Song Review: Luke Bryan, “What Makes You Country”

And I thought Brantley Gilbert was protesting too much…

The question of what defines “country music” has been a hot-button issue in the genre for decades, and Luke Bryan has been one of the mostrecent lightning rods for this debate. His incorporation of elements commonly associated with other genres into his own sound has put him in the crosshairs of traditionalists who bemoan the corruption of the genre, and while he’s far from the only artist taking this approach, his immense popularity makes him an easy target when someone wants to highlight “what’s wrong with today’s country.” Now, Bryan is punching back as his critics over the airwaves by releasing “What Makes You Country” as the fourth (and final?) single from his album of the same name. However, while I appreciate his inclusive attitude, this song comes across as a wolf in poorly-fitting sheep’s clothing, and is more of a vehicle for Bryan to show off his own country credentials than it is to advocate for a big-tent approach to the genre. It’s just one of those “I’m so country” songs that I lost interest in hearing years ago.

On the production side, the song tries to find a happy medium between contemporary and classical country, hoping to both appease Bryan’s existing fanbase and win over some hardcore traditionalists. The track opens with a rollicking electric guitar and a hard-hitting drum set, but eventually turns the melody duties over to a slow-rolling (token) banjo (at least for the verses). There’s no fiddle or steel guitar to be found, but there aren’t any synthetic elements either, and the song ends up having more of a light country-rock feel than anything else (imagine a decaffeinated version of a Jason Aldean song). Unfortunately, the slower, methodical tempo means the song doesn’t have a lot of energy either, and it’s got a clean, cookie-cutter feel to it that doesn’t do enough to hook the listener and draw them into the story. I’ll leave the debate of whether this mix is “country” or not to smarter pundits, but one thing this sound is not is interesting.

For a guy with Bryan’s talent, I haven’t been all that impressed with his performances as of late, and that trend continues on “What Makes You Country.” On a technical level, he checks all the boxes: Solid range, decent flow, and the ability to own the narrator’s role and really make the song feel personal. Where he fails, however, is in forging a strong connection to the listener and actually making them care about the narrator’s country credentials. I’m sure the protagonist did a lot of hunting, fishing, and hay baling during his formative years, but I’m also zero percent interested in hearing them talk about it, and Bryan just isn’t able to inject enough life into the writing to make the story worth hearing. While the lyrics certainly deserve a lot of blame for this issue, I expect a much stronger sales pitch from a veteran performer with a shelf full of awards like Bryan, and he just doesn’t deliver here.

I tend to talk a lot about how the production complements or detracts from a song’s lyrics, but in this case it’s the poor fit between the artist and the lyrics that really hurts this track. On the surface, this song serves two purposes: It argues for a broader definition of “country” to accommodate a wide variety of experiences, while also firmly establishing the narrator as someone who fits that definition. Coming from a newer artist like Riley Green or Travis Denning, this premise wouldn’t raise any eyebrows: They’re still feeling out their place in the genre and trying to convince the audience that they belong, and pushing country music to broaden its horizons would feel more heartfelt than self-serving. When Luke Bryan delivers this message, however, his prior baggage makes this argument feel a bit less genuine.

With tracks like “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Bryan became one of the faces of the genre-bending Bro-Country movement, and his “country-ness” has been questioned by fans and journalists for the better part of a decade now. In this context, Bryan’s tone when bringing up the debate over what’s “country” feels more combative than it should, because he’s the one people are often talking about. The long, drawn-out laundry list of activities in the chorus makes him sound like he’s trying way too hard to convince people that he belongs in the genre, and he comes across as small and defensive as a result. Finally, his message of inclusiveness feels more hollow than it should because he’s clearly someone who stands to benefit from such an arrangement, making the listener wonder whether he really feels that way or whether he’s just trying to save himself from the pitchforks and torches of the traditionalist crowd.

There are other fundamental issues with the writing (the imagery is boilerplate by design, and the chorus feels like it needs a stronger narrative to bring everything together), but the bottom line is that screaming “I am too country!” isn’t a good look for Bryan, and makes him appear to be punching down at critics when he should be staying above the fray.

