Stand back folks: Eric Church is angry, and he’s got some choice words for country music.
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on how we got here:
- We’re currently dealing with a rapidly-worsening COVID-19 pandemic, an ongoing fight for racial equality, and a genre that continues to ignore the problems of the world and encourage folks to drink and party themselves into a stupor.
- Mickey Guyton implored us all to consider the plight of Black Americans, but society wouldn’t let her display her frustration or anger without pigeonholing her into a stereotype.
- Rascal Flatts asked us all to change our behavior to leave behind a better legacy, but the song was more of a polite request than a direct order.
President John Kennedy once said that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That “violent” revolution is upon us in the form of Eric Church’s surprise-drop single “Stick That In Your Country Song,” and although the track isn’t causing anyone any bodily harm, it’s the angriest, most-pointed rebuke of country music in quite some time. Church isn’t afraid to voice his frustration (and as a white male, he won’t be penalized nearly as heavily for it) and make demands of his audience, and he wants country music to do the same by telling the stories of those who are suffering and struggling in the world. In short, he wants the genre to sober up, get serious, and raise awareness about the people who are in pain, and I am 100% on board with this.
What I find most ironic about the production here is how much it reminds me of Blake Shelton’s horrendous song “God’s Country,” but this time the dark, ominous sound feels a lot more justified. I absolutely love how song manages its momentum: It starts off small with an acoustic guitar and some spacious synth tones, but there are some very dark piano and synth notes underneath the guitar hinting that not all is well in the world. Instead of minor chords, the song uses an unorthodox I-vii-IV chord structure to give an unpredictable and unsettling vibe. Next, a drum set comes in on the first chorus and grows increasingly prominent and complex as the song goes along, adding an undercurrent of restrained passion and rage the matches Church’s increasingly agitated tone (more on that later). The sound brings to mind a pot of water getting closer and closer to boiling over, and it finally explodes on the third chorus with the help of some hard-rock guitar chords stolen from 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” and an in-your-face bridge solo that hit the audience with an intense wall of noise (the choir “oh-woahs” are a nice touch). Things dial back for a brief moment to let the bridge breathe (the producer deserves props for delivering such a powerful sound without getting in the way of the lyrics), but the wave comes crashing back down on the final choruses, leaving the listener breathless and drained by the end of the track.It’s an incredible performance, and goes a long way towards driving the song’s point home.
Church’s vocal performance leaves no doubt as to how he feels about the current state of affairs. We can talk about how the song’s limited range and flow demands and how Church clears those hurdles easily, but it’s the power requirements that define this track, and how it demands that the artist deliver their lines to the listener like a hammer slamming down on a nail. To say Church satisfies this demand is an understatement: The man sounds like he’s frothing at the mouth with rage, so much so that at times he can barely get the words out through his clenched teeth. There’s a palpable sense of work and effort here similar to Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” and you can just hear Church pushing himself to the limit trying to convey his frustration with the current state of country music. The result is a raging river of anger that absolutely overwhelms the listener, and they’re completely swept away by Church’s passion and irritation and have no choice but to agree with him. Forget just owning the narrator’s role; this performance should get Church nominated for an Academy Award.
The message within the lyrics is pretty simple: Enough with the damn party songs—tell the tales of struggle and sacrifice that people are dealing with in their daily lives. It spends the verses walking the walk by describing the state of cities like Detroit and Baltimore, discussing the state of a wounded soldier after the fighting, and spending a huge chunk amount of time to the struggles facing “underpaid” and “overworked” educators. (I really like how the level of detail gives you a vivid picture of the subject, one that makes you think “yeah, country music should be talking about this.” While I would have liked to see things like the pandemic or the protests discussed a bit more directly (the song was written before any of this before the pandemic exploded), it fits the times well because these are exactly the sort of real-world challenges and struggles that the narrator wants country music to focus on. While it doesn’t call out the Cobronavirus trend or specific songs directly, the implication is hard to miss: There’s a reason these stories like this aren’t being stuck in country songs right now, and nihilistic party tracks are the latest and most-prominent replacement. Instead of ignoring reality, the narrator wants it slammed down in front of our faces, and provides enough of a teaser to make the audience agree.
“Stick That In Your Country Song” is a wake-up call for country music: The reality is that people are struggling in America right now, and people need to hear about it so that they are aware of the truth and can start taking corrective actions. Everything about the song is fantastic: The production sets the proper mood, the lyrics lay out a compelling argument for more substantive songs, and Eric Church delivers the message with such force that people can’t help but pay attention and agree. However, being “fantastic” and being “radio-friendly” are two very different things (in fact, given how enthusiastically country radio has selling the Cobronavirus trend, calling this “radio-hostile” might not be strong enough), and since Church has seen mixed results on the airwaves lately (“Monsters” recently peaked at a mediocre #15), it’s fair to ask if this will get the attention and airplay it deserves. Nevertheless, the gauntlet has been thrown down in the form of one of the best songs of the year, and in a moment where people are finally staring to awaken to the injustices around them, ignoring this song and its message would be unwise.
Your move, country music.
Rating: 10/10. There’s a surprising amount of competition for my midyear best-song list next week.