Song Review: Robert Counts, “What Do I Know”

This song represents everything that is wrong with America right now. Think I’m exaggerating? Pull up a chair.

Robert Counts is a Tennessee native who signed with Sony Nashville back in January of 2019 and dropped his self-titled debut EP almost a year ago. He’s been writing songs behind the scenes for a while now, most notably the solid album cut “Backseat Driver” from William Michael Morgan’s Vinyl. For what appears to be Counts’s first radio single, however, he and Sony have decided to go with “What Do I Know,” and frankly, someone deserves to be fired for this decision. This is an unnecessarily angry and confrontational declaration of rural pride and wisdom that has some painful similarities to the hot garbage that was Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” which the main difference being that Counts is a much weaker and less authoritative vocalist. It’s aim is to exclude rather then enlighten, and it’s a indictment of the us vs. them, culture-warrior attitude that threaten to tear the entire country in half.

Remember when I said “God’ Country” sounded “like a harbinger of the Apocalypse”? The production here has that same dark and ominous feel that really doesn’t click with the song’s supposed message. The arrangement is pretty much the same sort of guitar-and-drum mix we’ve grown accustomed too, but the opening electric guitars, eerie synth tones, and light-touch drum machine set a cold and foreboding tone, one that makes the song feel like the lead-up to a no-holds-barred rumble rather than an espousement of ideals. The hard-rock guitar chords and punchy drum set that jump in on the chorus only heighten this atmosphere. Instead of trying to complement the lyrics and enhance their credibility, the mix just ignores the verses and instead puts all its chips on the chorus, prepping us for combat against “the ones that don’t get it” without telling us why. (You get the sense that the mix doesn’t actually care what we’re fighting forit’s just itching for a fight, justified or not. ) It’s the sort of sound that tries to send its own message underneath that of the writing, and it’s a message I have zero interest in hearing.

For his part, Counts comes across as an off-brand Brantley Gilbert behind the mic, with just enough raspiness to make it annoying and not enough tone to make it worthwhile. Technically, I’m not sure the song is a great fits for Counts: It traps him mostly in his lower range, especially on the verses, forcing him to walk a tightrope to maintain his tone without his voice turning into sandpaper. (The chorus lets him extend his voice upwards a little, but not much, and he doesn’t show much vocal power here either.) However, it’s his delivery that really bothers me: He maintains an even-keel demeanor during the verses, but he adds a real snarl and emphasis to the chorus that’s as unnecessary as the dystopian production. Not only does this make him come across as just as bloodthirsty as the mix, but it really devalues every he says on the chorus: If he can’t be bothered to put any feeling behind the words, why should we attach any meaning to them? Even when taking into account the terrible position the writing puts him in, Counts’s performance adds an extra level of hostility to a track that shouldn’t be this aggressive in the first place. As a debut single, this is a worst-case scenario: Rather then enticing me to hear more from him, I never want to hear this guy sing ever again.

The writing, in a word, is flawed:

  • It’s got more than its share of nonsensical statements: I’m not sure what “sleep hard every night” actually means, and the phrase “like my daddy’s granddaddy’s daddy’s daddy did too” is so over-the-top it feels like a parody.
  • Where most songs try to deliver advice like this, they use an elderly character to serve as a wizened foil to the naive narrator and give the message a bit more credibility. This song, however, relies on the narrator themselves to sell its story, which a brand-new artist like Counts just doesn’t have the experience or authority to pull off.

However, it’s the framing of this song that really irritates me. On the surface, this song is a laundry list of generic one-liners, many of which aren’t even that specific to rural life:

Work hard all day, sleep hard all night
Don’t run your mouth if you don’t know how to fight
Plan your work, man, then work your plan
Don’t build your house in the sand
Carry a pocket knife, stick to your guns
Know when to walk away but don’t ever run
Try not to borrow another man’s gold
Gotta answer to the one you owe

There’s nothing overly controversial (or novel) herein fact, some of them are so vague that they don’t really say anything at all. Country music is full of songs that attempt to pass down wisdom like this (think Van Zant’s “Help Somebody,” or even Aaron Tippin’s “You’ve Got To Stand For Something”), and if a track approaches the subject in a thoughtful, non-combative manner, it can be pretty effective (“You’ve Got To Stand For Something” was also Tippin’s debut single as well). Just as I said in my “God’s Country” review, “there is no reason for this song to feel this freaking angry.”

Today, however, we live in a world of gates, bars, and lines drawn in the sand, a world where Jason Aldean tells us that “They Don’t Know,” Luke Bryan ridicules city dwellers over ten-dollar drinks on “Kick The Dust Up,” and Shelton screams at people about “God’s Country” like he’s an old man telling the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. We’re not interested in sharing our wisdom with otherswe’re here to declare ourselves right and shame the other person for being wrong. It’s no surprise then that the lyrics here take a hard turn at the chorus:

But what do I know? I’m just a redneck sitting
On a screened-in sipping on a longneck
Listening to the crickets sing the same old songs
Like my daddy’s granddaddy’s daddy’s daddy did too
What do I know? I’m just a coffee can dollar
Dirt on my hands, sweat on my blue collar
Got everything I need right here in the holler
Where the ones that don’t get it won’t go
What do I know?

The message here has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: As a bona fide “country” person (just like you *wink wink nudge nudge*), I know a lot more than those other people (you know who I’m talking about *wink wink nudge nudge*). This song isn’t intended to broaden anyone’s horizonit’s just here to affirm that the narrator and the audience are on “Team Country,” that “we” know better than “them,” and that “they” aren’t going to make “us” abandon our hard-earned. This is the same ignorant, closed-minded attitude that’s got us ignoring climate science and arguing over wearing face masks in public, and it makes me sick.

(A rant for another day: When the f*ck did country music get so pretentious and exclusive? I can recall songs as late as the mid/late-2000s that preached that country music was for everyone, like Trace Adkins’s “Songs About Me” and Shelton’s own “Hillbilly Bone.” Why is the genre drawing such a hard line now? I have some theories, but this review has run long enough already…)

The TL;DR version of this post is that “What Do I Know” is in the conversation for the worst song I’ve heard all year. Everything from the sound to the writing to Robert Counts himself sound unjustifiably angry and indignant, and the underlying message of superiority and exclusivity is absolutely repulsive. This was a terrible choice for a debut single, as it paints Counts in a really unflattering light and doesn’t give me any reason to believe in (or even see) his potential. We really need to move past this combative attitude both as a genre and as a nation, and giving songs like this the boot is the first step.

“What Do I Know”? I know I never want to hear this song again.

Rating: 2/10. Complete garbage. If you’re going to listen to a song with this title, listen to Ricochet’s: