wife, they don’t see why they need to spend three-plus minutes listening to him blow a fuse while gushing over her.

The lyrics here don’t feel nearly as shallow and cheap as “Anything She Says,” but they don’t have the depth of “I Do For You” either. Yes, the narrator claims that their wild days ended the moment they met their partner and that they would give their last breath to fulfill any and all of their partner’s wishes, but beyond that the writing waffles between vague and generic: No dreams are actually specified, the images we get are retreads that are nothing to write home about (counting stars, fading songs, sunny days, etc.) and the only difference between Janson’s ideal house and the generic American dream is that the fence he has around is a four-plank rather than a picket one. The story progression and narrator maturation here are token at best: These are the same darn pledges men have been making to women for centuries, and they’re delivered no more interestingly here than they’ve ever been. Finally, the writers’ uses of the “done” hook are telegraphed worse than Yu Darvish’s pitches, and are far from clever or interesting. It’s an uninspired retelling of a story we already know, and the reboot is just not worth hearing.

“Done” is a strange name for a song that feels this half-baked and unfinished. The production and writing lack the variety and attention to detail to elevate their rehashed material, and Chris Janson gets shoved into a role that he just doesn’t have the chops to fill. Put this in the hands of a stronger vocalist (maybe Chris or Brett Young?), add a little spice to the mix with an extra instrument or two, and push the writing through an extra draft or three, and you might have something that stands out from the crowd and catches people’s ears. As it stands, all we have is radio filler, and “done” only describes what the listener wants this song to be so they can move on to the next one.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve pretty much already heard this. Why hear it again?

The Ride Of A Dark Horse: Whatever Happened To Gary Allan?

(Editor’s Note: So, I heard you like deep dives…how about two in one week? Today’s suggestion comes from Taylor, who wanted to hear more about a West Coast artist known for his darker material:

For this one, I decided to call in an expert: Zackary Kephart, the founder and author of The Musical Divide and a longtime Gary Allan fan. Zack graciously agreed to write a guest post examining Allan’s career and analyzing where things went wrong with his career, and we’re excited to share it with everyone!

If you like what you see, go check out Zack’s other pieces at TMD—he writes song/album reviews and some other great features, including his “Pop Goes The Country” series breaking down classic country hits. Without further ado, let’s go to the deep dive!)

Gary Allan
Photo credit: Eric Adkins

When Gary Allan released his debut single in 1996, country music was changing rapidly. For one, while Allan was beginning to make a name for himself, several performers, including Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith, were already fully-developed artists; let’s not forget, too, that the “class of ‘89” was starting to grow up. Allan didn’t just face competition from fellow newcomers – he faced it from artists in their prime.

Perhaps that’s why his early success was scattershot and inconsistent, or perhaps it was because of some approaching stylistic changes. Just one year later, in 1997, program directors requested a remixed version of Patty Loveless’s “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me,” featuring harmonies from George Jones, declaring Jones as out of step with the current format. In other words, and to recap the events outlined thus far, veteran artists exited the format, artists in their prime dominated the format, and newcomers faced their own challenges. Country album sales declined approximately 20 percent in 1996, a dip that some in the industry saw as evidence that the Garth Brooks boom was over.

Yet it’s hard to completely judge whether or not Allan was affected by any of this. His debut single, after all, was a cover of Waylon Jennings’s “Her Man,” and even while country radio cast aside legends like Jones, that single managed to give Allan his first top 10 hit. His follow-up singles, however, for both his debut and sophomore albums would fail to reach the top 40, for unknown reasons; one of the singles, “From Where I’m Sitting,” even featured a co-write from the aforementioned Brooks.

It wasn’t until his third album, 1999’s Smoke Rings In The Dark, that Allan would find consistent success. Whereas his previous two projects fell heavy on the popular neotraditional sounds of the time period, his third album saw him embrace his California country roots. The difference was notable: Smoke Rings In The Dark sold more units than Allan’s previous two projects combined, eventually achieved platinum distinction, and gave Allan his first top 5 hit with “Right Where I Need To Be.”

Again, it was on that project where Allan embraced his roots. He grew up in a musical family, playing honky tonks at night with his father by the time he was 13, and turning down the opportunity for a record deal two years later. He quickly became a big draw on the local concert scene, but refused to move up to bigger venues that wouldn’t allow him to play the traditional country covers that made up a big chunk of his set. He cut some demos in a small California studio in the early ‘90s, and the tape caught the interest of BNA Records in Nashville. But restructuring at the label prevented him from being signed.

