Song Review: Walker Hayes, “90s Country”

Country music celebrates its past in the weirdest ways…

I cut Walker Hayes some slack on his last “Craig,” as it was fairly well-written and had a lot of heart behind it. Country radio, however, was less forgiving, as the song barely made the top sixty on Billboard’s airplay chart (oh sure, they gave plenty of airtime to the tire fire that was “You Broke Up With Me,” but now they have more-refined tastes). For his second album, Hayes and his label have decided to try to split the difference between his last two singles with “90s Country,” a slick Metro-Bro tune that declares his love to someone while name dropping every country single released in the 1990s along the way. Whiled I’d give Hayes an A for effort (I can only get so annoyed at a song that manages to pull off a Ken Mellons reference), the execution gets a bright red F, as the track winds up being more of a tribute to the sleaziest of Bro-Country than anything released during the 90s.

When a song claims to pay tribute to a style of music, the first question I ask is “Well, does it at least sound like what it’s paying tribute to?” The answer here, just as it was for Tim McGraw and Lauren Alaina, is “no.” While the 1990s had more variation in its sound than people like to admit, today it’s associated with the fiddle-and-steel-driven neotraditional sound, which served as a callback to the classic country sound of the past. This mix, in contrast, sets the tone with a slick acoustic guitar and a prominent drum machine, and while it eventually mixes in a dobro, keyboard, and some real drums, it’s a far cry from the rollicking electric guitars and crying steel guitars that defined the neotraditional movement. (There’s something that kind of sounds like a fiddle here, but it’s limited to short post-chorus riffs.) The drum machine here seems to be a double-edged sword: It’s the loudest thing in the mix, and while it sets a nice tempo and gives the song a catchy groove, it also gives the lyrics an extra coating of slime they didn’t need while singlehandedly draining away any 90s feel the track hoped to have. The writing here might be sharp enough to serve two purposes, but the production can only back one of them effectively, and it’s the wrong one.

Did I call Kip Moore “hand-down the worst vocalist in country music” last year? Because the more I hear Hayes attempt to sing, the more I question that statement. Forget having any actual tone or power to his voice; the man barely has enough breath to make it through some of the lines in this song (his gasps for air are a lot more noticeable and numerous than most artists). Likewise, his charisma is essentially nonexistent, and while elevating writing like this would be a tall task for anyone, Hayes actually makes the song sound more creepy than it would by itself. He’s got decent flow and a competent falsetto, but he’s completely incapable of making this drivel feel romantic or classy.

I think the writing is simultaneously the best and worst part of this song. On the surface, I’m actually really impressed by how well the 90s songs are weaved into the story, and they go a bit deeper than the typical George Strait & Alan Jackson references you hear all the time (Mellons, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shenandoah, etc.). Unfortunately, the story they’re woven into is a cookie-cutter “love” song that’s as grimy as anything you might have heard during the Bro-Country era. What really irks me about this song is how the lyrics take fun, playful references from the 90s and twist them into lewd, creepy innuendo. Where Jackson honorably respected   his date’s wishes when she declined to have sex, the narrator here proclaims that they “ain’t settling for no burger and no grape snow cone.” Where Kenny Chesney’s song was about a literal tractor, the hook gets reduced to a sophomoric dick joke here. When Tim McGraw said “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it,” he was covering the entire scope of his relationship, not just the sex the narrator focuses on here. This isn’t a tribute to neotraditional songs, it’s a mockery of them, and as cleverly as the song is assembled, Hayes and his co-writers should be ashamed of what they’ve wrought.

In the end, “90s Country” accomplishes exactly zero of what it set out to do. It’s both a sleazy, below-average love song and the exact opposite of a tribute to the music of the neotraditional era, and is equal parts synthetic and pathetic. If Walker Hayes wants his name to be dropped in the inevitable “2010s Country” song in two decades, he needs to shape up and step up, fast.

Rating: 3/10. Go listen to some actual 90s country instead, like this: