The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: January 25, 2021

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, “Better Together” 0 (5/10)
2. Kenny Chesney, “Happy Does” 0 (5/10)
3. Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle” +2 (7/10)
4. Darius Rucker, “Beers And Sunshine” 0 (5/10)
5. Luke Bryan, “Down To One” 0 (5/10)
6. Niko Moon, “GOOD TIME” -1 (4/10)
7. Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go To Bed” 0 (5/10)
8. Parmalee ft. Blanco Brown, “Just The Way” 0 (5/10)
9. Thomas Rhett, “What’s Your Country Song” 0 (5/10)
10. Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over” 0 (5/10)
11. Florida Georgia Line, “Long Live” -2 (3/10)
12. Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House” -1 (4/10)
13. Rascal Flatts, “How They Remember You” +4 (9/10)
14. Lady A, “Champagne Night” 0 (5/10)
15. Gabby Barrett, “The Good Ones” 0 (5/10)
16. Tenille Arts, “Somebody Like That” +2 (7/10)
17. Brett Young, “Lady” +1 (6/10)
18. Morgan Wallen, “7 Summers” +1 (6/10)
19. Dylan Scott, “Nobody” 0 (5/10)
20. Jordan Davis, “Almost Maybes” +1 (6/10)
21. Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” 0 (5/10)
22. Brothers Osborne, “All Night” -1 (4/10)
23. Jake Owen, “Made For You” 0 (5/10)
24. Dierks Bentley, “Gone” 0 (5/10)
25. Sam Hunt, “Breaking Up With Easy In The 90s” 0 (5/10)
26. Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” 0 (5/10)
27. Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” +1 (6/10)
28. Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” +1 (6/10)
29. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
30. Brantley Gilbert, “Hard Days” 0 (5/10)
31. Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” +1 (6/10)
32. Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” -2 (3/10)
33. Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” 0 (5/10)
34. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
35. Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” 0 (5/10)
36. Runaway June, “We Were Rich” +2 (7/10)
37. Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” -3 (2/10)
38. Kane Brown, “Worship You” -1 (4/10)
39. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
40. Old Dominion, “Never Be Sorry” 0 (5/10)
41. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
42. Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” -1 (4/10)
43. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
44. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
45. Robert Counts, “What Do I Know” -3 (2/10)
46. Cody Johnson & Reba McEntire, “Dear Rodeo” 0 (5/10)
47. Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5” 0 (5/10)
48. LoCash, “Beers To Catch Up On” -1 (4/10)
49. Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Shallow” 0 (5/10)*
50. Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +6
Future Pulse (#26—#50) -3
Overall Pulse +3
Change From Last Week
0

*Preliminary grade, and will likely stay that way until I can hear a studio copy of the song.

Best Song: “How They Remember You,” 9/10
Worst Song: “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” 2/10

Gone:

  • Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” (down to #51)

Leaving:

  • Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go To Bed” (down from #1 to #7)
  • Lady A, “Champagne Night” (down from #4 to #14)

In Real Trouble:

  • Brothers Osborne, “All Night” (down from #21 to #22, gained only twelve spins and seventy-nine points)
  • Runaway June, “We Were Rich” (down from #33 to #36, gained only seventy-six spins and 128 points, and has just been stuck in the mid/low thirties forever)
  • Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” (down from #34 to #37, gained only nine spins and thirty-one points)
  • Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” (down from #39 to #42, gained only one spin and sixteen points)
  • Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt” (down from #47 to #50, gained only thirty-three spins and thirty points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Old Dominion, “Never Be Sorry” (holds at #40, but gained only thity-six spins and ninety-six points)
  • Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” (down from #43 to #44, gained only fifty-two spins and ninety points)
  • Robert Counts, “What Do I Know” (down from #44 to #45, gained only seventeen spins and seventy-six points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” (up from #49 to #33)
  • Jake Owen, “Made For You” (up from #27 to #23)
  • Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” (up from #36 to #32)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Better Together” (up from #2 to #1, maxing spins this week)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Jimmie Allen ft. Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway”
  • HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell”
  • Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You”

Overall Thoughts: Chris Owen gets the first word today:

While there was some room to run in the express lane (see Shelton’s sixteen-spot jump), for the most part movement was minimal, and with Thanos expected to spend another week at #1 and only Lady A likely to go recurrent, I don’t expect a lot of action next week either.

What’s more interesting, however, in the cover story of Country Aircheck this week, which dedicated a surprising amount of time to…the Nickelodeon NFL broadcast? The crux of the piece was that the broadcast was a attempt by both parties to expand their audience (and more specifically, to attempt by the NFL to attract a new generation of viewers/fans), and that country radio should be looking at ways to do the same thing. The problem is that many of the eventual takeaways (things like “being noticeably different and genuinely fresh in your approach,” “knowing your brand,” and “be true to yourself”) felt overly vague and not terribly useful for an effort like this. Here’s my take:

  • The first thing we’re missing is an elevator pitch, or a consistent answer to the question “What is country music?” I stated back in 2019 that “country music decided to solve its ‘lack of a definition’ problem by declaring that everything is now country music,” but that means that a random listener, regardless of what demographic category they fall into, has no idea what to expect from the genre, and thus no reason to choose it over any other station on the dial. While I’m a member of the big-tent camp that thinks we should allow for a broader definition of “country,” having no definition at all means we have no secret sauce that can be pointed to as a selling point.
  • The sad truth is that country music has an implicit definition, but it’s “a bunch of young white dudes getting drunk and making over-the-top romantic overtures,” making the genre comes across as exclusive and ignorant. A bit more artist diversity would help send a signal that yes, there’s a place in country music for everyone, and including a bit more story progression in the writing would make the format a lot more engaging (and they wouldn’t all have to be deep tearjerkers – in fact, it was the sillier stuff like George Strait’s “All My Ex’s Live In Texas” and Mark Chesnutt’s “Old Flames Have New Names” that I enjoyed back in the day).
  • Sadly, I don’t see overall playlists changing anytime soon (especially given all the industry consolidation we’ve seen in recent years), so radio stations are left to tweak the parameters they still have control over, and while things like different song/ad ratios can help, the biggest differentiator I see are the DJs themselves. They’re the ones doing various segments and interacting with the audience on air, they’re the ones who will be active at community events or on social media, and they’re the ones who can inject the most unique personality into each broadcast. Investing in folks who can engage a larger audience from behind the mic seems like a good way to expand a station’s reach.

Ultimately, I think it’s the restoration of local control that Sam Wilson has discussed that would make the most difference in this endeavor. Trying to implement a corporate ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy instead of tuning your efforts to your specific audience means you’re going to be missing out on a fair chunk of potential listeners. Understanding who you’re dealing with and tailoring your brand to bring them onboard seems to me to be the best way forward.

Speaking of going forward, there’s no way any of us can do so until we get this darn pandemic under control once and for all. The nationwide death toll now stands at 425,000, but there seem to be some hopeful signs on the horizon: New case and hospitalization numbers are starting to come down, and as messy as the vaccine rollout has been thus far, things should improve as the new administration puts a comprehensive manufacturing and distribution plan in place. The bottom line, however, is that we’ve still got a ways to go in the fight against COVID-19, and we all need to keep doing our part to keep the numbers moving in the right direction as the vaccine arrives.

Song Review: Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know”

Now this is the sort of artist evolution I can support.

It’s safe to say that I was not a fan of Lainey Wilson’s official debut single “Dirty Looks”: I called it a “boring and pointless song,” and I didn’t “see it getting Wilson or BBR the radio traction they’re looking for.” The song wound up crashing and burning so badly that it a) didn’t make the Billboard chart at all, and b) torpedoed her momentum so severely she doesn’t appear to have released a single at all in 2020. She’s back now, however, with an upcoming full album slated for release next month and a “new” single (albeit one originally from her 2019 EP Redneck Hollywood) called “Things A Man Oughta Know.” To call this a stunning turnaround from her awful debut would be a understatement: The song is a thoughtful, heartfelt piece with some surprising emotional weight behind it, and a far cry from the makeout session narration we got two years ago, making me wonder why Broken Bow Records didn’t release this song first to begin with.

The production is an intriguing balance of light and darkness that allows the track to reflect on the narrator’s past sadness while also projecting a sense of hope for the future. Rather than the usual guitar-and-drum mix, the sound here is defined by the mandolin carrying the melody and the bright synth notes that back it up. Yes, the electric guitars become more prominent as the song goes along and an unremarkable drum set keeps time throughout, but but they don’t dominate the sound the way they do in many songs on the airwaves, and their gradual inclusion helps the song to build momentum over time. The mandolin’s bright tone is counterbalanced with regular (but not overwhelming) minor chords, a nicely-tailored blend that pays respect to the narrator’s rough romantic past while also giving the listener the sense that the right person who knows what they ought to will come along. It’s an interesting arrangement that enhances the subject matter while standing out from its peers, which is the approach I wish Wilson and BBR had taken in the first place.

Similarly, Wilson is much better suited to a mature, reasoned take on love than the slimy hookup track she gave us originally. The song present few technical challenges in terms of its range and flow (although Wilson sounds a little rough when forced to drop too low in her vocal range), and while she still doesn’t show a ton of emotion here, it projects an air of experience and quiet confidence rather than the uncaring vibe of “Dirty Looks”this is a narrator who has been on the wrong end of a relationship, who knows what they want out of future pairing, and who is dead-set on finding a partner with the proper prerequisites. (It’s worth nothing that such matter-of-fact stoicism is often considered a masculine trait, which is yet another thing Wilson knows that “a man oughta know.”) It’s a performance that shows enough pain and vulnerability to generate sympathy from the audience, yet also assures the audience that they’re all right and still looking for the right person. Wilson is much better here than on “Dirty Looks,” and hopefully it encourages her team to find more mature material for her in the future.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a narrator who’s been hardened by subpar romantic experiences, and as a result has learned a lot of things about relationships that she demands her eventual partner understand as well (hence the hook “I know a few things a man oughta know”). The song starts by listing off some predictable “country boy” practices (shooting, fishing, etc.), but quickly pivots from physical to emotional maturity to discus relationship maintenance and emergency repair (“How to stay when it’s tough,” “how to fix [the relationship] ‘fore it’s too late,” “how to chase forever down a driveway,” etc.). While not every lesson here is a good one (repressing feelings and “how to keep it hidden when a heart gets broke” is something we should be discouraging, not encouraging), these are the sorts of mature takes on love that we haven’t gotten from the genre lately. I really like how some of the lines show the narrator’s pain rather than just telling us about it (the driveway line is one example, and “I can hang a picture same as I can take it down” indicates that she’s had to do both a few times in the past), although the narrator does get more direct on the “I know a boy who gave up and got it wrong” line. In short, the song gives us both a solid storyline and a lot to think about, another rarity in the shallow, party-hardy era we’ve been rehashing.

“Things A Man Oughta Know” is the debut song I wish Lainey Wilson had released two years ago, featuring the sort of musical and emotional heft that can really engage with listeners. The production sets the right mood and stands out from the crowd, the maturity of the writing stands in stark contrast to the shallow escapism and sticky-sweet love songs we’re constantly subjected to, and Wilson herself delivers a strong performance that encourages me more than “Dirty Looks” disheartened me. This isn’t just a message to the narrator’s future romantic partners, it’s a message to the male-dominated genre: Enough with the paper-thin, dime-a-dozen songs about love and heartbreakinstead, dig a little deeper and bring a little more hard-won wisdom to the writer’s table. To quote Trevor Noah, “if you don’t know, now you know.”

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell”

Is Bro-Country redeemable through spirituality? Your answer will likely predict your feelings about this track.

Michael “HARDY” Hardy has only been on the mainstream scene for a few years, but he’s hasn’t made a great impression so far. His debut single “REDNECKER” wound up as the worst song of 2019, and despite “One Beer” eventually becoming his first #1 single, it wasn’t much of an improvement in my book. For his third single (the second from his weirdly-titled debut album A Rock), HARDY is taking a more-conventional (read: generic) approach, mixing faith and death with his usual Bro talking points to give us “Give Heaven Some Hell.” While I wouldn’t call this a terribly good song, it’s a clear step up from his previous work thanks to the work of the producer and the artist.

By the numbers, the production here is nothing to write home about: It’s pretty much the same guitar-and-drum mix that’s dominating the airwaves these days, with some spacious backgrounds synths thrown in to give the track an arena-ready vibe. The guitars aren’t as in your face as you might expect, however, and the reverb added to the moderately-bright electric axe that opens the track and carries the melody gives the song a surprising reflective and weighty feel, combining with the synthesizer and typical “slow Bro” tempo to move the listener to ruminate on the lyrics (whether such rumination is worthwhile, however, is up for debate). The drums don’t have much punch, but they do enough to help push the song forward and keep it from bogging down or feeling lifeless. There are a lot of minor chords here, but the lighter, brighter touch of the arrangement keeps the song feeling serious without getting too dark or pessimistic. In short, it accentuates the feel of the lyrics rather than getting in their way, which is lot better than the sonic messes we’ve been getting from HARDY up to now. It’s not great, but it gets the job done.

After his past performances ranged from lifeless to obnoxious, I didn’t expect much from HARDY’s vocals here, but I actually think he does a decent sales job on this track. Part of the reason for this is that the narrator here is essentially the same guy we heard on “REDNECKER,” albeit with a bit more decorum to meet the solemnity of the moment, and it’s a rough-edged persona HARDY has been cultivating over the last two years. There’s still a hint of defiance in his delivery, but it feels more relatable this time around: When someone passes on, we tend to tell ourselves that their spirit will survive and live on in some version of the afterlife. HARDY brings just enough believability to the table here to feel credible as a run-of-the-mill Bro shaken by the realization of life’s fragility, and while it’s still not the most likeable of characters, the audience can still understand where they’re coming from and sympathize with them. Again, he won’t be winning any Oscars for his performance, but we won’t be blowing raspberries at him for it either, and that’s a step in the right direction.

I’m not a fan of the lyrics here, because underneath all the song’s trappings of piety, both the narrator and the person that dies are just run-of-the-mill bros who want to do generic Bro-Country things: Play loud music, burn rubber in parking lots, go four-wheeling through mudholes, and drink potent alcoholic beverages. There’s detail here, but it’s the same old stuff that’s Nashville’s been shoveling at us for years, and while I get that everyone’s perception of what constitutes “heaven” is different, the activities here (not to mention the hook) seem to contradict the whole point of what such an afterlife is supposed to be. (In particular, that “hide your beer, hide your clear from the man upstairs” seems kind of dumb when said upstairs man supposedly “views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.”) The audience may feel for the departed and the narrator, but they’re not terribly interested in the story, and the production’s supplementary approach means that the writing’s shortcomings are on full display.

In the end, I view “Give Heaven Some Hell” roughly the same way I viewed Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard’s “Undivided”: The heart’s in the right place, but the execution leaves something to be desired, especially with lyrics like these that generate more questions than answers. It constitutes HARDY’s best work despite its flaws, but it also gives me the sense that his ceiling is relatively low: He’s a Bro-Country artist, and doesn’t seem likely to move on from that frame of reference for a while. There are better songs to celebrate the passing of a classic gool ol’ boy (may I suggest Joe Diffie’s “Prop Me Up (Beside The Jukebox If I Die)”?), but it’s not a terrible addition to the airwaves, and given the precarious state of the Pulse, we’ll take any good news we can get.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth trying on for size to see what you think.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: January 19, 2021

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

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

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

Song Score
1. Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go To Bed” 0 (5/10)
2. Luke Combs, “Better Together” 0 (5/10)
3. Kenny Chesney, “Happy Does” 0 (5/10)
4. Lady A, “Champagne Night” 0 (5/10)
5. Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle” +2 (7/10)
6. Darius Rucker, “Beers And Sunshine” 0 (5/10)
7. Niko Moon, “GOOD TIME” -1 (4/10)
8. Luke Bryan, “Down To One” 0 (5/10)
9. Parmalee ft. Blanco Brown, “Just The Way” 0 (5/10)
10. Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over” 0 (5/10)
11. Thomas Rhett, “What’s Your Country Song” 0 (5/10)
12. Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House” -1 (4/10)
13. Florida Georgia Line, “Long Live” -2 (3/10)
14. Rascal Flatts, “How They Remember You” +4 (9/10)
15. Tenille Arts, “Somebody Like That” +2 (7/10)
16. Morgan Wallen, “7 Summers” +1 (6/10)
17. Gabby Barrett, “The Good Ones” 0 (5/10)
18. Brett Young, “Lady” +1 (6/10)
19. Dylan Scott, “Nobody” 0 (5/10)
20. Jordan Davis, “Almost Maybes” +1 (6/10)
21. Brothers Osborne, “All Night” -1 (4/10)
22. Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” 0 (5/10)
23. Dierks Bentley, “Gone” 0 (5/10)
24. Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” 0 (5/10)
25. Sam Hunt, “Breaking Up With Easy In The 90s” 0 (5/10)
26. Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” +1 (6/10)
27. Jake Owen, “Made For You” 0 (5/10)
28. Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” +1 (6/10)
29. Brantley Gilbert, “Hard Days” 0 (5/10)
30. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
31. Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” +1 (6/10)
32. Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” 0 (5/10)
33. Runaway June, “We Were Rich” +2 (7/10)
34. Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” -3 (2/10)
35. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
36. Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” -2 (3/10)
37. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
38. Kane Brown, “Worship You” -1 (4/10)
39. Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” -1 (4/10)
40. Old Dominion, “Never Be Sorry” 0 (5/10)
41. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
42. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
43. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
44. Robert Counts, “What Do I Know” -3 (2/10)
45. Cody Johnson & Reba McEntire, “Dear Rodeo” 0 (5/10)
46. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
47. Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt” 0 (5/10)
48. LoCash, “Beers To Catch Up On” -1 (4/10)
49. Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” 0 (5/10)
50. Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Shallow” 0 (5/10)*
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +6
Future Pulse (#26—#50) -3
Overall Pulse +3
Change From Last Week
+1 🙂

*Preliminary grade

Best Song: “How They Remember You,” 9/10
Worst Song: “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” 2/10

Gone:

  • Chris Lane, “Big, Big Plans” (recurrent)
  • Parker McCollum, “Pretty Heart” (recurrent)
  • Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5” (down to #51)

Leaving:

  • Lady A, “Champagne Night” (down from #1 to #4)

In Real Trouble:

  • Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt” (holds at #47, but lost its bullet)
  • LoCash, “Beers To Catch Up On” (holds at #48, but lost its bullet)

In Some Trouble:

  • Brothers Osborne, “All Night” (up from #23 to #21, but gained only eleven spins and forty-six points)
  • Runaway June, “We Were Rich” (holds at #33, but gained only twenty-four spins and fifty-seven points)
  • Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” (holds at #34, but gained only seventeen spins and forty-one points)
  • Basically, if you’re below #38 and aren’t Block or Shelton, you didn’t have a great week)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” (debuts at #26)
  • Morgan Wallen, “7 Summers” (up from #22 to #16)
  • Parmalee ft. Blanco Brown, “Just The Way” (up from #13 to #9)
  • Scotty McCreery, “You Time” (up from #41 to #37)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Better Together” (up from #3 to #2, projected to be another multi-week #1)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Jimmie Allen ft. Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway”
  • HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell”
  • Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You”

Overall Thoughts: The charts have returned to their normal operations, which means very little operation at all (and if Chris Owen’s prediction is correct, Thanos is slated to gum up the works for another few weeks). However, the trends that we’ve been monitoring continue unabated: Songs in the lower half of the charts continue to fight for stray spins, while high-profile artists are able to skip the line (see McGraw and Hubbard’s debut, which earned the highest number of first-week adds in the history of Mediabase) Sadly, the charts are a surprisingly accurate reflection of the larger issue the nation faces today, and it’s going to take a concerted effort to fix them.

However, today may be the turning point that finally moves America to start making that concerted effort. A few hours ago, Joe Biden took the oath of office and was sworn in as America’s 46th president, and his administration has pledged to tackle the major problems that face both the country and the world, starting with the COVID-19 pandemic (which has now claimed the lives of over 400,000 Americans). In his speech, Biden declared that in this “time of testing…we must step up. All of us.” It’s a demand that’s easier said than done, but we can start by doing our part to control the pandemic: Washing hands, wearing masks, keeping our distance, and eventually receiving a vaccine shot. From there, we need to take a close look at ourselves and the systems around us, aiming to root out injustice and find opportunities to provide more opportunities. (For Nashville, this means looking beyond its faceless young white male assembly line, and adding more women and individuals of color to its playlists.) America is down right now, but it’s not out, and if we put our collective mind to it, we can dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in.

Let’s get started.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage”

Can you call a song “Minimum Wage” if it isn’t even worth that?

I’m on record calling Shelton “the safest artist in country music,” but over the last year he’s also become the most predictable artist in the genre as well, releasing back-to-back kinda-sorta romantic duets with Gwen Stefani (“Nobody But You” and “Happy Anywhere”). However, both songs ended up topping the charts in 2020, so it’s no surprise that he’s going to this well for the third consecutive single (albeit minus Stefani this time) with his latest release “Minimum Wage.” The song has already caught some flak on Twitter for coming across as “tone deaf” in the middle of an economic downturn stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, but I would argue that the song’s real problem is that it’s about as poorly-constructed as a love song could possibly be, and sends a lot of conflicting signals to the listener. For a guy who’s been giving us nothing but love songs lately, you would think he would know better than to drop something like this.

Let’s start with the production, which comes across as far too serious and pointed for the subject matter. The song is primarily piano-driven and backed by an overly-busy percussion line (electric guitars are used mostly in a background/supporting role, which the exception of a tolerable bridge solo), but what really stands out about the mix is its tone and tempo: The piano is dark and dour, and the complex kitchen-sink approach to the percussion makes what is really a midtempo track feel a lot faster than it is. As a result, this song doesn’t have the happy, sentimental feel you would expect from a love song (in truth, the sound seems too clean and sterile for the job). Instead, the mix has an aggressive edge to it, making it feel inexplicably argumentative and attitude-laden, as if it’s daring the listener to question the narrator’s life choices. It makes the song feel like it’s trying to send a message to the doubters in the audience rather than to the narrator’s partner, despite the fact that it directly addresses the narrator’s partner in the lyrics. It drains all of the love out of what is ostensibly a love song, which is the worst-case scenario for such a track.

Speaking of aggressive: Can we all agree that ‘Angry Blake Shelton’ is not a good luck for this guy, and to leave those sorts to songs to artists who can actually handle them, like Jason Aldean or Eric Church? Shelton handles the range and flow demands of the track well, but he loses his vocal tone when he tries to talk-sing (case in point: the “dive bar stage” ending of the song’s second line). The bigger issue, however, is that instead of infusing his delivery with heartfelt emotion and passion, Shelton’s tone is forceful and almost without feeling, emphasizing emphasis over feeling. He doesn’t sound like someone in love, he sounds like someone trying to make a point and win an argument, and much like the production he sounds like he’s trying to convince a skeptical listener of his happiness rather than expressing his affection for his partner. (It also doesn’t help that while Shelton’s first marriage to Kaynette Williams was between “high school sweethearts” and thus likely began pre-fame, he is best known today for his high-profile, power-couple relationships with Miranda Lambert and Stefani, which makes such a rags-to-“riches” song feel a little awkward coming from him, and is probably why it struck some people as tone-deaf.) Shelton has proved on songs like “I’ll Name The Dogs” that he can absolutely sell a love song, which makes his refusal to do so here a surprise, and the track suffers because of it.

And then we get to the writing, in which the narrator declares that despite not have any material wealth, their partner’s love “can make a man feel rich on minimum wage.” The whole “love > money” trope is nothing new in country music, but it’s rarely done this poorly. For one thing, the imagery used to make a point ranges from the blandly generic (apartment feels like a mansion, truck feels like a Cadillac, etc.) to the inexplicably bizarre (what exactly does a million-dollar bill taste like? And why does it matter that the six-pack is on a carpet?). The first verse sets up the story well and even has some decent lines, but the second verse ends up contradicting itself: The narrator claims that “keeping up with the Jones’, it just ain’t my style”…right after they wish for an endless tab and a giant yacht. So which is it: Money or love? Finally, the chorus is not only generic as mentioned earlier, but the ending gets super repetitive and wears out its welcome quickly. These aren’t dealbreakers by themselves, but given that the song gets no support from Shleton or the producer, they simply aren’t able to stand by themselves.

“Minimum Wage” isn’t that far off from a decent song: A couple more drafts in the writers’ room and a better gameplan in the vocal booth and producer’s chair could have made this at least slightly tolerable. It got none of this treatment, however, and what we’re left with is an awkward, off-putting mess that targets the wrong audience and fails to draw in listeners. It’s easily the weakest of Blake Shelton’s current love-song triumvirate, and simply doesn’t justify its existence in a world that already has his previous two songs (not to mention John Anderson’s “Money In The Bank”). Shelton remains a major star and isn’t in danger of irrelevance just yet, but when stuff like this, he isn’t getting back in my good graces just yet.

Rating: 5/10. Time is money, and this song isn’t worth either.

Song Review: Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided”

Currents events giveth, and current events taketh away.

When Tim McGraw released his last single “I Called Mama,” it felt like an accidentally perfect fit for the moment, capturing the individual response to the collective grief we were facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While he had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (it peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart), the song scored a lofty position on my best-of-2020 list, and further cemented McGraw’s positive legacy in the genre (he’ll always have to own “Truck Yeah,” though).

Now, McGraw is back with another socially-conscious single geared for the moment, teaming up with Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard to release “Undivided,” a song that feels a bit more calculated and purposeful in the wake of President-Elect Joe Biden’s call “to reunite America — to bind up the nation’s wounds.” The song itself, however, is surprisingly clumsy in its messaging, and in the wake of far-right domestic terrorists storming the Capitol and the hollow, disingenuous calls for unity from Republican politicians as a means of saving face and avoiding consequences, the song comes across as naive and even a little out of touch. If we’re going to laud McGraw for meeting the last moment, we have to acknowledge that he and Hubbard failed to meet this one.

The production here is a bit tricky to unpack, as it’s a light and breezy arrangement that creates a  hopeful and optimistic atmosphere that accentuates the song’s message, but it doesn’t really give the topic the weight it deserves. The primary melody drivers here are an acoustic guitar and mandolin, and while Grady Smith’s favorite clap track helps open the track, it’s quickly replaced by a full drum set by the first chorus. (Some electric guitars are here too, but outside of the bridge solo, they’re generally minimized and left in the background.) On one hand, the bright instrument tones and kinda-sorta-brisk tempo gives the tune a surprising amount of energy, the slow buildup of the arrangement over time helps the track gain momentum as it goes along, and the positive atmosphere it creates helps encourage the listener to go along with the message. However, this emphasis on creating good vibes makes it feel like the song is trying to gloss over the serious issues that are dividing us (the lyrics do the song no favors in this regard either). Rather than trying to strike a balance between reckoning with these difficult issues and expressing faith that they can be resolved, the sound is all about the latter and mostly ignores the former. In short, what we get here is necessary, but it’s not really sufficient for a topic like this.