“What Makes You Country” is not inherently a bad song, but it’s a bad Luke Bryan song because he’s just too polarizing a figure to come across as impartial in this debate. “Country,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and with a discography like Bryan’s, no amount of fishing line or bird dogs is going to change peoples’ perception of his authenticity. There’s no point in him wasting time and energy talking about it, and there’s no point in you wasting time and energy listening.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

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Song Review: Morgan Evans, “Day Drunk”

How convenient: After I’m done drinking, this song will put me to sleep until the hangover wears off.

Country music always seem to make room for generic young male artists, and despite the “bland production, sketchy-yet-generic writing, and…unremarkable vocal performance” I found on Evans’s official US debut “Kiss Somebody,” his label managed to parlay the track into a Mediabase #1 over a year after its release. Emboldened by their “success,” Evans and company have returned to the charts with his follow-up single “Day Drunk,” and frankly, I feel like I could just copy-paste my entire review of “Kiss Somebody” here, because this track suffers from the exact same problems. It’s both a “lightweight pop-tinged snorefest” and an uninteresting ripoff of Little Big Town’s “Day Drinking,” and if I had to describe it in one word, it would be “unnecessary.”

All of the usual suspects return from “Kiss Somebody”: The choppy acoustic guitar, the drum machine (which sounds a bit busier and more conventional this time around), and electric guitars and real drums that are added in over time. The only noticeable additions are some stabs from a  70s-era waka-chicka guitar on the verses, which aren’t enough to really affect the song’s atmosphere. To its credit, the mix has slightly more energy this time around, and its upbeat, happy vibe is a better fit for the writing than it was on “Kiss Somebody” (although it still falls far short of the romantic feel it’s shooting for). Beyond that, however, there really isn’t much to say: It’s the same old midtempo guitar-and-drum sound you’ve heard a hundred times before, with nothing to really make it stick in the listener’s mind (on the contrary, that simple alarm-clock-esque guitar solo is so uninspired and boring it makes the song more forgettable), and you’ll spend most of the song yawning and waiting for it to end.

Evans’s voice sound a shade more distinct this time around, but he’s still seems a bit too close to yet-another-male-singer types like Granger Smith and Tyler Rich to stand out. His performance here is best described as “necessary, but not sufficient”: His range is passable and his flow is okay, but neither is really tested by the track, and while he feels believable in the role of a carefree narrator, he does not the character feel romantic, or even terribly interesting. Once again, Evans fails the “would this sound any different is sung by somebody else?” test, as the most memorable part of the performance is the background chorus shouting “Who cares?” all the time. The truth is that no one cares, and nothing Evans does here changes that.

Stop me if you’d heard this story before: The narrator suggests to their significant other a temporary reprieve from reality in favor of drunken dancing, lovemaking, and…showering? It’s a topic that’s been done to death from every possible angle, but if we set aside the pseudo-plagarism from LBT’s “Day Drinking” for a moment, this song fails primarily for two reasons:

  • In the absence of any romantic flair from Evans, the song never answers the question “Why exactly are we drinking again?” Most tracks in this vein at least reference the problems that they want to escape in passing, but this one never does, making the whole event feel superfluous and pointless.
  • I’m really struck by how nihilistic the lyrics feel. The narrator essentially throws up their hands and declares “I’m going to party and I don’t care what happens,” and while the choice doesn’t feel quite as dangerous as Randy Houser’s “What Whiskey Does” (the relationship here at least sounds longstanding and consensual), the “who cares?” attitude makes the narrator look immature and selfish. The “bottle of whiskey” line is a perfect example: The dude doesn’t even care that the liquor is a birthday present for someone else—he’s thirsty, and that’s all that matters. This shortsighted me-first act is just plain annoying, and they certainly doesn’t come across as someone I’d want to share a drink with.

Basically, I see no point in either “Day Drunk” or Morgan Evans himself hanging around in country music. There are dozens of other artists who could make a song like this sound more interesting and less aggravating, but Evans and his team do not appear capable of anything beyond forgettable sounds and thoughtless writing. Either Evans need to step up his game, or he needs to give up his seat on the country music bus to someone who deserves it.

Rating: 4/10. Keep your distance.

