It’s not “Southern Comfort Zone,” but it’s a step in the right direction.
I’ve been a Thomas Rhett booster for a while, but I’ve been growing increasingly less impressed with his output, from his “meh” Cobronavirus take “Beer Can’t Fix” to his bland, vague feel-good attempt “Be A Light” to the painfully-generic “What’s Your Country Song.” The man just seemed to be stuck in a rut, running out of ways to recycle his material (how many love songs can one person write to his wife?) and unsure of what direction to go next. (It’s a problem Cole Swindell as his label have been wrestling with for a while as well.) However, “Country Again,” the second single off of Rhett’s recently-announced double-album project, may finally offer some clues to Rhett’s next move, and they’re surprisingly encouraging: Both the sound and the sentiment here are a welcome respite from the uncompromising sameness of the airwaves, and while it’s not in the same ballpark as Paisley’s 2012 offering (it actually reminds me of how Easton Corbin’s “A Girl Like You” tried to rebuke certain tropes while simultaneously benefiting from their use), it’s still a fair bit ahead of most anything on the radio right now.
The biggest surprise here has to be the production, which mixes in a lot more throwback elements than you might expected. Sure, the fiddle and steel guitar are here, and the former actually sees significant time in the spotlight (they even gave it a solo after the second verse), but those are the easy neotraditional callbacks—what really caught me off guard was the retro electric guitar that opened the track and serves as the primary melody-carrier, with its 70s-era sound that calls to mind the best of Waylon Jennings’s discography (the bass guitar gives off the same vibe as well). This mix may not be all sunshine and roses (the first percussion line feels a bit too clean for the mix, and the token banjo feels leftover from the Bro-Country era), but this arrangement finally brings back the sort of instrument diversity I’ve been hoping to see for a while now, while also offering a bit of meta-commentary in support of the subject matter (after all, if a song is going to claim to be country “again,” shouldn’t the sound walk the walk by calling back to a classic sound?). It’s a nice change of pace that suits Rhett well, and is bound to draw some double-takes from its listeners and compel them to take a closer listen.
While I think Rhett is a better artist than people give him credit for, he’s felt a bit out of his element on his last few singles—he just doesn’t have the track record or gravitas to carry a song like “Be A Light” or “What’s Your Country Song.” He’s at his best when he can make a song feel autobiographical, and this is the first time he’s succeeded in doing so in quite some time. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of here (with its limited range and relaxed flow, the song doesn’t present much of a challenge in that area), but it requires a narrator that can find comfort amidst complexity, and someone who can feel credible in both the rural and urban spheres referenced here. By these metrics, Rhett might be the perfect artist to drop a track like this, given both his family’s roots in the genre and his rapid rise to stardom presenting the classic rural/urban conundrum (going “big time,” “forgetting where you came from,” etc.). With his earnest charisma and suitable backstory, Rhett fills the narrator’s role without breaking a sweat, coming across as both sympathetic and believable. It’s the sort of performance I haven’t heard from Rhett in some time, and one that should pay dividends in the long run.
The writing is an interesting take on the tug-of-war between the life (and lifestyle) the narrator grew up with, and how the demands of celebrity and modern life have pulled them away from it (and subsequently how nice it is to return and be “country again.” (Kelsea Ballerini and Kenny Chesney explore a similar theme on “Half Of My Hometown.”) This is probably the weakest part of the track: There are some rougher moments here and there (the Eric Church reference feels a bit contrived, and saying “my roots…started missin’ me” feels a bit awkward), the track conveniently glosses over the darker elements of being “country” (like, say, the misogyny and racism), and while it it deserves some credit for taking the first step and not outright dismissing anything that falls outside the traditional rural sphere (the narrator “love[s] me some California” and “wouldn’t change things I’ve done or the places that I’ve been”), it still incorrectly champions the “country” lifestyle as inherently superior. Still, at this point anything that doesn’t immediately dismiss modern life or confront the listener with unnecessary anger is a positive development, and the writing does a nice job of softly pushing the trucks, boots, and fishing trips that the narrator treasures, striking a much more inclusive and comforting tone. (The critiques of modern life being so fast-paced, isolating, and cellphone-centered are certainly fair, albeit not terribly novel.) While it’s not the boundary-pusher that Paisley dropped nearly a decade ago, it’s comes closer to that most of its peers, and that’s a (slightly) encouraging trendline.
“Country Again” is a solid prototype of the stance I’d like country music to take going forward. Don’t just preach to the choir and scream about how big your truck tires are over soulless guitars and drums—instead, be a true salesperson and show people why you love what you love. This song attempts to do that through it throwback production, less confrontational writing, and a strong performance from Thomas Rhett himself. With this and “Half Of My Hometown” officially dropping next week, could this be a sign that country music is on the verge of an upswing? …Probably not, but I suppose a guy can dream.
Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.