For their part, neither McGraw nor Hubbard are terribly effective at pushing their message of unity across. Neither artist encounters any techincal issues with the track (the song’s range is fairly constrained, and the flow is actually relaxed despite the kinda-sorta-brisk tempo), but this is a song that requires a lot of charm and salesmanship from the performers to make the wong work (after all, you’re trying to convince divided groups to come together, and there’s a reason or four that they’re divided). We’ll talk about how the lyrics and context work against this in a second, but McGraw’s surprisingly even-keel delivery feels too sterile and lacks the passion or urgency to really move skeptical listeners to action. (Hubbard’s performance is even worse, featuring casual “yep” and “that’s right” shoutouts and generally coming across as too laid-back to be taken seriously.) With the different camps so far apart and deeply entrenched in their positions, an artist really needs to bring their A game if they want to move the audience, and neither singer hits the mark here.

And then we get to the lyrics, which try to convince the listener that it’s finally time to come together in peace and brotherhood “’til this country that we love’s undivided.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I have several problems with the writing itself:

  • The song is way too scattershot, and doesn’t have a coherent message beyond “love everyone.” It starts with an entire verse dedicated to middle-school bullying, then devolves into a rapid-fire round of topics that are barely mentioned before being tossed aside (religion! race! politics! …job vs. jail?). The listener never gets a sense of the importance of these topics because they’re never expanded upon (which becomes a bigger issue when the statements themselves are confusing: When Hubbard says “why’s it gotta be all white or all black,” is he decrying the “with us or against us” mentality, or is he trying to make a statement about race?). The listener may be left with a “we can do it!” message, but they may not be sure what they’re trying to do.
  • Don’t go looking for any detail or nuance here, because there’s none to be found—the song is fully reliant on the listener filling in the blanks with their own experience. Even in the middle-school anecdote, so many details are left out that it’s hard to make sense of the story: What was Billy picked on for? What happened to him as a result of the abuse? What the narrator’s role in the tale besides being a not-so-innocent bystander? There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting listeners bring their own experiences to a song (although I wish fewer songs forced them to do so), but one of the main problems we have right now is that so many of us simply don’t have the necessary experience to properly fill in the blanks. A straight white male like myself, for example, has no idea what it’s like to be Black, gay, or female in America, and thus will struggle to imagine what it’s like to live under the constant threat of discrimination or abuse. Inviting us to “try on someone’s shoes” is fine, but the song needs to do more to fill in its likely-clueless audience about what those shoes feel like, and give us all a sense of what it’s like to be someone else.
  • The only explicit nod to politics is when McGraw says “I’m tired of looking left or right,” but make no mistake: Politics is perhaps the chief divider of the nation right now, and if the country is going to come together, we’re going to have to address the  political angle. This is where the song really falls flat: It takes two to tango, and after seeing a mob storm the Capitol to overthrow the results of a democratic election, nobody on either side is in the mood to compromise and come together. Even worse, the people that inflamed and enabled this movement with their lies and misinformation are now the ones whimpering for unity to avoid paying the price, making this song (fair or not) ring a bit hollow by association. Bridging this gap is going to take a lot of work, and all this song has to offer is a little cheerleading.
  • But wait, doesn’t this track offer some solutions for getting out of this mess? Sure, but all we get is the typical “love conquers all” and “God will fix it” cop-outs, as well as a brief call to try to see someone else’s perspective that is never expanded upon and quickly forgotten. Only the greatest of singers can make this schtick stick (see: Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton), and as we’ve already discussed, McGraw and Hubbard failed to stick the landing this time around.

Put it all together, and you’re left with a platitude-filled word salad that fails to sell its message to its audience.

I was conflicted on “Undivided” before I started this review, and I remain conflicted over 1200 words later. Calling for people to put aside their differences and come together is a decent core message and a workable starting point, but neither the production nor the writers nor Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard seem to treat the differences we’re confronting with the seriousness they deserve. Coming together after years of anger, injustice, and bitter partisanship is not going to be a walk in the park, and this song just papers over the problems we’re facing instead of actually confronting them. We do need to come together, but instead of offering empty words calling for love and understanding, let’s identify the problems behind the divide and take concrete steps to address them. Talk is cheap—let’s put our money where our mouth is, and show the world (and each other) that at long last, we mean business.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen or two to try to convince yourself you can make a difference, and then put it aside and go actually make a difference.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: January 11, 2021

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. Lady A, “Champagne Night” 0 (5/10)
2. Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go To Bed” 0 (5/10)
3. Luke Combs, “Better Together” 0 (5/10)
4. Kenny Chesney, “Happy Does” 0 (5/10)
5. Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle” +2 (7/10)
6. Chris Lane, “Big, Big Plans” +1 (6/10)
7. Darius Rucker, “Beers And Sunshine” 0 (5/10)
8. Niko Moon, “GOOD TIME” -1 (4/10)
9. Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over” 0 (5/10)
10. Luke Bryan, “Down To One” 0 (5/10)
11. Parker McCollum, “Pretty Heart” -1 (4/10)
12. Thomas Rhett, “What’s Your Country Song” 0 (5/10)
13. Parmalee ft. Blanco Brown, “Just The Way” 0 (5/10)
14. Florida Georgia Line, “Long Live” -2 (3/10)
15. Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House” -1 (4/10)
16. Rascal Flatts, “How They Remember You” +4 (9/10)
17. Tenille Arts, “Somebody Like That” +2 (7/10)
18. Dylan Scott, “Nobody” 0 (5/10)
19. Gabby Barrett, “The Good Ones” 0 (5/10)
20. Brett Young, “Lady” +1 (6/10)
21. Jordan Davis, “Almost Maybes” +1 (6/10)
22. Morgan Wallen, “7 Summers” +1 (6/10)
23. Brothers Osborne, “All Night” -1 (4/10)
24. Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” 0 (5/10)
25. Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” 0 (5/10)
26. Dierks Bentley, “Gone” 0 (5/10)
27. Sam Hunt, “Breaking Up With Easy In The 90s” 0 (5/10)
28. Jake Owen, “Made For You” 0 (5/10)
29. Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” +1 (6/10)
30. Brantley Gilbert, “Hard Days” 0 (5/10)
31. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
32. Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” +1 (6/10)
33. Runaway June, “We Were Rich” +2 (7/10)
34. Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” -3 (2/10)
35. Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” 0 (5/10)
36. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
37. Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” -1 (4/10)
38. Old Dominion, “Never Be Sorry” 0 (5/10)
39. Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” -2 (3/10)
40. Kane Brown, “Worship You” -1 (4/10)
41. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
42. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
43. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
44. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
45. Robert Counts, “What Do I Know” -3 (2/10)
46. Cody Johnson & Reba McEntire, “Dear Rodeo” 0 (5/10)
47. Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt” 0 (5/10)
48. LoCash, “Beers To Catch Up On” -1 (4/10)
49. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
50. Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +6
Future Pulse (#26—#50) -4
Overall Pulse +2
Change From Last Week
N/A

Best Song: “How They Remember You,” 9/10
Worst Song: “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” 2/10

Gone:

  • Jon Pardi, “Ain’t Always The Cowboy”
  • Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Happy Anywhere”
  • HARDY ft. Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson, “One Beer”
  • Maren Morris, “To Hell & Back”
  • Caroline Jones, “All Of The Boys”

Here:

  • Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, ” Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.”
  • Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends”
  • Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt”
  • Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain”
  • Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5”

In Real/Some/No Trouble:

  • These will return next week.