Allan continued to sell cars for a living, at least until, in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he left a demo tape in a car that was then sold to a wealthy couple. They enjoyed it so much that they gave Allan $12,000, which he then used to make professional demos in Nashville. Several labels were then interested in Allan, but Decca Records offered him a contract first.

Again, Allan seemed isolated from the events happening in country music at the time, embracing a sound that was familiar, but unlike anything else on the radio at the time. His hit streak continued with 2001’s Alright Guy and 2003’s See If I Care, both of which, in total, gave Allan three No. 1 hits. The timeline of Allan’s run at radio includes events like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the rise and fall of the Dixie Chicks (and subsequent feud with Toby Keith), and the rise of the Muzik Mafia – yet even if the winds of country music changed, Allan seemed to only focus on his personal artistic growth. Like fellow contemporaries Dierks Bentley, Shelly Fairchild or Joe Nichols, Allan stood as a performer who, while not in the same league as the aforementioned Chesney or Keith Urban of the time, still carried a solid streak of hits that combined a solid sense of tradition with a contemporary flair. Allan even said the title of his See If I Care album reflected his attitude toward the music business.

But while Allan stood isolated from other events in country music happening at the time, he would not escape personal tragedy. On Oct. 25, 2004, Allan’s wife, Angela Herzberg, committed suicide. Allan initially put his career on hold, but soon returned to music as a coping mechanism. His 2005 Tough All Over album explored the tragic situation, and, in the wake of the tragedy, gave Allan his first No. 1 album.

Allan remained a consistent presence at country radio for the remainder of the decade, but his chart success slowly grew more inconsistent. 2007’s Living Hard brought Allan the top five, platinum-selling “Watching Airplanes,” but it also brought him “She’s So California,” his first song to miss the top 20 since “Lovin’ You Against My Will” in 2000. Still, Allan pressed on. While touring with Rascal Flatts in 2006 (yes, the same tour where Eric Church was fired and Taylor Swift was brought in as his replacement), the New York Times praised him as “the anti-Rascal Flatts: one of country music’s most stoic figures.”

Stoicism, however, implies a sort of nihilistic approach to dealing with the pain, and one listen to any of Allan’s work in the latter half of the decade would refute that statement. Truthfully, it’s hard not to hear how Allan spent years processing his wife’s suicide through his work, and whether country radio was growing tired of the somber nature of Allan’s work is all up to speculation. But with 2010’s Get Off The Pain, both “Today” and the title track only made it to No. 18, and those were the biggest hits from that album.

As country music transitioned into the 2010s, Allan remained silent after the unfortunate flop of “Kiss Me When I’m Down.” On Sept. 17, 2012, Allan released “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” to radio following his short hiatus, and it ended up being the biggest hit of his career. Again, one can only rely on speculation as to why it became his first No. 1 in a decade, but the song was better for mass radio consumption than some of Allan’s heavier material. Plus, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Allan wanted the song to resonate for those victims, and the music video reflects that.

Unfortunately, while Allan stood independent from country music trends throughout his early career, there’s one trend he wouldn’t be able to escape – yep, I’m referring to bro-country.

“Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” was released just one month after Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and honestly, any later timing might have hurt Allan’s comeback. It’s not that Allan was too old for radio or to compete with the bro-country copycats that emerged from Florida Georgia Line’s success, but it’s not like he and happy (and sleazy) party music ever really went together anyway.

Now, it’s technically not clear if Allan ever criticized bro-country specifically, but in 2013, he joined artists like Kacey Musgraves and Alan Jackson by offering pointed criticisms of country music’s new direction. In an interview with Larry King (linked below), when asked whether or not he considered Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood country, Allan replied, “You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.”

“It’s an amalgam then?” King asks.

“Exactly. Like if you want to get to the young kids, you put it on the alternative station. We’ve sort of ended up in this…we’re nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So it’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”

King then asks, “Do you like it or don’t like it?”

“You know I personally don’t like it because I loved the character of country music and I loved what it is and the lifestyle of it…. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s about what happens on the weekends.”

