The best way to sing a hometown song is to not focus on the hometown.
Kelsea Ballerini found herself in a tough spot after “Homecoming Queen?” only reached #17 on Billboard’s Airplay Chart, “The Other Girl” failed to launch at all, and the release of kelsea was disrupted by a global pandemic. Luckily, she had an ace up her sleeve in the form of “Hole In The Bottle,” a song that seems to strike a chord with the country music community even as it had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (and there’s no shame in finishing second to Thanos), and helped get the re-release of her album ballerini off the ground and out into the world. Now, she’s back with fellow Knoxvillian Kenny Chesney to discuss their shared place of origin in “Half Of My Hometown,” and while I generally don’t like songs like this, I feel a bit more positive about this one because it focuses on the people more than the place, and generally seems more clear-eyed and honest about the mixed emotions the location makes her feel.
Speaking of mixed emotions, that’s what I feel when I listen to the production: It generates a suitably wistful atmosphere to support the subject matter, but it also blends it a bit too much with the rest of the radio and is begging for a bit more instrument diversity. Yes, there’s a mandolin that helps open the track and gets some extended airtime on the second verse, and there’s a token banjo that’s barely noticeable as it slow-rolls in the background, but the primary melody drivers are the usual suspects: An acoustic guitar and a drum machine for the verses, and some electric guitars and real drums that jump in for the chorus. It feels like a “necessary but not sufficient”sort of mix: It supports the writing by reflecting the qualified devotion to the area and giving the song a balanced and neutral feel, but it could have done so much more to make the song stand out—an extra instrument here, a different riff there, etc. (I’m also a bit conflicted about how well the electronic beat blends with the acoustic instruments; the pairing seems a bit awkward, even despite how restrained the beat is.) I suppose that what we get is okay overall and you can’t say it doesn’t do its job, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to me.
I would call Ballerini’s performance as quietly impressive, given the surprising degree of difficulty presented by the song’s tone. Its limited range and relaxed flow present no challenge, but the artist has to strike a careful balance with their delivery: The have to exhibit impartiality with their message without coming across as disinterested or bored. In this regard, Ballerini does a nice judge projecting feeling without judgement, painting a picture with their words and letting the audience draw their own conclusions. You get the sense that she appreciates her hometown and the people in it regardless of their feelings or behaviors, although I wasn’t convinced to reflect and be more appreciative of my own hometown as a result (it’s an evil place, don’t ever go there). I know Chesney also hails from Knoxville and is therefore a logical choice to help out with this song (even if it’s just for harmony vocals), but I honestly don’t think it was a good choice: His voice is distinct but doesn’t add a ton to the song, and he and Ballerini don’t sound good together at all (and given how little volume Chesney’s vocals get, the producers seem to agree). Despite that, however, I think the vocals are a net positive on balance, and reflect how far Ballerini has come from the pop-princess image Black River was pushing a few years ago.
Talking about someone’s hometown is old hat is country music (especially when an artist is trying to flex their credentials), but generally the songs devolve into checklist tracks featuring beer, mama, and old athletic achievements. Instead, this song takes a different approach by focusing more on the people the narrator grew up with, and how their behavior has diverged over time: Some stayed and reveled in their history, while others left to chase a better future. The song tries not to play favorites and deliver both sides of the argument, and does a nice job focusing on some aspects of leaving home that don’t get a lot of airtime (how opinions differ on the narrator leaving, the contrast between “miniskirts” and “dressed for church,” and so on). There are definitely some subpar moments here (the initial contrast between drinking and making out doesn’t really go anywhere, and the math doesn’t add up on the hook—”part of me will always be half of my hometown” feels like a awfully small percentage of hometown), but the descriptions are generally vivid and lively (the crowd singing the fight song at the end was particularly well done). I’m not a hometown homer, but I heard enough on this track to appreciate where the listener was coming from.
I wouldn’t call “Half Of My Hometown” a great song, but it’s a solid effort from Kelsea Ballerini that is radio-friendly enough to build on her momentum from “Hole In The Bottle.” While I think the track had a lot more potential in its sound and could have used another iteration or two on the lyrics, Ballerini does a nice job on the vocals (Kenny Chesney less so, but his role is effectively minimal anyway) and helps elevate the track above the soundalike songs I’ve been reviewing lately. It’s the kind of hometown ode that I can actually get behind, and given how stale the radio has felt lately, I’ll take any good news that I can I get.
Rating: 6/10. Give this a few spins to see what you think.