Remains Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Better Together” (currently at #3, not sure if this will be another multi-week #1)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Tim McGraw ft. Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided”
  • Jimmie Allen ft. Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway”

Overall Thoughts: It’s been nearly a month since we’ve looked at the Pulse, and a lot has changed (most notably the Nashville bombing, the nation’s streak of peaceful power transfers getting snapped, and the subsequent second impeachment). New singles from Rice/FGL and Chris Young/Kane Brown have put the Pulse in precarious territory, indicating that the radio is leaning on some seriously mediocre material right now (good stuff is out there, it just can’t seem to find any room on current playlists). There might be some hope on the horizon, but I can’t say for sure until I hear Andress, McGraw, and Allen’s latest work.

Unfortunately, one thing that remains out there in 2021 is the coronavirus, which seems to be getting worse by the hour (the death toll now tops 380,000, and the daily case and death counts continue to climb). Where once we were shocked to see 1,000 or 2,000 deaths in a day, we’re now seeing three to four thousand deaths on a regular basis, and with more-transmissable variants now spreading throughout the world, expect these numbers to get even worse despite the ongoing vaccine rollout. If you’re part of the high-risk groups that are eligible to receive the vaccine now, get it as soon as you can; for the rest of you, keep washing your hands, wearing masks, and avoiding crowds until the shots become available. The darkest hour may be just before dawn, but we know the dawn is coming, and we all need to do what we can to hang on until then.

Stay safe out there folks. 2020 isn’t done with us quite yet.

Whole Lotta Gone (But Not Forgotten): What Happened To Joe Diffie?

Image from Rolling Stone

On March 29, 2020, Joe Diffie became one of the first high-profile Americans to die from COVID-19, a dark foreshadowing of the death and devastation that was to befall the nation. Diffie’s mainstream career had essentially been over for fifteen years by this point, and by the numbers, it wasn’t the sort of run that would put rank among the A-list stars of the 90s neotraditional era (his five No. 1 hits pale in comparison to artists such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, George Strait, or Brooks & Dunn). Yet over time, Diffie’s legacy has consistently punched above its weight class, earning him name-drops in songs like Chris Young’s “Raised On Country”  and even an entire song centered around his discography (Jason Aldean’s “1994,” whose video included a whole bunch of contemporary stars singing along). His songs resonated with a lot of fans from the era as well, and in the wake of his death, Nick asked about what had pushed Diffie off the mainstream radar:

When considering Diffie’s career, there are really two questions we need to address:

  • Why did it end prematurely?
  • Why, despite the answer to question #1, has his legacy endured as well as it has?

After sifting through the evidence, the answer to both questions might actually be the same. There’s a reason Aldean’s song is called “1994”: Diffie achieved surprising crossover success in the mid 90s, and while it may have pigeonholed him as an unsustainable novelty act, it also seared his biggest hits in the minds of those who heard him, leading to the  surprising staying power of his memory.

The Rise

Just as Chase Rice can likely thank the Bro-Country stars and sounds of the 2010s for the fact that he has a career at all, Diffie owes his big break to the neotraditional movement that swept through country music in the late 80s and early 90s. Diffie parlayed his prowess as a songwriter and demo singer into a deal with Epic Records in 1990, and his debut album A Thousand Winding Roads exploded out of the gate, producing two #1 and two #2 Billboard country hits (in fact, “Home” became the first debut single from a country artist to top the Billboard, Radio & Records, and Gavin Report charts).

While Diffie would prove himself over time to be an incredibly flexible artist, he felt that “a more hard-core sound best represents him,” and that’s primarily what we get from A Thousand Winding Roads and 1992’s Regular Joe. His singles were generally standard classic country fare, and while “If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” was my first encounter with Diffie and will always be my favorite of his songs, he seemed to be the most powerful delivering emotional ballads such as “Home,” “Is It Cold In Here,” and especially “Ships That Don’t Come In” (which might have done better than #5 had it not included the word “bitch” in the second verse). Even in a throwback era, Diffie seemed to stand out for his “George Jones-schooled thoroughness” and his “convincingly traditional” style, and it was a perfect fit for the genre at the time.

It’s also worth noting that Diffie had an exceptional ear for picking songs with hit potential, and he wasn’t afraid to share his own songs with other artists, which in turn made others more willing to give him good material. Back when I was researching my Chris Cagle deep dive, I found a quote that I didn’t wind up using in the final draft:

“Craig Wiseman actually said this to me one time…I said, ’Hey man, give me a hit.’ And he goes, ’Why? You write them and put them out yourself.’ He said, ’Why am I going to give you a song you might not release? I need to make money.’ It made sense.” Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008

In contrast, AllMusic credits Diffie’s breakthrough to writing Holly Dunn’s “There Goes My Heart Again,” and during his career his songs were covered from everyone from Tim McGraw to Jo Dee Messina to Conway Twitty to Keith Palmer (who?). Not being stingy with his songs meant a potentially-larger pool of songs to draw from for your own work, and Diffie used this to his advantage (of the four songs we’ll be discussing shortly, none of them were written by Diffie).

Overall, Diffie was in the right place at the right time to break through, and he had both the chops and material to stick the landing.

The Peak

As the early 90s progressed, artists such as Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, and Travis Tritt starting cranking up the guitars and drums to mimic the “outlaw” movement and add a bit more punch to their tracks, and Diffie responded in kind, releasing Honky Tonk Attitude in 1993 and sending out the title track as the leadoff single. If this song had been released twenty years later, it likely would have been labeled Bro-Country with its focus on beer, babes, and nihilistic partying (which is probably why both Young and Aldean name-dropped the track in their later releases). Still, both this track and its successor “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die)” featured a classic barroom vibe that kept them anchored to the traditional side of the genre (side note: When I die, I want the latter track played at my funeral. Everyone picks Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain”; I want something different, darn it). However, it was the third single from Honky Tonk Attitude that began Diffie’s embedding into the national consciousness.

“John Deere Green” might well be the most corny, silly, and stereotypical country love song in existence, telling the story of Billy Bob painting a “John Deere green” heart on a water tower to proclaim his love for his sweetheart Charlene. It was undeniably catchy, however, and while it only made it to #5 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, its more important ranking was reaching #69 on the Hot 100. In the early/mid 1990s, country music was a rare sight on the Billboard’s overall chart (this changed in the late 90s, but we’ll get to that in a moment), so reaching these sorts of heights with a country song was a monumental accomplishment, and meant that a lot of people were being exposed to the song.