And, as is the spirit of Allan’s demeanor throughout his career, he didn’t concede to current trends in mainstream country music, though this was starting to take its toll on him. After all, he wasn’t a newcomer anymore, and though he was on the verge of a comeback, the charts said otherwise. Allan’s third single off his Set You Free album, “It Ain’t The Whiskey” stood in stark contrast to what got popular that year – a whiskey-soaked country weeper that begins with creaking organ and sounded as dark and howling as Allan’s best material. That’s not to say “sad songs and waltzes weren’t selling that year,” but the depressing onlook of small town life in Kacey Musgraves’s “Merry ‘Go Round,” the regret of Eli Young Band’s “Drunk Last Night,” the pain of knowing what’s to come in Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Her Eyes” and the fiery, Gothic rage of the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” all were exceptions, rather than the general rule in 2013. It’s no surprise, therefore, that despite stemming from the same album that launched Allan’s big comeback single, “It Ain’t The Whiskey” peaked within the top 40 at radio.

It’s hard to judge, though, whether Allan’s comments about country music’s direction are what hindered his momentum. Sure, the aforementioned Musgraves and Jackson made similar comments, but Musgraves only ever had one single catch on at radio, and ageism was certainly a factor for Jackson (it sadly was for George Strait during this time). But artists like the aforementioned Brown and Jake Owen both made similar comments about the country music climate, and their chart success remained in tact (yes, Owen’s momentum would slightly falter soon, but not because of this) .

“It Ain’t The Whiskey,” however, was the beginning of the end for Allan. Alongside bro-country, one other country music industry trend in the 2010s was the infiltration of EDM and R&B influences into the format. Songs like Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down,” Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down,” Thomas Rhett’s “Crash & Burn” and multiple singles from Sam Hunt, Old Dominion and Brett Eldredge (among others) don’t necessarily fit the bro-country moniker, but they do show those heavier pop influences. Jerrod Niemann went from mixing ragtime horns and trumpets on 2012’s Free The Music to going outright EDM with his comeback single, “Drink To That All Night.” Eli Young Band did the same with their 2015 EP, Turn It On. Instead of double down on any criticisms, Allan, too, fell in line with the trend.

Now, to be fair, Allan claims his 2015 single “Hangover Tonight” was a throwback to something like “Runaway” from his Smoke Rings In The Dark album, but whereas that song represented Allan finding his artistic identity on a breakthrough album, “Hangover Tonight” rang as rather, well … safe. The groove felt clunky and underweight, and the production was oversaturated as anything else in mainstream country at the time. Plus, the song was a sleazy, bar hookup track, which only made it blend in that much worse with other country radio singles of the time. Up until now, Allan really couldn’t be described as “trendy,” but in that instance he was.

Now, any followup single to something like “It Ain’t The Whiskey” would have a tough fight, especially with Allan’s aforementioned comments lingering behind him. But chasing trends proved to be the wrong move, as the single became Allan’s first to miss the top 40 since 1998’s “I’ll Take Today.” “Do You Wish It Was Me?” found Allan adopting his usual darker ambiance, but the murkier production still sounded too slick and dour to come across well, and it, too, failed to make much of an impact, ending with a No. 57 peak position. By the time Allan’s latest single, “Mess Me Up,” arrived, it all felt like too little, too late.

But as for assessing where and when it all went wrong, it leads to more questions than answers. As previously mentioned, Allan’s success never seemed tethered to trends, and while acts like Rascal Flatts or Lonestar made the sort of easy, agreeable pop-country that dominated the era, Allan somehow managed to find success with his own brand of moody, West Coast country music. The nontraditional movement had begun to fade, yes, but it was only after shedding any ties to that straight-laced sound that he found consistent success. His wife’s suicide certainly haunted him, and that shows in his work, but not to the point where it ever jeopardized his radio airplay or sales.  And while it’s easy to see why “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” caught on in hindsight, certainly no one could predicted it would be a double platinum-selling No. 1 hit upon release.

In other words, Allan is an enigma. I already compared Allan to artists like Dierks Bentley and Joe Nichols, and whereas both of them arguably have their trendier singles, it worked for them, if only temporarily. For Allan, moving away from what fans (and critics) had come to expect seemed to backfire for him, though it’s also possible that Allan’s dismissive attitude toward the genre soured him in the eyes of radio programmers, too.

Today, Allan is now on EMI Nashville (from MCA Records), yet there’s still no news on any upcoming music from him. Actually, it’s hard to know what to expect from Allan these days. In an interview last year, Allan both promised that new music was on the way, and offered criticisms for the country music genre (again).

