What’s the difference between “Dear Rodeo” and a real rodeo? A real rodeo is at least exciting for eight seconds.
Remember when we thought mainstream country music was pivoting back towards traditional sounds? You know, back when Midland was actually making waves and Texas-based artists like Aaron Watson and Cody Johnson were starting to make some headway? Yeah, that trend didn’t last long, and neither did Johnson’s success: “On My Way To You” made it all the way to #11 on Billboard’s airplay chart, but his attempted sex jam “Nothin’ On You” crashed and burned at #55, leaving him once again on the outside of the Nashville bubble looking in. After sitting out most of 2020, Johnson is back with a little more star power this time, bringing in country legend Reba McEntire for a duet of his previously-solo single “Dear Rodeo.” This song, a comparison of a rodeo career to a past relationship, has some good ideas and frankly should be much better than it is, but there’s something (or maybe several somethings) missing, and what we’re left with is yet another Blandemic track that’s far too effective as a non-habit-forming sleep aid.
The production is where the warning signs first start to appear: Instead of following the writing’s lead and trying to stand out from its peers, this is pretty much the same guitar-and-drum mix everyone else is using these days. Sure, there’s significantly more steel guitar here than you’ll usually find on a track, but it’s mostly shoved into the background and drowned out by the hard-rock guitars and the drum set (it only gets to shine on the bridge solo, which coincidentally is the most interesting part of the song). Despite their rougher guitar tones, the song has a surprisingly polished feel, which seems out of place amidst the rough-and-tumble subject matter it’s trying to cover. The song is the sonic equivalent of a dud firework: It really wants to explode and awe you with its power, and it’s got the firepower to do it, but it never actually goes off, failing to build any momentum or generate any energy as it goes along. (It also leans a bit too much towards darker tones, giving the song a melancholy feel that leaves the listener confused when the narrator claims they’d “do it all again.”) In the end, it’s the same old generic sound we’ve all grown tired of over the last few months/years, and fails the make the track feel meaningful.
The vocals suffer from the much the same problem: Johnson projects a classic cowboy image and has some serious street cred from his days on the Texas music scene, but his performance her can only be described as lackluster and replaceable (seriously, it could be any faceless male artist behind the mic). His technical skills are fine, and he’s got a distinct voice that should help set him apart from the generic creations of the Nashville machine, but none of that comes through in his delivery. Instead, his takes an unnecessarily-stoic approach to the narrator’s role, and while such a move is in line with the admit-no-weakness, feel-no-pain masculinity of the bronc rider image, it keeps the audience from feeling or understanding whatever emotions the narrator feels, and they aren’t convinced that the story is worth caring about. McEntire’s star power is also wasted here: She’s relegated to harmony duty for most of the track, and she’s trapped in a key that’s far too low for her voice, which keeps her from applying her trademark vocal power (Johnson actually out-powers her at the end of the second chorus, and this should never happen). Much like with Florida Georgia Line on Chase Rice’s recent earache “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen,” McEntire adds little beyond her name to the song, and when paired with Johnson’s forgettable showing, the whole mess leaves the listener more bored than moved.
The lyrics here try to compare the narrator’s past life as a rodeo rider to an exciting, ultimately destructive relationship, but they do this so vaguely that it barely registers in the listener’s mind, leaving the song feeling like yet another interchangeable heartbreak song. There’s a line in an Epic Rap Battle episode when Richard Pryor tells George Carlin “You tell a joke and people go “Hmm, that’s funny,” and that’s exactly the same feeling I get here: When a line drops like “I held on tight with all my might, I just couldn’t hang on,” the academic side of my brain says “Hey, that’s a neat comparison if you think about it,” but the rest of my brain replies “Yeah, but everybody says stuff like that, and I don’t actually feel anything.” The truth is that there’s very little here that invokes rodeo imagery, and outside of some broken bones and buckles, you could take “rodeo” out of the title and the song would still make sense. Instead of a heartfelt ode to a rough sport, the song comes across as a failed (and slightly lazy) attempt to inject some flavor into the same old story everyone is telling, and the result is rather bland.
“Dear Rodeo” seems to have all the ingredients for a gourmet sonic experience, but it winds up feeling undercooked and underwhelming in the end. There are just too many pieces missing from this puzzle: No edge to the production, no emotion in the vocals from either Cody Johnson or Reba McEntire, and little effort from the writing to really tie bull riding and love together (Brad Paisley’s “Bucked Off” runs, or perhaps rides, circles around this thing). With artists like Midland and Watson also struggling to find traction on the rodeo, I get the feeling that Johnson’s window for mainstream success may have already closed, and if he can’t bring anything better than this to the airwaves, he’ll be stuck singing “Happy Trails” on his way out of town.
Rating: 5/10. *yawn*