Darn you Chris Janson, you know I’m a sucker for songs like this.
There’s a thoughtful, talented country artist somewhere within Janson, and we occasionally get glimpses of it through songs like “Holdin’ Her” and the excellent “Drunk Girl.” Unfortunately, songs like these aren’t what Nashville is looking for these days, so most of the time we got stuck with drivel like “Fix A Drink” and “Good Vibes.” However, after “Waitin’ On 5” crashed and burned at #42 on Billboard’s airplay chart, Janson surprisingly decided to go back to the emotional well one more time, closing the book on the Real Friends era and bringing out “Bye Mom” as the presumed leadoff single for his next project (an unexpected and bold move given the stakes). The TL;DR version of this review is that this song is exactly what I’d like to hear more of from this genre: Mature, experience-rooted tracks that make the listener think more deeply about the subject matter and have some useful life lessons buried within them (and the classic, understated production doesn’t hurt either). After the tire fire that was Blake Shelton’s “Come Back As A Country Boy,” this was not only a welcome change of pace, but perhaps one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.
While the production here is reminiscent of “Drunk Girl,” it’s not as heavy as that mix and is constructed very differently. While simultaneously impresses and confuses me about this arrangement is just how many instruments are included here: The video lists everything from the usual guitars and drums to a plethora of bluegrass instruments (dobro, mandolin, banjo) and makes you think that the sound will be incredibly busy and complex, but in reality this boils down to a simple acoustic-guitar-driven mix backed by a methodical drum set and occasionally featuring an electric axe and pedal steel. Everything else mentioned earlier is here, but they’re only used sparingly and are barely noticeable outside of a note or three (generally towards the end of the song). You could argue that some of these instruments are used so little that they could have been cut without impacting the mix, but they do help the song build some momentum as it approaches the climax, and their judicious use keeps the sound from drawing attention away from the lyrics and watering down the song’s message. This the rare Nashville mix that conveys seriousness without going dark: The instrument tones are bright and the chords are mostly major, giving the song a vibe that is equal parts reverent and reflective and inviting the listener to think about their own history and relationship with their mother. In other words, it’s an outstanding mix that does a great job driving home the song’s message, and it frames what’s ultimately a song about loss as a song about life instead.
I give Cole Swindell a lot of props for his flexibility, and while I wouldn’t put Janson in his league just yet (unlike Janson, Swindell can occasionally sell his Bro-Country nonsense), I’ve got to give him props for a) going in this direction for a radio single in the first place, and b) bringing the necessary emotion and charisma to the table to actually pull it off. He delivery gets a bit rough at times, but unlike on past singles, he tones down his talk-singing and sticks to a more-conventional style while still coming across as casual and conversational, making a song a bit more palatable and inviting to its audience. Lots of country singers praise Mama in their work, but Janson can bring a surprising amount of gravitas to his performance that others simply can’t match (witness his past forays into serious territory with songs like “Drunk Girl”), making him feel a lot more credible and his performance a lot more personal and heartfelt. In contrast to Shelton’s hard-line, exclusionary rant, Janson’s tone is non-judgemental: He just wants you to think about your mother and your relationship with her, and share what he’s learned about the bond over time. It’s a nice sentiment that’s well-delivered, and while it annoys me that current country music tends to frown on such songs, it’s nice to know that Janson is trying to do something about it.
The lyrics here tell the story of the narrator’s relationship with their mother, and the perspective and experience they’ve obtained about it as they’ve gotten older. If you’re lucky enough to have a caring parent, it’s something that you often take for granted and can even grow annoyed with (especially at a young age), and the writing does a nice job capturing the narrator’s nonchalance as they run off to new experiences (or more often are taken to said experiences by their mom). The line about how “you don’t know you’re somebody that somebody loves more than themselves” really strikes the listener because it explicitly highlights the depths of the mother/child relationship and forces us to think about and appreciate something that usually never crosses our minds. For a topic that could easily cross into cheesy and saccharine territory, the song mostly avoids this by focusing on the prior vignettes in which the mother was ignored/dismissed (and even though you know the death twist is coming, it’s limited to the bridge and isn’t dwelt on nearly as much as you expect). It’s perhaps not the varied advice of Eric Church’s “Some Of It,” but it’s a nice message that leads the listener to think about their own mother and how they may have treated their relationship in days gone by (and maybe even motivate some folks to be a little nicer to their moms), and that moment of rumination/reflection (regardless of what the exact subject is) is something that country music is lacking these days, and something I’d like to see more of from the genre going forward.
I don’t hold out a ton of hope for Chris Janson’s radio prospects with “Bye Mom,” but I have to give him some credit for trying to go against the grain. Writing with story progression and some words of wisdom to chew on, production that supports the subject matter and strikes a nice balance between the arrangement and the simplicity of the sound, and a heartfelt, believable performance from Janson himself resulted in a thoughtful song that’s easy to listen to yet gives you something important to think about. Amidst all the beer-and-truck background noise that dominates the airwaves, this song asks you to stop what you’re doing, listen closely, and consider your mother/child relationship and wonder if you truly appreciate what it’s meant to you over the years. Maybe it’s not a huge ask, but it’s something that’s worth thinking about, and if you can take the time to think about that, maybe you’ll be willing about bigger and deeper subjects down the line. It’s a potential first step towards a better genre of music, if only we’re willing to take it.
Rating: 8/10. You should check this one out, and let’s be honest: You should probably call your mom soon too.