I guess even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.
Walker Hayes made a really bad first impression in country music: His debut single “You Broke Up With Me” was one of the worst of the year (and not even country radio, which is very receptive to debut singles no matter how terrible they are, would let it past #10 on Billboard’s airplay chart), and his eventual debut album Boom was ripped to shreds by nearly every media outlet in the business (I recommend The Musical Divide’s review). Amidst all of this (rightly deserved) criticism, however, one common thread that emerged was that “Craig” actually had some redeeming qualities and was easily the least-worst song on Boom. Apparently Hayes and his management team got the message loud and clear, because they’re now pushing “Craig” as his newest single, hoping to make everyone forget the abomination that was Hayes’s debut. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I have to admit: The story here is strong enough to overcome Hayes’s abysmal vocal performance and make this track not just listenable, but even a little meaningful too.
The production on this track isn’t great or even good, but there’s enough here to keep it from distracting/detracting from the song’s message. The song opens with exactly the instruments you’d expect (a piano to signal “this is a serious song!” and a drum machine because that’s just how Hayes rolls), but the percussion is dialed back enough to keep it from getting too obnoxious, and the piano is used about as well as I’ve heard anyone do it since Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl.” The bright tones are mixed with a similarly-minded organ (and some choir-like post-chorus vocals) to give the song a gospel flair (which matches the prevalent religious imagery within song), and some low methodical notes are added near the climax to indicate the seriousness of what was about to happen. The result is a mix that feels moving and spiritual (or at least approximates that feeling), and complements the song’s message without getting in its way. It’s a mix that feels more like a Brett Young song than a Sam Hunt one, and that’s a major improvement.
And then we get to Walker Hayes himself…and ugh, he sounds even worse here than on “You Broke Up With Me.” The talk-singing returns from his debut single, be he actually manages to sound even more toneless and off-key on this track. To talk about Hayes’s range would imply that he actually has range, and the way his voice loses all volume and becomes tissue-paper thin when he tries to go high on the choruses demonstrates that this is not the case. Likewise, his flow on the unstructured lyrics is passable at best and downright annoying at worst, and it also feels unnecessary, with the song’s structure giving me the feeling that he could have at least tried to sing this conventionally if he had wanted to. Thankfully, coming across as a goofy, hard-luck bro is a natural fit for Hayes (heck, it’s probably the only fit), allowing him to come across as believable in the narrator’s role. It’s a low bar, and frankly you could put anyone else in the front of the mic—you, me, a mime—and they would have done a better job. It’s a testament to the song’s strength that it can feature this sort of awfulness yet still merit a second listen.
The lyrics tell the story of Hayes’s relationship with his friend “Craig,” and how Craig actually went out a bought him a minivan in his time of need. (Gosh, I wish I had friends like that. 🙂 ) The biggest and most notable change from Hayes’s debut is that unlike the smug jerk from “You Broke Up With Me,” the narrator here is actually likable and sympathetic, someone you want to see succeed. Overall. the tale is actually a cute story with a decent hook, and the way it uses seatbelts as a connecting theme was actually kind of clever. Finally, while the writing felt more rap-like than anything else with its lack of structure, there was enough detail and personality in the writing and emotion in the delivery to make a connection to the listener (unlike Chris Stapleton’s “Millionaire”). It’s a memorable, impactful, even though it’s delivered in the most-ear-splitting way possible.
I still don’t think Walker Hayes has much of a future in country music, and he’s still on my list of artists who need to be booted out of Nashville. A good story backed with a suitable sound, however, can still get you a long way, and “Craig” is the sort of song that might earn Hayes a second look from listeners who blanched at “You Broke Up With Me.” Three chords and the truth is ideal, but a synthetic beat and a talk-sung truth works sometimes too.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen or two.