When people are asked “What’s Your Country Song” twenty years from now, I doubt anyone will mention this one.
It’s hard to gauge whether Thomas Rhett’s previous single “Be A Light” indicates that his stature in the genre is shrinking or growing. On one hand, the song looked really weak at times as it made its way up the chart, and wound up as a Mediabase-only #1 (its #2 Billboard peak snapped his nine-song #1 streak). On the other hand, these sorts of hopeful, topical kumbaya songs fell out of fashion surprisingly quick as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on (Kane Brown and Thanos quickly abandoned songs along the same lines before they could make any headway on the radio), so the fact that Rhett stuck with his track and dragged it as far as he did could be seen as a testament to his star power. Its run is officially over, however, and apparently so is the run of Center Point Road, because Rhett is back with a brand new single “What’s Your Country Song,” the presumed leadoff single for his fifth album. In truth, however, this song is even weaker than “Be A Light”: It’s a scattershot meta-track that references a bunch of country classics without making any sort of case to join them.
The lyrics may include a number of hat tips to classic country songs, but apparently the producer felt no need to make the same sort of effort: Once you get past the opening dobro notes, this is the same old unimaginative guitar-and-drum mix everyone else is leaning on nowadays, and goes back at best to a spacious sound from the late 2000s. An acoustic guitar and a restrained mix of real and synthetic percussion covers the verses, some electric axes fill in the gaps between the lyrics, but the choruses just mash all of the instruments together into an indistinguishable wall of noise that wastes all of the mix’s potential (for example, there’s a steel guitar here, but it’s only here for some chorus stabs, and you’ve really got to strain to hear it behind the cranked-up electric guitars). For all of its historical references, the song never realizes the role the sound plays in making a song stand out: The classic guitar riff of “Mama Tried,” the fiddle-and-steel shuffle of “All My Ex’s Live In Texas,” the pop-country blend of “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” and so on. This is a soulless arena-ready arrangement that could be playing behind any slightly-positive track, one whose only distinguishing characteristic is its guitar tones (which seem to be caught in that 2000s tug-of-war between neotraditional and modern country). In other words, it’s a generic forgettable sound that won’t end up being anyone’s idea of a country song.
A song like this is an impossible challenge from an artist’s perspective. It requires a high level of seniority and gravitas to sound believable and convince listeners that you hold songs from the past in high esteem, but you’ve also got to have enough mainstream relevance to convince people that a) you know what “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” is, and b) that newer songs like this belong in this category. (Basically, if you’re not Tim McGraw or Brad Paisley, you probably shouldn’t be singing this song.) Rhett has certainly distanced himself from his Bro-Country origins and cultivated a mature image with his wife and family, but he’s not going to convince anyone that “Mama Tried” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are anything more than random song titles to him. It’s a solid technical performance and Rhett shows off his usual charm and charisma, but this just feels like a song he’s not ready to sing yet.
As far as the lyrics go, it feels like the writers got this one backwards: The song has a broad scope (it name-checks songs from 1949 to 2011, and maybe 2012 if “did you cruise down a backroad” is a reference to Florida Georgia Line’s debut), but the scenes beyond that are too narrow (we get two different descriptions of driving, and that’s it). I feel like it should have been the other way around: The name-checked songs should be a bit more concentrated (perhaps in the 80s and 90s, where someone like Rhett might sound more credible?), and the reasons people listen should be a bit more varied (in particular, more homage should be paid to the heartbroken side of the genre). My biggest issue, however, is that there’s really nothing to this track beyond the other song titles, and thus it doesn’t give the audience a reason to pay attention. Sure, I like “Strawberry Wine” and “Neon Moon,” but if those songs are your answer to the “what’s your country song” hook…why wouldn’t you just listen to those tracks instead of this one? (That’s what made this review so hard to write: I’m moved to listen to every song except this one.) As cleverly as song of the titles are worked into the writing, they’re only tossed in as part of one-off hypothetical questions and are never revisited. It’s the country music equivalent of an academic survey paper: You read it once to fill in your “Related Work” section, and then toss it in the recycle bin.
“What’s Your Country Song” is a half-baked, halfhearted tribute to the ghosts of country music past (and also Jake Owen, which…you know what, I’m gonna take Joe Biden’s advice and “put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us”…for now). The writing is a shallow, scattered reminder of the past, the production is a bland reminder of the present, and Thomas Rhett just isn’t the right person to deliver the message here. As lukewarm as I felt about “Be A Light,” at least there was a positive message behind it—this song has no message or substance at all, and only succeeds at taking up time and space on the airwaves. 2020 has been a roller coaster in country music, but it’s ending on an incredibly “meh” note, giving us a lot of stuff that won’t be anyone’s country song in another decade.
Rating: 5/10. Look up the tracks this song mentions, and then go listen to them instead.