Diffie would end up putting four tracks on the Hot 100 over the next two years:

Song Peak Position
“John Deere Green” #69
“Third Rock From The Sun” #84
“Pickup Man” #60
“So Help Me Girl” #84

Of these, it was “Pickup Man” that would become his biggest/signature hit, spending four weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart in addition to its Hot 100 placement.

Despite the acclaim Diffie received for his early work, it was the success of these four songs that made Honky Tonk Attitude and its 1994 successor Third Rock From The Sun his only platinum albums, and made ’93-’95 the undisputed peak of Diffie’s popularity.

While these tracks clearly resonated with listeners, they may also have helped prematurely shorten his mainstream career. In looking through writings about Diffie’s career, the word that keeps popping up is novelty: Songs like “John Deere Green” and “Pickup Man” were humorous tracks that leaned on rural stereotypes to get a laugh, and they branded Diffie as an accidental comedian who songs were silly rather than serious. “Third Rock From The Sun” falls into this category as well, although its humor was more absurdist than silly. In other words, he ended up falling into the same trap that would ensnare Toby Keith a decade later: His novelty material made him “the funny guy” in the minds of many listeners, a role that he would struggle to fill in the following years.

“So Help Me Girl” is the major outlier here, but it’s also the last of the four to reach the chart, and likely rode the wave of popularity from his previous offerings. The next two singles from Third Rock From The Sun (the too-dumb-to-be-funny “I’m In Love With A Capital ‘U'” and the return-to-serious-form “Road Not Taken”) didn’t make the same impact, marking the beginning of Diffie’s slide into irrelevance.

The Fall

The title of Diffie’s next album (1995’s Life’s So Funny) feels like a blatant attempt to lean into his newfound comedic persona, but after its leadoff single “Bigger Than The Beatles” reaching #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, Diffie’s next five singles from Life’s So Funny and 1997’s Twice Upon A Time) failed to even crack the Top 20. His late 90s and early 2000s work would still occasionally reach the chart’s upper echelon (he managed to score four Top Tens between 1998 and 2001), but for the most part he was done as a major force in the genre.

So what happened? Two things stand out:

  • Diffie’s “novelty” material was nowhere near as good as it was before. Songs like “C-O-U-N-T-R-Y” and “This Is Your Brain” weren’t terribly sharp or witty (the former wouldn’t feel out of place on a Florida Georgia Line album), and their chart performance suffered as a result. More-traditional material still worked on occasion, but songs such as “Whole Lotta Gone” and “The Quittin’ Kind” just weren’t what people wanted from Diffie, and these struggled as well. As someone who leaned out outside material for his album, Diffie cited a dearth of such material as a problem in 1999:

“To me, I feel like we have so many entertainers that we have gotten away from good songs. There are great songs out there. See, when I started there were like 80 artists signed to major labels. Now, it’s about 300. And there are only so many songs. We’re sellin’ the sizzle right now.”  Diffie, as told to Tom Netherland, June 1999

  • The more important factor in my mind, however, might be something we pointed out in our Alabama deep dive:

Image from NPR

“[Alabama] finally started to show some weakness in the late 90s, however, as country music started to shift away from the neotraditional sound to something more unapologetically pop and slick…The late 1990s were absolutely owned by Shania Twain, who exploded onto the scene in 1995 with a sound and a swagger that made her a worldwide phenomenon. Though she received the usual criticism that her style was “destroying” country music…her exceptional combination of talent and attitude drove  a legion of fans into stadiums and record stores…”

Diffie could be many things, but pop-country was not one of them (although he tried his darnedest with the slightly-over-the-top “A Night To Remember”). However, he wasn’t necessarily opposed to pop’s presence in the genre, saying “In my tastes, yes we have [gone too far towards pop]…(However) I think it is a good thing in that a lot of listeners have come along with the popularity.” Like it or not, however, the shift in tastes was a net negative for Diffie, and left him without a go-to style to rebuild his audience.

After parting ways with Epic/Monument in 2001, Diffie attempted a last-gasp comeback effort with 2004’s Tougher Than Nails on Broken Bow Records, but after the title track only reached #19 and the follow-up crashed and burned at #50, Diffie’s mainstream career was effectively history. He moved on to touring, passion projects and generally doing whatever he wanted, such as a bluegrass album that he’d wanted to do for at least a decade prior and an unexpected country-rap collaboration with D-Thrash (ugh, listen at your own risk). He remained fairly active going into 2020, even releasing a few official singles in 2018 (they’re a bit hard to find, but “Quit You” is available on YouTube here), but mostly he was known as one of the few 90s artists who inspired shoutouts from current artists.

Conclusion

Back in 2001, Sony sales and marketing VP Mike Kraski described Diffie’s career thusly:

“There have been some trips and stumbles along the way in terms of decision-making with Joe Diffie, particularly in song selection and the creative process. He inadvertently was turned into a novelty singer, of all things. What he really is, is one of the finest singers and voices this genre has ever been blessed with.”

Kraski will get no argument from me about that last sentence, but with an extra twenty years of hindsight, I wouldn’t call the decisions that were made “trips and stumbles” at all. Without songs like “John Deere Green” and “Pickup Man,” you wouldn’t see Diffie getting the love that he did from contemporary artists in the 2010s, and you likely wouldn’t find many country fans who would remember him at all. Sure, the novelty tunes probably cost him a shot as a longer mainstream career, but the truth is that the genre was turning away from his classic style anyway, and those novelty songs are now the #1 reason Diffie’s legacy remains as strong as it is in 2021. As great as “If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” and “Ships That Don’t Come In” were, there’s a reason Rolling Stone listed “Pickup Man” in its obituary headlineit’s as much a part of Diffie’s brand as his old mullet/mustache combo was. The song is synonymous with his memory, and people still love him for it.

Rest in peace, sir. Wherever you are, I hope you’re propped up beside a jukebox somewhere. Rest assured that your hits will be inside the jukeboxes around these parts for many years to come.

Song Review: Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time”

Sorry Jon Pardi, but these days we’ve got no time tequil.

Pardi hasn’t seen his success crumble the way, say, Midland has as country music once again pivoted away from traditional sounds, but I’m definitely getting the sense that his star is starting to dim. His singles may still be reaching the chart’s upper echelon, but it takes them a while to get there (his last two singles “Heartache Medication” and “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” spent nine months apiece on the chart), and “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” couldn’t even reach #1 on Mediabase (it was blocked by Chris Lane, of all people). Looking to recapture some of their momentum, Pardi and UMG Nashville have brought out “Tequila Little Time” as the third single from Pardi’s Heartache Medication album. The song, sadly, is nothing but sleazy Bro-Country with fiddle and horns, using a subpar pun on the hook to convince us that the song is interesting and clever when in reality it’s neither.