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: October 14, 2018

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-defunct 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 official numbers are from Mediabase’s weekly chart publication. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Florida Georgia Line, “Simple” +2 (7/10)
2. Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me” +2 (7/10)
3. Russell Dickerson, “Blue Tacoma” 0 (5/10)
4. Cole Swindell, “Break Up In The End” +3 (8/10)
5. Chris Young, “Hangin’ On” 0 (5/10)
6. Old Dominion, “Hotel Key” +1 (6/10)
7. Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl” +5 (10/10)
8. Maren Morris, “Rich” -1 (4/10)
9. Kane Brown, “Lose It” +1 (6/10)
10. Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” +2 (7/10)
11. Carly Pearce, “Hide The Wine” 0 (5/10)
12. Mitchell Tenpenny, “Drunk Me” 0 (5/10)
13. Garth Brooks, “All Day Long” +3 (8/10)
14. Eric Church, “Desperate Man” +1 (6/10)
15. Kip Moore, “Last Shot” -2 (3/10)
16. Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe” 0 (5/10)
17. LANco, “Born To Love You” +1 (6/10)
18. Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On” -1 (4/10)
19. Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man” +3 (8/10)
20. Dan + Shay, “Speechless” 0 (5/10)
21. Midland, “Burn Out” +5 (10/10)
22. Chris Stapleton, “Millionaire” 0 (5/10)
23. Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” -2 (3/10)
24. Dustin Lynch, “Good Girl” 0 (5/10)
25. Riley Green, “There Was This Girl” +1 (6/10)
26. Scotty McCreery, “This Is It” +1 (6/10)
27. Jake Owen, “Down To The Honkytonk” -1 (4/10)
28. Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen” +2 (7/10)
29. Tyler Rich, “The Difference” 0 (5/10)
30. Kenny Chesney ft. Mindy Smith, “Better Boat” +2 (7/10)
31. Jason Aldean, “Girl Like You” (5/10)
32. Michael Ray, “One That Got Away” -4 (1/10)
33. Tim McGraw, “Neon Church” 0 (5/10)
34. Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” 0 (5/10)
35. Jon Pardi, “Night Shift” 0 (5/10)
36. Keith Urban, “Never Comin’ Down” -2 (3/10)
37. Cody Johnson, “On My Way To You” +1 (6/10)
38. Eli Young Band, “Love Ain’t” -1 (4/10)
39. Carrie Underwood, “Love Wins” +3 (8/10)
40. Granger Smith, “You’re In It” 0 (5/10)
41. Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” -3 (2/10)
42. Danielle Bradbery ft. Thomas Rhett, “Goodbye Summer” (5/10)
43. Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone” 0 (5/10)
44. Brett Young, “Here Tonight” +1 (6/10)
45. Craig Campbell, “See You Try” -1 (4/10)
46. Randy Houser ft. Hillary Lindsey, “What Whiskey Does” -1 (4/10)
47. Chase Rice, “Eyes On You” 0 (5/10)
48. Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” -1 (4/10)
49. Carlton Anderson, “Drop Everything” -2 (3/10)
50. Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” -1 (4/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +24
Future Pulse (#26—#50) -7
Overall Pulse +17
Change From Last Week 0

Best Song (tie): “Drunk Girl” and “Burn Out,” 10/10
Worst Song: “One That Got Away,” 1/10
Mode Score: 0 (17 songs)

Gone:

  • None!

Leaving:

  • Russell Dickerson, “Blue Tacoma” (down from #1 to #3)
  • Old Dominion, “Hotel Key” (down from #3 to #6)
  • Craig Campbell, “See You Try” (down from #38 to #45)

Aging:

  • Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl” (41 weeks on chart)
  • Carly Pearce, “Hide The Wine” (40 weeks on chart)

In Real Trouble:

  • Eric Church, “Desperate Man” (holds at #14 and regains its bullet, but turns in another poor week and gains less than 150 points)
  • LANco, “Born To Love You” (aging, down from #15 to #17, loses its bullet, and just seems to have reached the end of the line)
  • Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” (down from #33 to 34, gained less than 200 points, has Pardi and Urban breathing down its neck, and approaching the dreaded “outside the top thirty after twenty weeks” milestone)
  • Granger Smith, “You’re In It” (down from #39 to #40, gained less than 150 points, passed by Underwood and the Eli Young Band, and is just holding on by its fingernails at this point)
  • Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” (holds at #41, but gained less than 100 points this week and is basically on life support)
  • Carlton Anderson, “Drop Everything” (down from #48 to #49, barely holds onto its bullet with a zero point gain week, and gets passed by Brandon Lay of all people)

In Some Trouble:

  • Garth Brooks, “All Day Long” (down from #10 to #13, gained less than 175 points, and passed by Allen, Pearce, and Tenpenny)
  • Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe” (up from #17 to #16 and regains its bullet, but needs to show it can build on this week)
  • Tyler Rich, “The Difference” (holds at #29 but on the verge of getting crushed by Chesney, Aldean, and Ray)
  • Michael Ray, “One That Got Away” (down from #31 to #32, passed by Aldean after a sub-100 point gain)
  • Cody Johnson, “On My Way To You” (down from #34 to #37 and passed by three songs after a sub-50 point gain)
  • Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone” (holds at #43, but lost spins this week and still isn’t finding any traction)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me” (at #2 after only fourteen weeks, has already topped the Canadian Mediabase chart for two weeks, and has the appearance of a multi-week #1 stateside as well)
  • Tim McGraw, “Neon Church” (only drops to #33 after a huge opening week)
  • Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen” (up from #37 to #28)

Likely To Be Sunk By Luke Combs:

  • Cole Swindell, “Break Up The End”
  • Chris Young, “Hangin’ On”

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

WTF:

  • Camila Cabello ft. Young Thug, “Havana” (debuts at 98?)
  • Justin Timberlake, “Can’t Stop The Feeling” (sitting in the 100s despite being released over two years ago?)

Overall Thoughts: Did I say last week that there was a lot more turbulence to come? Because apparently the chart heard me and decided “No one tells me what to do!”

With McGraw defying gravity and maintaining most of his early momentum, for the first time since the Pulse re-started we have no new entries to talk about. In fact, not only does the continued slow burnout of #1 songs continue to clog the charts, but it’s about to get a lot worse: “She Got The Best Of Me” has been steaming towards the top like a freight train, and with only fourteen weeks in the Top 50, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it camp at #1 for the rest of the month, and perhaps linger into November as well!

Below that, however, expect to see a bit more volatility as the fall moves along. Currington, Rascal Flatts, LoCash, Kelsea Ballerini, and Old Dominion’s “Make It Sweet” are due to make the Top 50 soon, with several others (Evans, Brothers Osborne, etc.) primed to make a decent showing as well. With so many songs looking old or shaky all over the charts, I’d say that everyone except Combs should feel a little uneasy going into 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: Tenille Townes, “Somebody’s Daughter”

I’m confused: Is this song supposed to make me feel happy or sad?

Tenille Townes is an Alberta native who came to Nashville five years ago looking for success in the US market, but only recently joined a major label when she signed with Columbia Nashville last April. This signing led to the release of her latest EP Living Room Worktapes and eventually to the release of her debut single “Somebody’s Daughter.” While it attempts to raise some moderately-tough questions about society, it ends up being a confusing mess of a track whose upbeat production completely contradicts the writing, and it just doesn’t dig deep enough to make the listener care about the subject.

It’s a good thing Townes is dumping her EP producer for the veteran Jay Joyce on her eventual album, because whoever put this mix together either wasn’t actually listening to the lyrics or thought the “sad song sung happily” approach that Thomas Rhett used on “Crash And Burn” would be a good fit here. (It’s not.) The song opens with a bright, energetic acoustic guitar (and maybe a mandolin?) backed by a hard-driving percussion line with both real and synthetic elements, and outside of a background electric guitar that pops up on the choruses and bridge, that’s basically all you get. The mix has a hopeful, almost uplifting quality to it, which makes absolutely no sense for a song talking about someone caught in a hopeless situation. It’s like the mix is throwing a party when partying is the last thing you want to do, and it leaves the audience confused as to whether they should feel happy or sad when the song is over.

Vocally, Townes sounds a lot like Miranda Lambert, with a little bit of Maren Morris thrown in for good measure (although that might be due to the track’s echoey vocal effects that bring “My Church” to mind). The song doesn’t test her flow much, but she demonstrates decent range and the song’s occasional high notes without any trouble. The problem is that much like the production, Townes’s tone is too upbeat to convey any empathy towards the woman holding the cardboard sign, and the narrator doesn’t come across as terribly interested in the sign holder’s plight. Sure, there’s some token interest/awkwardness that’s piqued by the woman’s constant presence, but Townes’s delivery gives off the impression that the sign holder is forgotten five seconds after the light turns green. As a result, the listener isn’t inclined to care any more about the other person than the narrator does, and just moves on to the next song.

In truth, the writing is just as culpable as Townes (if not more so) in minimizing the audience’s interest in the other woman. The story itself tells the tale of the sign holder the narrator sees at the same traffic light every day, and who that person might have been to other people in the past (a best friend, a sister, and of course “somebody’s daughter”). The problem is that the items the narrator chooses to focus on are about the least compelling ones you could think one, as they waste a bunch of time wondering what her name might be and bringing up a bunch of bland, boilerplate imagery (lemonade stand, high school dances, etc.). If the writers really wanted to make a point about something here, they would have asked some tougher questions:

  • What circumstances drove the sign holder to the street corner? Were they laid off, evicted, or driven to bankruptcy?
  • Are they trapped in the throes of addiction?
  • Do they have a place to stay? Where is their next meal coming from?
  • Are they trying to support other people as well as themselves?

Inquiries like these could have shed some light on real societal problems and perhaps even moved the audience to some sort of remedial action. Instead, the song pulls its punches and focuses on things that feel trivial and superficial, showing just enough concern to ease the narrator’s conscience and keep them (and their listeners) from actually doing something substantial.

In the end, “Somebody’s Daughter” is a confusing cop out of a song, and doesn’t do enough to make whatever point it was aiming for. Both the production and writing are plagued by poor choices, and Tenille Townes herself doesn’t do enough to interest me in hearing more of her material. The song shares one unfortunate thing with the down-on-their-luck sign holder it describes, as both are ignored by the rest of the world as they drive on by.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Is Another Splatoon amiibo On The Way?

When Nintendo fails to make an obvious move, you have to wonder: Are they not going to do it…or are they just not going to do it yet?

Last week, the Big N finally gave us a glimpse of the gear provided by the upcoming  Octoling amiibos, and as usual, the reveal brought the usual amount of surprises with it. The new gear will be part medieval fantasy, part nightmare fuel (what is that creepy mascot, anyway?), and all very much in line with the current Halloween push (even if these figures aren’t coming until December). While I’m totally on board with the new looks, I was surprised that Nintendo decided not to bring the Salmon Run gear to regular ink battles. The programming and modeling work for these items was already done, and the look is certainly fresh enough to fit in with Splatoons 2‘s bright-and-crazy vibe, so why not take the easy win and bring the Grizzco gear to Turf Wars?

Then again, as I look back on a tweet I posted last July…maybe Nintendo’s thinking about scoring a touchdown rather than settling for a field goal.

Amiibo releases have been few and far between this year (and I’ve publicly questioned whether they’re worth buying at all), but Splatoon 2 is the one series that appears to be using them effectively: Of the eight figures slated for release this year, six of them have been associated with the game (Pearl & Marina, the Octoling trio, and the Smash Bros. Inkling). While Smash Bros. will likely add to the figure release numbers by the end of this year (K. Rool, Simon Belmont, Smash-specific Isabelle, etc.), the fact remains that if Nintendo still wants to make money off of amiibos, Splatoon players are still willing to buy them.

I didn’t talk about the Grizzco gear in my last Splatoon post, so let me make another prediction here: I think a Salmon Run-themed amiibo set will be coming sometime in 2019, bringing a host of old (and perhaps new) Grizzco gear with it.

Image from the Reno Gazette Journal

First, let’s address the question of what the figures would actually look like. The first two seem fairly obvious:

  • The Mr. Grizz statue/wood carving seen after entering the Salmon Run area.
  • A standard Chum, complete with frying pan.

The third, however, is a bit of a mystery. None of the Boss Salmonids really stand out to me, but some seem a bit more unwieldy as a figure than others (Stingers are too tall, Steel Eels are too long, and Maws are rarely visible long enough to be terribly distinctive). I see either a FlyFish or a Scrapper as the most logical choices, with the special Goldie boss as a wildcard. (Just having a 2-pack similar to Pearl & Marina is also a possibility.)