“ ‘Organic’ is a good word,” Allan says. “I feel like somebody needs to stick out and turn this thing back toward something more organic. Country music used to be the most organic stuff out there, and now it’s become super pop-influenced. We used to influence pop. Now I feel like we’re being influenced by pop.”

“I’ve always found myself on the edge of Americana and the mainstream. When I get too far in the Americana side, I put one right down the pike and get back over into the mainstream. Then when you get too far into the mainstream, you try to pull those other guys. That’s been a dance my whole career.”

Allan also says, “I’m super proud of the stuff I just turned in. Hopefully they’ll find a single out of that, and we’ll get a launching point and go. It’s all pretty feel-good; it’s all pretty in-your-face. It’s all just really different. I kind of went the opposite of what everybody else was doing.”

Can Allan pull off another miraculous comeback? It’s tough to say, especially when his competition has shifted from the likes of Hunt and Florida Georgia Line to Luke Combs and Kane Brown. Allan has, however, always found his greatest success from doing the opposite of what everybody else is doing, as he says, whether it’s come from finding his artistic identity, finding solace from grief, or finding personal salvation from the aftermath of a storm. His journey is a mystery, and while he’s never ascended to A-list territory, Allan has managed to forge a successful country music career by following his inner muse, and that’s a success story that’s always easy to root for.

Song Review: Granger Smith, “That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads”

Songs like this are why I love mute buttons.

Granger Smith had his fifteen minutes of fame with the generic drivel that was “Backroads Song” back in 2015, but he’s been losing his grip on the genre ever since: “If The Boot Fits” dropped to #6, “Happens Like That” only made it to #13, and his last single “You’re In It” stalled out at #36. He’s in desperation mode now, and if there’s one thing that desperate artists love to do, it’s going back to what worked before and trying to remind listeners why they enjoyed said artist in the first place. That appears to be Smith’s move here, as he’s prematurely closed the book on his When The Good Guys Win album and come out with a fresh new single “That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads,” whose instrumentation and subject matter are unfortunately neither fresh nor new. This is pretty much “Backroad Song, Part 2,” and I’m no more interested in hearing another artist plow the same old ground than I was four years ago.

The production here makes some small concessions to the current genre climate (for example, the percussion eschews the drum machines in favor of a mix of hand- and stick-played drums), but this is pretty much the same guitar-and-drum mix you’ve heard a millions times before. There are some audio effects and spacious synths tossed in to give the mix an anthemic, arena-ready feel, and the drums do a decent job driving the song forward and giving it some punch, but there’s nothing unique or interesting here, and the only thing that sticks out here is just how bland and derivative the arrangement is. On top of that, the sound badly oversells the material here, as it tries to create a bright, inspirational vibe to turn a nondescript nighttime drive (not exactly the pinnacle of creativity) into a grand statement extolling the superiority of the backwoods lifestyle (sorry, still not convinced). The only reaction it gets, however, is a yawn from the listener as they fight to stay awake until the next song starts.

In my last review of Smith, I said that he “remains the same undistinguished, indistinguishable vocalist from songs past,” and to no one’s surprise, nothing’s changed this time around. In fact, it’s probably one of Smith’s weaker vocal performances because of the bad decisions made around him: The song forces him through some moderately-fast sections that extend beyond the range of his flow (he can barely get “love” out of his mouth on the hook before he’s delivering another line), and the producer pairs him with harmony vocals that clash badly with his delivery and make him sound almost robotic. The core issue, however, is still the same: He just doesn’t bring enough charisma or charm to the table to make the tale he’s telling even remotely interesting, and while the listener buys that the topic is important to Smith, they don’t see any reason to love dirt roads themselves. There are enough uninteresting male vocalists in the genre right now, and Smith doesn’t make a compelling case for keeping his roster spot.

The lyrics here are uninspired, to say the least. The narrator is in the middle of a nighttime drive (gosh, I’ve never heard that one before) reflecting on the role that dirt roads played in their life, and…that’s about it. They stretch the idea about as far as it can go via the obvious tropes (learning to drive, going on dates, and…um…just driving around a bunch), they don’t do a great job tying the roads back to the people that drive them (all we get are “rough around the edges, just like us” and “no matter their scars it doesn’t change what they are”), and they don’t provide enough detail to really let us visualize the scene (they rely on the listener to fill in the gaps for themselves). Most importantly, the writing does not make a good case for why dirt roads or the lifestyle they represent are worth celebrating: They briefly mention feeling free and slowing down life’s pace, but most of the argument is based around past activities instead of what these roads have to offer in the future. If I’m going to become a fan of muddy, washboardy right-of-ways, I’m going to need more convincing than this.