I have mixed feelings about the production on this track. On one hand, there’s some actual instrument diversity here, with a horn section and accordion joining Pardi’s usual fiddle and the customary guitar-and-drum foundation everyone leans on. However, these added instruments really don’t get that much time to shine:

  • The horns are limited to the bridge and a few stabs (and they feel a bit out of place trying to inject some fun into a song that otherwise maintains a strict serious posture).
  • The fiddle gets even less airtime than the horns (and they’re drowned out when the horns play).
  • While the accordion is a constant presence (and probably does the most to set the vibe of the song), it’s always left in the background.

Compared to “Heartache Medication,” this mix also has a surprisingly slick feel to it—the guitars have no texture, the drums have no punch, and the atmosphere feels relaxed but artificial (it has neither the barroom feel of “Heartache Medication” nor the island flavor of a song like Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita”). In short, I kind of like what the producer tried to do, but in the end they didn’t actually do it.

I consider Pardi one of the worst vocalists in country music (I can’t stand his overly-nasal tone), and he does nothing to change my opinion here. While his technical performance is much better this time compared to “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” (his flow is smoother and he actually stays on key here), his overall performance is completely devoid of charm and charisma, exposing his attempt to console the other person as a shallow attempt to pick up someone on the rebound. Unlike the production, Pardi’s delivery comes across as ham-handed and self-serving rather than smooth and suave, and he doesn’t give the listener the impression that he cares about the other person’s sob story at all. While the writing does this track no favors (more on that below), a stronger singer could have at least sounded like they cared about the other person beyond a possible hookup and earned some likeability; Pardi instead comes across as just another awkward meathead, and the audience is left unimpressed.

So what’s wrong with the writing? In a word, everything: This is just another retelling of the classic Bro-Country tale of a narrator trying to pick up someone at a bar with the usual alcoholic inducements. The only thing that even attempts to inject some wit or cleverness into the story is the “tequila little time” hook, which is nothing more than a cringey dad pun. Not only is there no detail here, the narrator actively discourages us from diving into the backstory, glossing over it by saying “we don’t have to talk about the past” (so apparently the narrator is actually Mark McGwire?). In fact, there’s a strong sense of Cobronavirus nihilism here, as the narrator pushes the other person to drink, dance, and generally forget about everything else. Despite this, there’s very little fun to be had in this track (most of the lyrics focus on the drinking itself), making this read like a party track minus the party. So if it’s not original, not interesting, not fun, and generally has nothing to say…what are we doing here again?

“Tequila Little Time” is a lazy, halfhearted attempt to take a song that doesn’t even measure up by Cobronavirus standards and wrap it in a thin veneer of classic country music. The production has good intentions but poor execution, the writing is just Bro-Country with a terrible pun, and Jon Pardi’s lack of tone and charm ends up repulsing listeners rather than drawing them in. Pardi is starting to look like a man without a kingdom in the genre as it bounces between trends, and if he doesn’t start finding some better material to release soon, he’s at risk of being exiled.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

The Faint Pulse Of American Democracy: January 6, 2021

Image from NPR

(Editor’s Note: Country Aircheck doesn’t print 2021 charts until next week, and frankly, we’ve got bigger problems to worry about right now.

Also, language warning)

To quote Vince Lombardi: “What the hell’s going on out here?!”

Because the state requires that all vehicles be inspected once a year, I spent much of today on the road and off the grid, intent on spending some overdue quality time with my 3DS (I actually consider it a better handheld gaming option than my Switchfor one thing, the control stick still works). While driving, I brainstormed potential ideas for today’s post: Do I take the daily Mediabase charts and do another temporary Pulse post? Do I push forward with song reviews and tell people how ambivalent I am about “Tequila Little Time”? (Don’t worry; that review’s still coming, assuming the entire country isn’t burnt down by Friday.) Do I bust out the old iPad and bring back the Lost In The Shuffle series? The possibilities seemed endless. Sure, the electoral votes were being officially being counted today, and there were legislators who planned to object to the results and  protestors gathering to whine about the whole thing, but the results would be certified and nothing too crazy was going to happen, right?

Then I get home and find a voicemail from my father saying that the MAGA morons, egged on by our current idiot-in-chief, had stormed the Capitol and disrupted the count. If you’ve ever wondered what a coup d’etat looks like, this is it.

Image from Noah Caine on Twitter

When I started Kyle’s Korner, one of the few things I decided at the time was that I was not going to touch politics. I’d done my time as a political blogger during the George W. Bush administration and didn’t want to go back down that road, and our politics have only gotten more toxic since then. I mostly managed to stick to that declaration for the first three years or so, only bringing up Donald Trump in the context of Nintendo (for example, how his administration or his trade war might impact the company). In 2020, however, as Donald Trump and his army of enablers and sycophants sank to ever lower depths, I waded back into the muddy morass of politics to make a few points.

I started including the coronavirus death toll in my Pulse posts, and railed against how this administration was turning health measures into wedge issues and causing people to die as a result. I discussed the death of George Floyd and the movement for racial justice, I demanded that citizens wear masks and that Congress pass a second stimulus bill, and I even brought “The New England Patriot” back on the blog’s birthday to ask people to cast their ballots and patiently wait for the results. Current events in 2020 were too important not to discuss, and that stretches into 2021 to include today’s attempted Capitol takeover.

Image from Bill Russell on Twitter

Today marks one of the lowest moments of our democracy, and the images of the incident coming from D.C. are sickening. A president who is too insecure to accept defeat told his supporters to march on the Capitol and pressure Congress not to accept the will of the people, and then in true chickenshit fashion, he went and hid in the White House while his stans did his dirty work. Every SOB who stormed the Capitol deserves to be locked up and prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and while I get that some of these people are trapped within what Seth Meyers calls “the right-wing cinematic universe” and are fed a consistent diet of lies and mistruths, at some point they have to take responsibility for their own actions).

As for Trump, the man is a scourge upon this earth, and he cannot be trusted with running the country a moment longer. He needs to be removed from office either via impeachment or the 25th Amendment, and must never be allowed to run for public office again.

The only good news here is that despite all the shocks to the system, democracy is still holding on: The Capitol has been cleared and secured, and Congress has resumed the electoral counting process. Unfortunately, the New England Patriot’s statement back in September (“I’ll be honest with y’all: I see no scenario on November 3rd that does not end with violence in the streets and people dying unnecessarily”) proved to be prophetic, as “at least one person was shot dead” in today’s chaos.

Image from NPR

So where do we go from here? We do two things:

  • We continue the formal certification process of Joe Biden’s victory, and inaugurate him as president on January 20th.
  • We never forget what transpired today, and we never forget what led us to this point. We know now exactly what “the downside for humoring” the baseless fraud claims of a soulless narcissist can be, and we need to make sure we never let this happen EVER again.

The people have spoken: They don’t want another four years of Donald  Trump, and no amount of red hats or broken glass will change that. He and his supporters may have damaged our democracy, but they haven’t destroyed it. Its pulse may be faint, but its heart is still beating, and we all need to resolve never to let America end up in this bad of shape in the future.