Song Review: Cole Swindell, “She Had Me At Heads Carolina”

If country music can’t come up with any new ideas, could it at least not ruin its old ones?

“Heads Carolina, “Tails California” introduced the world to Jo Dee Messina back in 1996, and while it only reached #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart, the song left a deep impact on the genre, to the point where it’s become “one of the most performed karaoke songs from that era in [Sony’s] vast catalog.” With 90s country experiencing a mini renaissance at present (although honestly, it seems like the genre has mostly moved on to 2000s nostalgia) and Cole Swindell hoping to build on his recent Lainey Wilson collab “Never Say Never” and get his stuck-in-neutral career back into drive, Swindell decided to crib from Messina’s debut single for his latest single “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” the third from his Stereotype album. The song brings to mind what happens when you run a document repeatedly through a photocopier: The quality degrades, the purpose gets lost, and the end result only vaguely resembles the original product. This track feels like a cheap attempt to trade on the success of another artist, and comes across as an uninspired pick-up song with none of the substance of its predecessor.

You’d think the easiest way to copy a song would be through your production choices, but here I think the producer only gets halfway to its target. After a heavily-filtered and re-recorded version of Messina’s hook opens the track (they plucked a random artist named Madeline Merlo off of BBR’s roster for this; apparently they didn’t have the budget for Messina herself), the song trots out an electric guitar with the signature tone playing the signature intro, backs it with Nashville’s usual guitar-and-drum ensemble (acoustic guitar strumming, steel guitar gap-filling, drum set keeping time), and…that’s about it. The video lists a whole bunch of instruments in the mix (mandolin, dobro, keyboard, banjo), but you’ll barely notice any of them, making the mix feel a bit empty and less bright compared to Messina’s song (the mandolin and keyboards got far more screen time in 1996). In their place, the steel guitar is a lot more prominent in this mix, taking the lead on the bridge solo and generally being the go-to accent instrument whenever there’s a break in the action. It’s a decent effort that mostly captures the tone and energy of the original song, but I give the edge to Messina’s producer for better incorporating more pieces into the arrangement and giving the song a bit more lift and detail. It’s the closest that this song comes to emulating its predecessor, and unfortunately it’s all downhill from here.

Back when I reviewed “Flatliner,” I mentioned how Swindell’s origin story would lead him to occasionally foist Bro-Country drivel on us to appease that part of his fan base, but I didn’t foresee it hampering his non-Bro material (especially given how often I praised him for his versatility). While he doesn’t run into any technical issues on “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” his performance as the narrator winds up feeling surprisingly neutral. It’s the same issue he ran into on “Never Say Never”: He does his darnedest to bring an upbeat, energetic attitude to the song (it lacks the confidence of Messina’s original hit, but the reworked version doesn’t really need it), but he struggles to get the listener to go along with the story. His usual charm and charisma are here, but you also hear shades of the meatheaded bro from “Let Me See Ya Girl” looking for a quick score (the writing doesn’t help matters; more on that later), which keeps the audience from feeling too favorable about the narrator or sharing in their excitement. He seems to be going in the wrong direction as an artist right now, and anyone off of Nashville’s faceless young male assembly line could fill in for him here with and get the same results.

Despite all this, I think the writing is the main problem with this song. I can’t listen to it without thinking of the train wreck that was Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” because of how much it relies on someone else’s work to support the song. Not only do the lyrics heavily allude to the original song, but the verse and chorus structure is nearly identical as well. Even worse, while the original song served as a declaration of confidence and freedom as two people charted their own path, the story here is a generic Boyfriend country tale, with the narrator seeing someone perform Messina’s hit at karaoke night, immediately declaring their undying love for the singer, and shoehorning themselves into the singer’s night. Even worser, the song makes the critical mistake of putting the punch line last instead of first, springing the realization that the whole thing was a nostalgia one-night recollection on the listener as a last-second twist that only serves to suck all of the meaning out the track. In other words, we’re left with an unimaginative Boyfriend-Bro combo song that feels less like a tribute and more like plagiarism. Who the heck thought that this was a good idea?

“She Had Me At Heads Carolina” doesn’t quite infuriate me the way “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” does, but it’s a lazy and disappointing song that tries to trade on the nostalgia for (and success of) a better song. The sound and structure are lifted straight from its predecessor, the writing is lifted straight from the trends of the 2010s and is equal parts uninspired and unimaginative, and Cole Swindell is set up for failure here and ends up doing more harm to the song than good. I know sequels and crossovers and unified universes are all the rage nowadays, but you’ve got to put at least some effort and original thought behind your work, because otherwise you’re dishonoring the memory of the original more than honoring it. Messina deserves better, and Swindell and his team needs to be better.

Rating: 4/10. Kick this one to the curb and listen to the original instead.

One thought on “Song Review: Cole Swindell, “She Had Me At Heads Carolina”

  1. I don’t exactly dislike this song, but it’s markedly inferior to the original in every way and has no real reason to exist.

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