Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 7: Kneotraditional Knights

As open-minded as I try to be about the sound of country music, there will admittedly always be a place in my heart for the Randy-Travis-inspired movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still songs songs were better than others, and I think it’s time to take a trip down memory lane to see just how rose-tinted my glasses really are. As CallieMacN might say, “Who’s ready for a randomizer?!”

The concept of LITS is simple: Hit the shuffle button on my old iPad, listen to ten songs chosen by whatever random number generator Apple uses (which could end up being anything from sizzling singles to deep album cuts to songs not even remotely related to country music), make a snap judgement on how good or bad the songs are, and produce a highly-subjective ranking of the impromptu playlist. Today, however, said playlist will be drawn from a carefully-curated batch of singles from the neotraditional era, with no old-school, new-school, or non-country stuff allowed.

Is this silly and without purpose? Absolutely, but it’s also a chance to potentially introduce folks to some different songs/artists, and potentially introduce people to some great material that they had forgotten or missed. Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is.

The Contenders

Song #1: Ricky Skaggs, “Country Boy”

I complain a lot about lifeless songs that plod from start to finish, but Skaggs’s 1985 bluegrass track is the exact opposite: This is sonic heroin, so guaranteed to hype you up it’s dangerous to listen to while driving (it could use a warning label). There’s not much to the writing besides, you know, being a country boy, but the instrumental wizardry on display here could reduce an old-school fan to tears: The mandolin, fiddle, banjo, piano, steel guitar, and acoustic guitar take turn trading expertly-executed licks on perhaps the greatest outro in music history (and that Warner Bros. riff thrown in at the end always makes me laugh). This was a good time in a cassette taps back in the day, and it remains so as a MP3 on a dated iPad. You can’t go wrong with a starting track like this one.

Song #2: George Strait, “One Night At A Time”

If you’re dealing with 80s and 90s country music, you’re practically required by law to include a George Strait track (and I expect Alan Jackson to show up any minute now). Looking back on the era, however, it feels like Strait’s singles are mostly just “good” (and perhaps even a little too safe) compared to his 80s releases. Still, it makes him a safe bet for any playlist, and this 1997 release is no exception: I wouldn’t call it “sexy,” but that Spanish guitar and Strait’s smooth, charismatic vocal on top of a standard fiddle-and-steel mix create a very warm and comfortable atmosphere, unlike some of the sex jams I hear country artists try to pull off today. It’s a decent single and I’ll never object to it appearing, but as Skaggs showed earlier, there are better tracks that we can draw from this era.

Song #3: Alan Jackson, “Little Bitty”

Well, speak of the devil! Jackson matched Strait hit for hit back in the 1990s, and on this 1996 release, Jackson had some help: The song was written by “The Storyteller” himself, Tom T. Hall. You can kind of tell that this is a Hall composition with the way he spins a short thread into a long yarn, and the back-to-basics observations and simple “be kind and enjoy life” message are timeless (if not exactly novel). The production tosses an accordion onto the fiddle-and-steel foundation to give the track some Cajun flavor and an upbeat, energetic vibe, which feels like a good fit for the season as winter gives way to spring. It’s a fun song with no guile or guilt, and it’s a nice choice for establishing a carefree mood on a Friday night.

Song #4: Toby Keith, “He Ain’t Worth Missing”

Does anyone remember 1990s-era Toby Keith? His polarizing persona of the 2000s makes it hard to admit sometimes, but he had some solid neotraditional cred back in the day. I wouldn’t call “He Ain’t Worth Missing” one of his best tracks of the era (it’s not on the level of “Shoulda Been A Cowboy” or “Who’s That Man”), but this 1993 release remains a decent offering, with its ominous, piano-driven production and Keith using his charisma to pitch himself as someone genuinely concerned with the other person’s well being (instead of a sleazy bro terrified of losing their girlfriend to an old flame). It’s probably not the first track I’d seek out if I was looking for some OG Keith material, but it sets the mood well enough to earn a seat at this table.

Song #5: Alan Jackson, “Love’s Got A Hold On You”

Simplicity is the name of the game here, as Jackson’s 1992 release (and second song of the night) is as straightforward as it gets. The production is primarily a guitar-and-drum mix (the fiddle and steel are bit players here), the “love as a disease” trope is delivered without pageantry or fluff in the writing, and the uptempo beat means this thing clocks in at a brisk 2:50 and change. In truth, it feels a bit bare-bones in hindsight, leaving me thinking “That’s it?” when the song is over. It’s enjoyable, but like “One Night At A Time,” it’s not peak Jackson either. Still, it checks all the neotraditional boxes, and I’ll never turn it away at the door if it arrives.

Song #6: Travis Tritt, “Anymore”

Hey, it’s that guy from the new Hot Country Knights single! Tritt may be one of the less-heralded members of the “Class of ’89,” but he certainly had his moments in the early 90s, and this is one of them. (For a guy considered a spiritual successor to the outlaws of the 70s, his biggest hits, and all his #1s, are all ballads.) “Anymore” hit the airwaves in 1991, and it had me fooled back in the day (I thought the “I don’t love you anymore” line meant the narrator was walking away from a dying relationship), but it’s actually about a narrator who can no longer resist that attraction of a presumed special someone. The production makes this more of a power balled with its heavier keyboards and electric guitars jumping in to give the track jolts of noise and energy in the lead up to the punch line (and that guitar backing on the bridge solo is the perfect table-setter). It’s not the first song I think of when I think about Tritt, but it’s a nice addition to the playlist and will likely find a respectable spot on today’s list.