“That’s What I Love Dirt Roads” is a textbook example of radio filler, as it offers little in the way of substance or intrigue. The sound’s opening argument is overly-dramatic, the lyrics don’t hold up under cross-examination, and Granger Smith delivers a signature bland, milquetoast performance that leaves the jury unmoved. Time is arguably our most precious resource, and there’s no point in wasting it on traveling slow back roads, listening to this track, or giving Smith any more chances to resurrect his career.

Rating: 5/10. Nothing to see here.

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: November 10, 2019

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. Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell, “What Happens In A Small Town” +1 (6/10)
2. Luke Combs, “Ever Though I’m Leaving” 0 (5/10)
3. Old Dominion, “One Man Band” +1 (6/10)
4. Russell Dickerson, “Every Little Thing” +2 (7/10)
5. Thomas Rhett, “Remember You Young” +2 (7/10)
6. Keith Urban, “We Were” 0 (5/10)
7. Kenny Chesney, “Tip Of My Tongue” -2 (3/10)
8. Jon Pardi, “Heartache Medication” +1 (6/10)
9. Lady Antebellum, “What If I Never Get Over You” +1 (6/10)
10. Dustin Lynch, “Ridin’ Roads” -2 (3/10)
11. Miranda Lambert, “It All Comes Out In The Wash” 0 (5/10)
12. Sam Hunt, “Kinfolks” -2 (3/10)
13. Cole Swindell, “Love You Too Late” +2 (7/10)
14. Dan + Shay ft. Justin Bieber, “10,000 Hours” -2 (3/10)
15. Jason Aldean, “We Back” -1 (4/10)
16. Jimmie Allen, “Make Me Want To” -1 (4/10)
17. Garth Brooks ft. Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar” +1 (6/10)
18. Jordan Davis, “Slow Dance In A Parking Lot” +1 (6/10)
19. Blake Shelton ft. Trace Adkins, “Hell Right” -2 (3/10)
20. Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” +3 (8/10)
21. Midland, “Mr. Lonely” +3 (8/10)
22. Kane Brown, “Homesick” +1 (6/10)
23. Kelsea Ballerini, “Homecoming Queen?” +1 (6/10)
24. Ryan Hurd, “To A T” 0 (5/10)
25. Luke Bryan, “What She Wants Tonight” -2 (3/10)
26. Brett Young, “Catch” +1 (6/10)
27. Maren Morris, “The Bones” 0 (5/10)
28. Jake Owen, “Homemade” 0 (5/10)
29. Riley Green, “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” 0 (5/10)
30. Trisha Yearwood, “Every Girl In This Town” +1 (6/10)
31. Dylan Scott, “Nothing To Do Town” -1 (4/10)
32. Travis Denning, “After A Few” 0 (5/10)
33. Scotty McCreery, “In Between” +1 (6/10)
34. Caylee Hammack, “Family Tree” 0 (5/10)
35. Michael Ray, “Her World Or Mine” 0 (5/10)
36. LoCash, “One Big Country Song” 0 (5/10)
37. Tim McGraw, “Thought About You” 0 (5/10)
38. Eric Church, “Monsters” 0 (5/10)
39. Carly Pearce & Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” 0 (5/10)
40. Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” +1 (6/10)
41. Florida Georgia Line, “Blessings” +1 (6/10)
42. Gabby Barrett, “I Hope” +2 (7/10)
43. Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are” -2 (3/10)
44. Morgan Wallen, “Chasin’ You” 0 (5/10)
45. Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart” +2 (7/10)
46. Billy Currington, “Details” -1 (4/10)
47. Hootie & The Blowfish, “Hold On” +1 (6/10)
48. Caroline Jones, “Chasin’ Me” 0 (5/10)
49. Justin Moore, “Why We Drink” -1 (4/10)
50. Chris Young, “Drowning” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +7
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +5
Overall Pulse +12
Change From Last Week 0

Best Song: “Mr. Lonely,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Hell Right,” 3/10
Mode Scores: 0 (17 songs)

Gone:

  • Chris Jansen, “Good Vibes” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Russell Dickerson, “Every Little Thing” (down from #1 to #4)
  • Cole Swindell, “Love You Too Late” (down from #10 to #13)
  • Tim McGraw, “Thought About You” (down fro #14 to #37)

In Real Trouble:

  • Keith Urban, “We Were” (holds at #6, but gains only sixty-five spins and sixty-four points and looks significantly weaker than its competition)
  • Midland, “Mr. Lonely” (down from #20 to #21, gained only ten spins and fifty-eights points)
  • Trisha Yearwood, “Every Girl In This Town” (down from #28 to #30, bullet-less for a second straight week)
  • Dylan Scott, “Nothing To Do Town” (rebounds from #34 to #31 with a passable week, but let’s be real: This thing should be filling out an application for The Walking Dead)
  • Caylee Hammack, “Family Tree” (up from #36 to #34, but lost spins and gained only fourteen points)
  • Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” (down from #39 to #40, gains only twenty-five spins and loses points, and seems to be stuck in neutral)
  • Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart” (up from #46 to #45, but loses its bullet)
  • Billy Currington, “Details” (up from #48 to #46, but gains only thirteen spins and ninety-five points)
  • Caroline Jones, “Chasin’ Me” (up from #49 to #48, but breaks even on spins and gains only twenty-nine points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Hootie & The Blowfish, “Hold On” (barely holds onto #47 and its bullet by gaining four spins and losing points)

The Metro-Bros Are Coming:

  • Jordan Davis, “Slow Dance In A Parking Lot” (up from #23 to #18)
  • Luke Bryan, “What She Wants Tonight” (up from #30 to #25)
  • Sam Hunt, “Kinfolks” (up from #16 to #12)
  • Dan + Shay ft. Justin Bieber, “10,000 Hours” (up from #18 to #14)
  • Maren Morris, “The Bones” (up from #31 to #27)
  • Jake Owen, “Homemade” (up from #32 to #28)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Even Though I’m Leaving” (holds at #2, content to let Gilbert & Ell think they’ve won until next week))

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

Overall Thoughts: Houston, we don’t have a solution—we have a problem.

Despite the fact that there were no major debuts this week, the charts look surprisingly constipated right now. The cause appears to be some serious bench-shortening among program directors, and it’s not hard to see who the prime beneficiaries are:

Act Points Gained The Week
Brantley Gilbert & Lindsay Ell 3266
Luke Bryan 2271
Dustin Lynch 2024 (!)
Thomas Rhett 1834
Old Dominion 1733
Kane Brown 1620
Sam Hunt 1383
Thanos 1373
Dan + Shay ft. Justin Bieber 1227

What does this mean?

  • For one thing, the lineup reads like a who’s who of some of the worst offenders during the Metro-Bro era. I wouldn’t call all of them bad (in fact, I’ve been relatively high on the recent work of Rhett, Brown, and Old Dominon), but it looks like the sort of list we would have seen a few years ago, when the Metropolitan era was in full swing.
  • For another thing, these sorts of number are more common near the top of the charts, but Bryan gaining 2000+ points at #25, or Brown gaining over 1600 at #22? The radio kingmakers seem to be cherry-picking some established stars to rise to the top, and they’re not always the ones we want to see.
  • Meanwhile, the B and C-list artists closer to the bottom of the charts are back fighting for scraps again, older artists are are getting shoved out (Urban has stalled, Yearwood is struggling, McGraw is out), and and a number of lower-profile women (Hammack, Maddie & Tae, Jones, Colbie Callat of Gone West) are getting squeezed out of rotations. Gee, haven’t we seen this pattern before?

There are exceptions to every rule here (think Pardi, Morris, or Chesney), but the general feel I get from the radio is that in a time of decline and a cloudy future, it’s going back to the horses that drove its popularity back in the middle of the decade, and the charts are starting to bear that out. With only a few less-popular names on the single release schedule, don’t be surprised to see the same dynamic next week.

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

Song Review: Mitchell Tenpenny ft. Seaforth, “Anything She Says”

Hold on…why am I getting such a sense of déjà vu right now?

Consider the opening statement from my last Mitchell Tenpenny review:

“The bar for a young male singer fresh off of Nashville’s assembly line to score a ‘debut’ #1 is absurdly low, so the fact that Tenpenny’s mediocre debut ‘Drunk Me’ spent nearly nine months on the radio just to settle for a Mediabase-only #1…should have set off some warning lights over at Columbia Records.”