Next, let’s talk about the gear giveaways:

    • Wearables: The Salmon Run hat, overalls, and boots would be given out by one figure, similar to how other full sets are handled. (While the overalls and boots fit together as if they were a single item, I imagine that they are actually separate items that the game draws on the PC just like any other clothing and shoes.) The special-weapon packs on the hat  could be included by default, or might only appear when a player actually has their weapon charged in an ink battle.
    • Weapons: We’ve seen several weapons that were designed specifically for Salmon Run, and while they might be a bit OP for Turf Wars in their current forms, they could be tweaked to just be re-skinned versions of existing weapons:
      Grizzco Weapon Ink Battle Equivalent
      Grizzco Blaster Clash Blaster
      Grizzco Brella Undercover Brella
      Grizzco Charger Bamboozler
      Grizzco Slosher Explosher
    • In-Game Bonuses: This is an avenue Splatoon 2 hasn’t really explored, but a co-op mode like Salmon Run would be the perfect place to allow players to power up via amiibo. Because everyone is working together, having an amiibo unlock a third special attack charge or grant a character bonus (speed, attack, etc.) benefits the entire team, and thus wouldn’t be seen as an unfair advantage (except by the Salmonids). It’s a longshot idea, but it’s definitely a possibility.

In the end, I think bringing the Salmon Run gear to ink battles in Splatoon 2 makes too much sense not to happen, and by tying it to amiibo, Nintendo can create yet another revenue stream that shouldn’t annoy the player base. Creepy mascots are all well and good, but when an opportunity like this comes knocking, Nintendo shouldn’t ignore it.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Miss Me More”

This isn’t just a song—it’s a shot across the bow of country music.

At this point, the genre’s allergy to female artists is well-known and well-documented, as radio only seems to make room for one or two of them at a time. As Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert started to get cycled off the airwaves, Kelsea Ballerini seemed to be the heir to their throne, scoring three No. 1 hits off of her debut album and reaching the top of the heap again with “Legends” from her follow-up album Unapologetically. However, after “I Hate Love Songs” hit a wall and had its plug pulled at #25, I started wondering if country music had already moved on from Ballerini to make room for another artist (Maren Morris? Carly Pearce?). The response from Ballerini’s camp, however, was striking: Not only does she have a fresh new collaboration with the Chainsmokers (“This Feeling,” with is surprisingly listenable for a Chainsmokers song), but her official single “Miss Me More”feels like a declaration that country music needs her a lot than she needs it. It’s an angry kiss-off/empowerment anthem with more than a little meta-commentary between the lines, and while you may call the effort “pop” or “misguided,” I’d call it one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

The tone change is apparent from the start: This is a very synthetic arrangement, and nothing like the light, bubblegum pop-country mixes Ballerini has become known for. There are a few real instruments here (a cello on the bridge, a mandolin-like instrument near the end, and an amplified acoustic guitar helping to carry the melody), but the most prominent sounds here are the spacious synths and methodical drum machine that form the mix’s foundation and give it an unexpectedly good groove. (It’s the sort of sound that wouldn’t feel out-of-place on pop radio, which might have been the point…) With the darker instrument tones and an almost exclusive reliance on minor chords, the song has a serious vibe with some barely-controlled anger behind it, complementing the tone of the writing perfectly. I haven’t heard negative energy deployed this effectively since Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” but while that song features dangerous love, “Miss Me More” just feels dangerous period (think “XO” from Ballerini’s debut album times fifty), driving’s the narrator message home with an aural sledgehammer.

Those of you who only know Ballerini for lightweight fare like “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy” are in for a surprise: She is not happy on “Miss Me More,” delivering her lines in a cold-yet-calm tone with just enough of an edge to let you know she’s boiling underneath the surface. The song keeps her stuck in the lower end of her range, but she shrugs off the constraint and does a great job maintaining her vocal tone and power throughout the entire track. It’s the attitude and conviction of the narrator that sells this track, however, and Ballerini plays the role of the I’m-better-off-without-you protagonist with Lambert-esque aplomb. (In fact, she’s so believable that I’m wondering if we should be concerned about her real-life relationship with Morgan Evans.) While Ballerini has already demonstrated this sort of versatility and skill on her album cuts, it’s nice to see Black River let her do it on an actual single release for a change.

It’s also time to give Ballerini credit for being an strong songwriter, because she seems to be improving with every single. The narrator here is reflecting on how a failed relationship had changed her in way she did not entirely enjoy, and reveling in the fact that she’s better off without the other person (hence the hook “I thought I’d miss you/But I miss me more”). While the clever turns of phrase are a less numerous here than on “I Hate Love Songs” (outside of the above-average hook), both the level and novelty of detail remain, as the narrator brings up even small changes that I never would have thought of (lipstick shades, music tastes, and my personal favorite: Not wearing high heels “’cause I couldn’t be taller than you”). There’s a real “I am woman, hear me roar” feel to the lyrics, as the narrator reasserts her independence and allows themselves to enjoy who they are for what they are, regardless of what anyone else says.

The more interesting question: Who exactly does she mean by “anyone else”? The song is theoretically targeted at a controlling ex-lover, but you don’t have to squint too hard to see that this could be a firebomb aimed at the kingmakers of country radio. Nashville is famous for pushing acts to sing and act a certain way (especially female acts), but Ballerini’s crossover appeal gives her a lot more leverage than other artists, and this song suggests that she’s willing to use it. Pop radio has substantially fewer misgivings about putting women on the airwaves, and after “I Hate Love Songs” faltered, Ballerini is sending a pointed message to country radio: She can jump genres anytime she wants, and it’ll be country music that will “miss her more.” Don’t be surprised if this song picks up considerable pop airplay and makes a strong impression on the Hot 100.

“Miss Me More” is a statement of power from Kelsea Ballerini, declaring that no man (and potentially no genre) is going to keep her from being her true self. With suitably-serious production, dual-purpose writing, and a attitude-filled vocal performance, this is (hopefully) the song that dispels Ballerini’s pop princess image and earns her the top-tier performer credit she deserves. Country radio may well turn up their collective nose at it, but they do so at their own peril: Ballerini is working from the Taylor Swift playbook now, and won’t hesitate to find greener pastures if the genre denies her the opportunity for success.

Rating: 9/10. Enjoy her work now, because she may not hang around this backwater genre for much longer.

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: October 7, 2018

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-defunct 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 official numbers are from Mediabase’s weekly chart publication. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Russell Dickerson, “Blue Tacoma” 0 (5/10)
2. Florida Georgia Line, “Simple” +2 (7/10)
3. Old Dominion, “Hotel Key” +1 (6/10)
4. Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me” +2 (7/10)
5. Cole Swindell, “Break Up In The End” +3 (8/10)
6. Chris Young, “Hangin’ On” 0 (5/10)
7. Chris Janson, “Drunk Girl” +5 (10/10)
8. Maren Morris, “Rich” -1 (4/10)
9. Kane Brown, “Lose It” +1 (6/10)
10. Garth Brooks, “All Day Long” +3 (8/10)
11. Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” +2 (7/10)
12. Mitchell Tenpenny, “Drunk Me” 0 (5/10)
13. Carly Pearce, “Hide The Wine” 0 (5/10)
14. Eric Church, “Desperate Man” +1 (6/10)
15. LANco, “Born To Love You” +1 (6/10)
16. Kip Moore, “Last Shot” -2 (3/10)
17. Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe” 0 (5/10)
18. Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On” -1 (4/10)
19. Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man” +3 (8/10)
20. Dan + Shay, “Speechless” 0 (5/10)
21. Midland, “Burn Out” +5 (10/10)
22. Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” -2 (3/10)
23. Chris Stapleton, “Millionaire” 0 (5/10)
24. Dustin Lynch, “Good Girl” 0 (5/10)
25. Riley Green, “There Was This Girl” +1 (6/10)
26. Jake Owen, “Down To The Honkytonk” -1 (4/10)
27. Scotty McCreery, “This Is It” +1 (6/10)
28. Tim McGraw, “Neon Church” 0 (5/10)
29. Tyler Rich, “The Difference” 0 (5/10)
30. Kenny Chesney ft. Mindy Smith, “Better Boat” +2 (7/10)
31. Michael Ray, “One That Got Away” -4 (1/10)
32. Jason Aldean, “Girl Like You” (5/10)
33. Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” 0 (5/10)
34. Cody Johnson, “On My Way To You” +1 (6/10)
35. Keith Urban, “Never Comin’ Down” -2 (3/10)
36. Jon Pardi, “Night Shift” 0 (5/10)
37. Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen” +2 (7/10)
38. Craig Campbell, “See You Try” -1 (4/10)
39. Granger Smith, “You’re In It” 0 (5/10)
40. Eli Young Band, “Love Ain’t” -1 (4/10)
41. Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” -3 (2/10)
42. Carrie Underwood, “Love Wins” +3 (8/10)
43. Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone” 0 (5/10)
44. Danielle Bradbery ft. Thomas Rhett, “Goodbye Summer” (5/10)
45. Randy Houser ft. Hillary Lindsey, “What Whiskey Does” -1 (4/10)
46. Brett Young, “Here Tonight” +1 (6/10)
47. Chase Rice, “Eyes On You” 0 (5/10)
48. Carlton Anderson, “Drop Everything” -2 (3/10)
49. Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” -1 (4/10)
50. Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” -1 (4/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +24
Future Pulse (#26—#50) -7
Overall Pulse +17
Change From Last Week -6 😦

Best Song (tie): “Drunk Girl” and “Burn Out,” 10/10
Worst Song: “One That Got Away,” 1/10
Mode Score: 0 (17 songs)

Gone:

  • Luke Bryan, “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” (recurrent)
  • Dylan Scott, “Hooked” (recurrent, finally)
  • Kelsea Ballerini, “I Hate Love Songs” (recurrent)
  • Aaron Watson, “Run Wild Horses” (recurrent)
  • Rascal Flatts, “Back To Life” (down to #63)

Leaving:

  • Old Dominion, “Hotel Key” (down from #1 to #3)

Needs To Take A Hint:

  • Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” (returns to the Top 50 for the third time, but hasn’t exceeded #47 yet)
  • Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” (returns to the Top 50 for the third time, but hasn’t exceeded #50 yet)

In Real Trouble:

  • Eric Church, “Desperate Man” (holds at #14 but loses its bullet again,  blown away by both Allen and Tenpenny)
  • Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe” (holds at #17 but loses its bullet, passed by LANco and crushed by Moore)
  • Tyler Rich, “The Difference” (up from #31 to #29 but loses it bullet, passed by Owen and McCreery)
  • Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” (holds at #33 but loses its bullet, passed by Chesney and Aldean)
  • Craig Campbell, “See You Try” (down from #36 to #38, barely regains its bullet, and generally seems to be losing traction)
  • Granger Smith, “You’re In It” (up from #40 to #39, but is aging, gained less than 150 points, and has looked bad for a while now)
  • Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” (up from #43 to #41, but is aging, gained less than 150 points this week, and has looked bad for a while now)

In Some Trouble:

  • LANco, “Born To Love You” (up from #18 to #15, but needs to show they can build on this)
  • Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone” (up from #44 to #43, but gained less than 50 points this week and just isn’t finding any traction)
  • Carlton Anderson, “Drop Everything” (up from #49 to #48, but lost points this week and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Tim McGraw, “Neon Church” (debuts at twenty-freaking-eight?!?!)
  • Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen” (up from #56 to #37)
  • Brett Young, “Here Tonight” (up from #54 to #46)
  • Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” (up from #16 to #11)
  • Dan + Shay, “Speechless” (up from #25 to #20)
  • Carrie Underwood, “Love Wins” (up from #47 to #42)
  • Randy Houser ft. Hillary Lindsey, “What Whiskey Does” (up from #50 to #45)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

Overall Thoughts: Was this a turbulent week? Yes. Is there a lot more turbulence to come? Count on it.

Of the fourteen songs I put on death watch last week, four are already gone, Old Dominion is leaving gracefully, and three others (Sugarland & Swift, Rich, and Denning) are on the edge of collapse. Losing Ballerini and Watson hurts the Pulse a lot, but Rhett and Brett Young helped ease the pain a little, and McGraw’s neutral comeback at least doesn’t make things worse. There’s still some flotsam hanging around at the very bottom (Anderson, Lay, Maddie & Tae, Rucker), but with Currington, Rascal Flatts, and a few others set to return to the charts, these will be cleared away quickly.

This week was mostly a win for the establishment, with known quantities like Dan + Shay, Owen, Chesney, McGraw, Rhett, Brett Young, Urban, and Underwood all jumping four or more spots. Allen’s leap to the brink of the Top Ten was unexpected but very much welcomed, while Houser’s five-spot jump makes me cringe a little. With more veteran artists preparing to rejoin the party, I expect this trend to continue as the summer rotations fade in favor of the fall.

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