Song #7: Lee Roy Parnell, “Heart’s Desire”

Here’s a name you don’t hear very often! Parnell had a brief moment in the early and mid 90s, and 1996’s “Heart’s Desire” was essentially his last hurrah in mainstream country (it was his last Top Ten single). Honestly, I wouldn’t call this his best work: The lyrics are fairly boilerplate and a little silly at times (“like a sweet tooth cravin’ candy”? “like a car spinning out of control with a blown-out tire”?), and while Parnell himself seems happy, I don’t feel the love the way I do on something like “One Night At A Time.” The production is fairly guitar-centric (which makes sense given Parnell’s skill as a player), but it doesn’t really reach the energy levels it needs to, and feels kind of lukewarm as a result. It’s an okay track, but the competition is extra-strong tonight, and Parnell needs to bring his A-game if he’s going to compete on this list.

Song #8: Mark Chesnutt, “Old Flames Have New Names”

Now this is how you play a player! The 1992 leadoff single for Chesnutt’s Longnecks And Short Stories is a rollicking good time (think Strait’s “All My Exes Live In Texas” but faster), clocking in at a blazing 2:20 and change. The detail is what really sells the song, as it’s interesting to hear about what the narrator’s former acquaintances are up to and how they’ve grown and matured into new roles while the narrator most certainly has not. Chesnutt avoids feeling too sleazy by making himself the butt of the joke and tossing out charm by the bucketful, and the springy western-swing-esque mix is guaranteed to move your feet by the end of the track. It’s a ton of fun from beginning to end, and my biggest complaint is that it’s over so darn quickly!

Song #9: Joe Diffie, “New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)”

And the upbeat numbers keep coming! Before he become the object of Jason Aldean’s fascination, Diffie had a decent run back in early/mid 90s, and this 1991 release checks all the usual boxes: A fiddle-and-guitar-dominated mix with some serious bounce and brightness, a narrator brimming with optimism as they proclaim that they’re going to fix whatever’s broken with their relationship and re-light the fire of passion, and a charismatic vocal performance from Diffie that can’t help but make you root for the guy, regardless of what their transgressions were. I seem to be in a mood for cheerfulness today (hey, spring break is still spring break, even if I can’t go anywhere thanks to the coronavirus), and Diffie delivers in a big way on this track.

Song #10: Brad Paisley, “Me Neither”

What the heck we started with some instrumental magic, so let’s end with it too! Paisley only barely made this playlist with his debut album Who Needs Pictures (this song was technically released in 2000, but it came off of a 1999 album so it made the cut), and this fits into the same mold as the last few songs: Faster tempo, brightly-toned traditional instrumentation, and a touch of self-deprecating humor thrown in for good measure. I always liked this song, but I also always felt like it was half-baked: The lyrics themselves cover less than two minutes, and the story ends rather abruptly after the second chorus (with a solid outro filling much of the gap). Still, this was our first glimpse at Paisley’s incredible guitar prowess (the rest of his band acquits themselves well too), while also highlighting his easy charm and strong songwriting chops. It’ll probably get stuck behind some of his immediate predecessor in this exercise, but it’s by no means a bad song.

The Results

Position Song
1. “Old Flames Have New Names”
2. “Country Boy”
3. “New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)”
4. “Anymore”
5. “Little Bitty”
6. “Me Neither”
7. “Love’s Got A Hold On You”
8. “He Ain’t Worth Missing”
9. “One Night At A Time”
10. “Heart’s Desire”

Looking at tonight’s list, I’m reminded of Josh Schott’s post last month about fun in country music and where it disappeared to after being a major part of the 90s country landscape. The songs near the top of this list are unabashedly fun, and it’s something you don’t get a lot of from country music today (“Every Little Thing” and Runaway June’s recent offerings being the most-memorable exceptions). Perhaps that’s where some of the current complaints come from: Artists are so busy flashing their country cred or gushing over their significant others that their songs lack the spirit and atmosphere that made the 1990s so enjoyable. (That said, the neotraditional movement also had its share of strong slower offerings: Song #11, Shenandoah’s “Hey Mister (I Need This Job)” would have grabbed an upper-half slot had it been eligible.)

I wasn’t really feeling the Hot Country Knights’s debut single “Pick Her Up” (it had too much of a Bro-Country vibe for my taste), but it certainly captured that fun vibe of the neotraditional era in its sound. Here’s hoping a few other acts can follow their lead and bring some of those old feelings into the genre’s new era.

2 thoughts on “Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 7: Kneotraditional Knights

  1. Hey Kyle, great post! I was wondering if you know where I could find the Top 1000 Gold chart online. I saw your link to the Top 100, but I’m curious as to see what lies beyond that. A lot of the gold songs from the 90’s and 2000’s that my station here in Pittsburgh plays weren’t on there. Also, I’m thinking that Alan Jackson would be an interesting deep dive, although it could end up just being another “Bro Country” answer. I mean if you think about it, his last hit was his ZBB collab and that came out in 2010 or 2011 right on the heels of the Bro craze.

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    1. Hi Sam, I’m not sure where to find the Top 1000 gold list, but it might be worth checking with Chris Owen (https://twitter.com/FiddleSabre) to see if he knows where to find it.

      Alan Jackson is a very interesting case – he seemed to be matching George Strait hit for hit up through the 2000s, and then just disappeared around 2010. I always blamed his Like Red On A Rose album, but he rebounded a bit with Good Time (although those will never be considered his most meaningful hits). He would make for an interesting deep dive!

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