This is what happens when you ignore the warning lights: Tenpenny’s toxic follow-up single “Alcohol You Later” was completely ignored by country radio and didn’t even crack the top forty on Billboard’s country charts. (The only list that tire fire has a chance of making is my “worst songs of 2019” list next month.) After taking some time to lick their wounds, Tenpenny and Riser House/Columbia are back with a third single “Anything She Says” featuring fellow nobodies Seaforth (who I straight-up forgot existed after reviewing “Love That” back in May), and…well, let’s let past Kyle sum things up:

“This song is an exact copy of a track I reviewed a mere four days ago…except that it’s appreciably worse in every category…”

Four days ago, I reviewed Dillon Carmichael’s surprisingly-good “I Do For You,” and what do you know? “Anything She Says” is pretty much the exact same song, and it’s also appreciably worse in every way. It would honestly be a little spooky if I wasn’t so annoyed by Tenpenny’s incompetent attempts at plagiarism.

Tenpenny better hope this surprise reboot of the Metropolitan sound sticks, because that’s the only chance production like this has got at getting any airplay. The arrangement is exactly what you would expect from a song like this: Choppy electric guitars greased up and tuned for maximum slickness and raunchiness, a Wurlitzer piano tries (and fails) to add some old-school R&B flavor and atmosphere, and a simple snap track that eventually gives way to some forgettable drum set work on the choruses and bridge. (However, I’ll give them a small slice of credit for the jingle bells on the “Christmas in July” line.) It’s yet another attempt to inject some sex and sensuality into a mostly-standard love song (seriously, the raunchiest thing the narrator and their partner do here is hold hands), but the thing that stands out the most here is just how incredibly boring this mix is. There’s no groove, minimal energy, and the instrument work is so basic and uninteresting that the listener struggles to stay awake through the entire song. For an artist in desperate need of some buzz and attention, this is about the worst mix they could throw onto a single.

Similarly, Tenpenny has absolutely zero presence behind the mic here, and completely fails to sell the audience on the story. On the technical side, while he’s got just enough range and flow to cover the song’s meager demands, his voice comes across as thin and raspy, and lacks the power and the emotive ability to allow the listener to share in his good feelings. I certainly buy that he’s madly in love with this other person, but he fails to convince me to actually care about this relationship. As far as Seaforth, I have one question: What are they doing here? It sounds like both Tom Jordan and Mitch Thompson get a turn on the lead vocals here, but the three singers sound so similar that it’s really hard to tell any of them apart, and Jordan and Thompson provide no more presence or charisma than Tenpenny does. (I mean, at least Justin Bieber raises the Q rating of Dan + Shay’s “10,000 Hours”; these jokers have less name recognition than Tenpenny does, and certainly aren’t going to help push records out the door.) It’s a good thing Gordon Ramsey isn’t here, because there are too many cooks in the kitchen here, and the main course is woefully undercooked.

On the surface, this song is the exact same as Carmichael’s recent track: The narrator has found the partner of their dreams, and they will drop everything to do “anything she says.” Dig a little deeper, however, and the cracks begin to show. Where “I Do For You” had some actual story progression and had a real sense of maturation to it, this track decidedly does not: Where Carmichael would “get a real job, move across town” and “grow up and settle down,” this guy will…go to the beach and go with their friend to “get drunk, get waffles at two-in-the-morning.” (Yes, the marriage twist is here just like with “I Do For You,” but it’s only briefly touched on and feels a bit hollow in comparison, as if it were just a throwaway lone for the bridge.) Outside of the waffles line, there’s nothing particularly interesting in the imagery here either (we’ve got the beach, we’ve got holding hands in an undisclosed location, and that’s basically it). It all adds up to a character that, while it seems like they’ve been in love for a while, doesn’t generate enough sympathy or interest for anyone to pay attention to their love story.

“Anything She Says” is a song that utterly fails to justify its existence, especially in the face of far stronger material like “I Do For You.” The production is bland and boring, the vocals from both Mitchell Tenpenny and Seaforth are weak and uninspiring, and the writing lacks depth and detail. It does manage to clear the low bar that is “Alcohol You Later,” but it’s far from being a good or even mediocre song. No one affiliated with this track acquits themselves very well, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the whole kit and caboodle booted out of Nashville sooner rather than later.

Forget “a penny for your thoughts”I’d be more than happy to give Tenpenny ten pennies to keep his thoughts to himself.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.