Song Review: Brantley Gilbert ft. Toby Keith & HARDY, “The Worst Country Song Of All Time”

Well, at least they’re being honest with us.

2020 turned out to be a rough year for Brantley Gilbert: After his #1 collaboration with Lindsay Ell “What Happens In A Small Town” generated some badly-needed momentum for his career (it was his first #1 since 2015), he proceeded to squander every last bit of it, with “Fire’t Up” stalling outside the Top 40 and “Hard Days” barely cracking the Top 30 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Apparently Gilbert decided he needed to take a big swing to get back into the country music conversation, because he and Valory closed the book on the Fire & Brimstone era, brought in HARDY (Mr. “REDNECKER”) and Toby Keith (Mr. Irrelevant), and dropped “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” on us, a backwards attempt at an “I’m so country!” song by trying to tell us what isn’t country. The irony is that though the title is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, the song is exactly as bad as advertised: It’s a lazy, ignorant, exclusionary track with a reheated Bro-Country sound and some truly terrible vocal performances from all three singers involved. It’s not the worst country song of all time, but there’s a pretty good chance it winds up as the worst country song of 2021.

For a song that’s trying so hard to differentiate itself from its peers, its production is disappointingly cookie-cutter. From its hard-rock electric guitars, deliberate tempo, and in-your face percussion (which is mostly real rather than synthetic this time), this unimaginative drivel sounds like a rejected mix from the Bro-Country era. (The dobro fills the role of the token banjo, and is buried so deep in the background that it’s hardly noticeable.) The one deviation from the script is handing the bridge solo over to a saxophone (which one performer labels a “tube whistle” for no reason), and based on Keith’s lines I think it’s supposed to be another signal of how “not country” the song is…except that some of country’s biggest stars, including Keith himself (and I’d include Garth Brooks’s “One Night A Day” here too if the man wasn’t allergic to YouTube), have included the instrument in their songs. I’d argue that the saxophone is the only redeeming feature of this mix, as the song’s vibe is stuck in an awkward spot that’s not bright enough to be fun yet not dark enough to be angry, leaving it without much of a tone at all and preventing the listener from feeling like they’re in on the supposed joke (we’ll talk about that later). Overall, this mix is generally stale and uninteresting, and doesn’t provide any meaningful support for the subject matter.

None of the three vocalists here acquit themselves terribly well, and their deliveries are loaded with malicious intent rather than good-natured fun. Keith is the easiest target of the three, because he sounds awful: With his tired, disinterested tone, his performance is so mailed-in he should reimburse the label for postage, and it should have never been included on the track in the first place. Gilbert and HARDY at least seem interested in singing the song, but while Gilbert stumbles a bit on the first verse (he struggles to fit in all the songs he wants to name-drop), the biggest problem with both men is the irritating attitude that permeates their performance. A song like this would be hard to redeem under any circumstances, but with a little charm and a lighter touch, you could maybe have some good-natured fun with the concept of what is and isn’t thought of as stereotypically “country.” Instead, Gilbert and HARDY adapt a caustic, mocking tone and come across like generic Bro-Country meatheads, and their underlying message comes through loud and clear: If any of our descriptions match you, you’re not “country,” and you’re not one of us. It’s only a few steps from this track to Robert Count’s tire fire “What Do I Know,” and the bitter flavor and exclusionary mindset of these performances wind up pushing the audience away rather than drawing them in. In the end, all three artists combine to make a bad song even worse, and frankly, they should all be ashamed of themselves for doing it.

Speaking of an exclusionary mindset: A lot of songs have tried to define “country” by what it is, but this track flips the script by trying to create “the worst country song of all time” by listing all the things that they believe country isn’t. (You can tell that HARDY had a hand in writing this junk, because it features the same awful, misguided sense of humor that plagued “REDNECKER.”) At its core, the song is nothing more than an inverted laundry list of tired, overused country tropes: It takes things like beer, trucks, and dirt roads, and declares them to be bad things in its quest for awfulness. Not only is the approach incredibly lazy, but by framing these attitudes as “un-country,” it draws a hard line between “real” country fans and the rest of the world, and goes even further by insinuating that those outside the country bubble are only worthy of hatred and scorn. I tend to be a big-tent kind of person when it comes to musical genres, and nothing drives me up a wall more than taking an “us vs. them” approach and projecting supposed moral superiority over those on the other side of the fence. (The fact that it tries to hide its malice behind the paper-thin “It’s just a joke, bro!” defense doesn’t help matters—in fact, it makes them look worse.)

The main question I have with defining “country” in such a sense is “Why?” Why can’t people who “hate beer,” “think trucks are a waste of gas,” and don’t happen to “know the words to ‘Family Tradition,’ ‘Folsom Prison,’ or ‘Walk The Line'” be country fans? (Spoiler alert: The first two statements apply to yours truly, and I only know the words to one of the songs in the third.) Macy Gray recently proposed changes to the American flag; would Gilbert, HARDY, and Keith permanently bar her from the country music community? Even statements that you might think would be unassailable fall apart upon closer scrutiny: There are definitely people in Russia and North Korea who “support Kim Jong-Un and Putin”—why should that disqualify them from being fans of country music? (The song also gets explicitly political with references to cancel culture and hating the Constitution, which bothers me because demonizing people they disagree with in this manner is also the modus operandi of the modern Republican Party, which is working really hard to subvert our entire form of government right now…) The only requirement for being part of country music is liking country music, and people are allowed to do so no matter who they are (for example, while I think throwing Morgan Wallen off the radio was the right call and I would keep him off the radio until he demonstrates a change in attitude and behavior, I wouldn’t take away his stereo or make him throw away his Hank Williams Jr. CDs). Country music should be a place for anyone who’s experienced the highs and lows of life (the joys of a romance, the pain of a loss, the stories of people and their times, etc.), and the last time I checked, no one died and made these three losers the gatekeepers of the genre.

Simply put, I hate everything about “The Worst Country Song Of All Time.” I don’t like the generic sound, I don’t like the pretentious, closed-minded writing, and I don’t like the condescending, exclusionary attitudes of Brantley Gilbert, HARDY, or Toby Keith. In fact, the only good thing I can’t say about this track is that it didn’t quite provoke the angry, visceral reaction that Michael Ray’s “One That Got Away” did (it was darned close though). What aggravates me even more is that this review is exactly what the singers and label are looking for: This song is for the subset of country fans who subscribe to this backwards line of thinking and want to build a metaphorical wall between themselves and everyone else, and baiting uppity critics like me to rip the song to pieces will serve as confirmation that “those people” don’t understand “country” folks and want to destroy everything they treasure. The truth is that there are far more things to treasure besides beer, trucks, and “Mama’s homemade fried chicken,” and we should be able to celebrate all of them regardless of who we are or what instruments we prefer to hear. If Gilbert and his collaborators don’t understand that, they’re still free to enjoy country music, but I’m not sure I want them making it themselves.

Rating: 2/10. Complete rubbish.