One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Jessica Andrews?

Image From Country Rebel

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

Today’s installment of One-Hit Wonderings is a tag team effort from Sam Wilson and MiserMatthias, who asked about a teenage phenom from the turn of the millennium who has mostly disappeared from the face of the earth in the last decade:

Teenage phenoms are nothing new in country music, and while the phrase brings names like Tanya Tucker, Brenda Lee, and Taylor Swift to mind, there are also some precocious artists that catch lightning in a bottle and then never fill another glass, leaving their young visage frozen in amber for country music fans of that era. One such artist was Jessica Andrews, a turn-of-the-millennium vocalist who became a household name at age 17 with the title track and leadoff single from her sophomore album, “Who I Am.”

Andrews seemed primed to take the next step and ascend to country stardom, but instead she faded back into obscurity within a few years, with only a single track (2002’s “There’s More To Me Than You”) making it inside the Top Twenty. Still, the song left enough of an impression with the public that Wide Open Country posed the same question that we have two years ago, With such a promising start, why did Andrews’s career fail to launch?

After examining the evidence, the truth is that we’ve really already covered Andrews’s story on the blog—specifically, in our deep dives into the careers of Lee Ann Womack and Toby Keith. Andrews was a product of her time, and just when she was about to break out, she was hit with the double-whammy of a changing radio climate and label instability, and she simply wasn’t able to overcome the setbacks. Instead, Andrews basically disappeared from public life, and had barely been heard from since the end of her Nashville saga.

The Backstory

Andrews first caught the ear of producer Byron Gallimore when she was ten, after someone sent him a tape of her performance at a local talent show. Gallimore initially passed on working with the young singer, declaring that he “didn’t know what he could do with a 10-year-old.” Two years later, however, Gallimore agreed to bring in the now-12-year-old Andrews and start crafting her debut album.

What led to Gallimore’s change of heart? Well, Wikipedia lists Andrews’s birthday as December 29, 1983, which most likely places Gallimore’s first encounter with Andrews’s work in 1994. Fast-forwarding two years brings us to 1996, which just happened to be the year another teen singer announced her arrival:

Image from Taste Of Country

LeAnn Rimes exploded onto the scene with “Blue,” a song that cracked the Top 30 on the Hot 100 despite only making it to #10 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, and posted seven more Top Tens over the rest of the decade (including the #1 “One Way Ticket (Because I Can),” but not including “How Do I Live,” which reached #2 on the Hot 100 despite losing its country airplay battle to Trisha Yearwood). Nashville, like the NFL, is a copycat league, and as soon as Rimes demonstrated that there was a market for a teenage talent, everyone wanted their own youthful prodigy, and Gallimore already had someone in mind.

The back half of the 90s wound up being a veritable boom time for teenage country singers, with Lila McCann debuting in 1997, Amanda Wilkinson fronting her family’s band in 1998, and Andrews releasing her debut album Heart-Shaped World in 1999. (Billy Gilman would join the party a year later with “One Voice.”) Andrews, who spent several years working on her first album (recording nearly fifty songs in the process) and could only stand by and watched as her peers made waves on the radio, was worried about being lost in a sea of fresh faces and not taken seriously as an artist. Her fears turned out to be justified: She managed to put her first three singles into the twenties on the radio, but those numbers paled in comparison to the competition:

ArtistPeak
Rimes#1 (“One Way Ticket (Because I Can)”)
McCann#3 (“I Wanna Fall In Love”)
The Wilkinsons#3 (“26 Cents”)
Andrews#24 (“Unbreakable Heart”)

(For the record, I first encountered Andrews when I saw the video for “Unbreakable Heart” on CMT, and to this day I contend that this was actually her best single.)

Despite the relative struggles of Heart-Shaped World, there were some significant tailwinds blowing for female country artists in the late 1990s. As we recounted in our Lee Ann Womack analysis, Shania Twain absolutely dominated the tail end of the decade, and artists like Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina, and even Rimes were starting to see crossover success with bolder, more confident material. Chely Wright would become a one-hit wonder with “Single White Female” in 1999, and Womack herself would eventually strike gold with “I Hope You Dance” a year later. The conditions were right for Andrews to catch her own rocket ride to the top, and she did just that with “Who I Am.”

Andrews did not write “Who I Am” (it was composed by Brett James and Troy Verges), but she often spoke of the incredible synergy between herself and the track and how it described her life perfectly (except, famously, that her grandmother’s name is not Rosemary). In truth, nearly anyone could have said that about the song given how “effectively vague” it was written: Who wouldn’t declare that they were “the spitting image of my father,” that “my momma’s still my biggest fan,” and that “sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy, but I’ve got friends who love me”? It was that everyperson connection, backed by Andrews’s incredible vocal talent, that struck a nerve with the public and made the song a radio staple for years to come.

The Fallout

“Who I Am” appeared to be the breakout single Andrews needed to ascend to the level of Rimes and other powerhouse artists of the era, but the moment it fell off the charts, the wheels feel of Andrews’s career: “Helplessly, Hopelessly” staggered to a poor #31 peak, and “Karma” wound up being an unmitigated disaster that only made it to #47. Another shot of leadoff-single buzz managed to get “There’s More To Me Than You” up to #17, but afterwards Andrews would never again manage to put a single into country radio’s Top Forty. What happened?

Let’s return to our Womack analysis from before:

“‘I Hope You Dance’ topped the country and AC charts, and peaked at #14 on the Hot 100. However, things dropped off quickly: ‘Ashes By Now’ hit #4 on country radio and #45 on the Hot 100, ‘Why They Call It Falling’ fell to #13 and #78 respectively, and ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger’ dropped to #23 and didn’t reach the Hot 100 at all…To be fair, Womack wasn’t the only female artist from the era that was struggling: The music landscape shifted away from pop-country divas as the millennium began, and even powerhouses like Twain, Hill, and McBride were reaching the end of their runs by this time.”

All those late 90s tailwinds suddenly stopped blowing in the early 2000s, and female singers were replaced by groups (Lonestar, Rascal Flatts) and chest-pounding macho men (Toby Keith, Trace Adkins). In a way, “Who I Am” marked the end of an era: After the song left #1 in April of 2001, only four female artists would reach the top of the charts over the next year (McBride, Messina, Jamie O’Neal, and Cyndi Thompson), and in the following two years no woman would reach the summit of the airplay chart (Gretchen Wilson would finally break the streak with “Redneck Woman”).

As far Andrews’s teenage contemporaries, none of them ended up having much staying power in the end:

  • McCann’s career was effectively over after her 1999 Top Ten “With You.” After its run, she would be locked out of the Top Forty herself.
  • The Wilkinsons fell off quickly after “26 Cents”: Their follow-up “Fly (The Angel Song)” only made it to #15, and the group would never again crack the Top 30 in the States (they did, however, have a bit more longevity in Canada). Amanda Wilkerson attempted to forger a solo career in the early/mid 2000s, but her only chart entry limped to a stateside peak of #49.
  • Gilman flopped so hard that he barely qualifies for the ‘one-hit wonder’ label at all: “One Voice” only peaked at #20, and none of his other releases even made it into the Top Thirty.

Even Rimes couldn’t escape the change: She went through a multi-year drought following 2001’s “But I Do Love You,” had a brief resurgence in 2004-2005 with her album This Woman, and then mostly disappeared after 2007’s “Nothin’ Better To Do.”

Without Rimes’s star power, Andrews floundered in the changing radio climate. However, she also lacked the label support to weather the transition, which brings us back to our Toby Keith deep dive:

“DreamWorks was having trouble behind the scenes, leading to a merger with none other than Mercury Records in 2004 and eventually closing its doors entirely in 2006. Keith has claimed that he was essentially pimped out by DreamWorks, ‘putting out an album every year trying to keep [them] afloat’ before the label could be sold.”

Andrews was Keith’s labelmate at DreamWorks, and her career was already on the rocks by this point (“Good Time” followed “There’s More To Me Than You” with a miserable #49 peak). Any hope for a comeback via her fourth album disappeared when the label collapsed, and the album was shelved and didn’t see the light of day until 2016. (CMT reported that Universal Music Group was going to absorb the DreamWorks roster via its other country labels, but there’s no record of Andrews ever being on another UMG label, so she may have been shown the door as it was being locked for good.)

Artists change labels all the time, however, and a few years later Andrews resurfaced on Carolwood Records (a Disney subsidiary) ready to chart a classic comeback story. Instead, history repeated itself: Her first single “Everything” peaked at #45, and her first album wound up getting shelved when Disney shut down Carolwood a mere year after Andrews arrived. To add insult to injury, while all of the other Carolwood artists were transferred to their sister label Lyric Street, Andrews was instead unceremoniously released. This was the final straw, and Andrews never again made it back onto the airwaves.

The End?

If there’s one word to describe Jessica Andrews’s musical career, it would be unlucky. She was slow out of the gate and wasn’t able to stand out from the teen phenom crowd, she was a product of a radio trend and wasn’t able to adapt to changing times, and she got the rug pulled out from under her twice thanks to labels closures. It’s enough to make anyone consider walking away from the industry, and that’s apparently what Andrews did.

While our previous one-hit wonders are still making music or at least making public appearances, we’ve heard next to nothing from Andrews since her brief Carolwood stint. Aside from a few personal headlines (she married fellow country artist Marcel in 2011, and gave birth to the couple’s first child in 2018), the singer hasn’t made news of any sort in roughly a decade. It’s pretty clear that we’ve heard the last of Jessica Andrews.

(…Or have we? While listening through Andrews’s singles on YouTube while writing this piece, I discovered that someone has been stealth-dropping cover song recordings on her official YouTube ‘Topic’ channel for the last few years. However, there are questions about the legitimacy of these recordings—the sound quality is horrible, and the last tweet on what I think is her official Twitter page calls them “bootleg”—so for now I think she’s done with the music business.)

Still, for unlucky as Andrews was, she broke through for one brief moment in 2000, just long enough to make “Who I Am” a part of the country music catalog. Regardless of what happened afterwards, Andrews ensured that country fans always knew who she was…even if her grandmother’s name isn’t really Rosemary.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: October 18, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
2. Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
3. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” -2 (3/10)
4. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
5. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
6. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
7. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
8. Luke Combs, “Cold As You” 0 (5/10)
9. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
10. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
11. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
12. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
13. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
14. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
15. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
16. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
17. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
18. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
19. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
20. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
21. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
22. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
23. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
24. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
25. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
26. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
27. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
28. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
29. Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” +2 (7/10)
30. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
31. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
32. Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” +2 (7/10)*
33. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
34. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
35. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
36. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
37. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” +2 (7/10)
38. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
39. Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” -4 (1/10)
40. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
41. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
42. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
43. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
44. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
45. Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” 0 (5/10)
46. Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” 0 (5/10)
47. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
48. Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left” +1 (6/10)
49. Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” +1 (6/10)
50. Dylan Scott, “New Truck” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) -1
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +2
Overall Pulse +1
Change From Last Week
+2 🙂

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Come Back As A Country Boy,” 1/10

Gone:

  • Scotty McCreery, “You Time” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” (down from #1 to #4)
  • Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” (down from #3 to #6)

Out Of Bullets:

  • Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” (down from #7 to #10, 250+ point loss)
  • Lady A, “Like A Lady” (down from #12 to #13, 500+ point loss)
  • Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” (holds at #17, single-digit point loss)
  • Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Can” (down from #22 to #24, 100+ point loss)
  • Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” (up from #30 to #29, 400+ point loss)
  • Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” (down from #32 to #33, 80-point loss, second week in a row with an empty gun)
  • Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” (holds at #46, 31-point loss)
  • Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable” (down from #47 to #49, 74-point loss)

Running Out Of Bullets:

  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (down from #37 to #38, gained only nine spins and 108 points)
  • Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (down from #42 to #43 despite a decent 200+point gain, and it’s been buried in the forties for a long time)
  • Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” (down from #43 to #44, gained only twelve spins and forty-four points)
  • Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” (up from #48 to #47, but gained only twenty-one spins and 107 points)
  • Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left” (up from #49 to #48, but gained only nine spins and 101 points)

Pinned Down Behind Cover:

  • Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” (up from #16 to #15, but gained only forty-eight spins and forty-one points)
  • Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” (up from #26 to #25, but gained only nine spins and fifty-seven points)
  • HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” (up from #30 to #29, but gained only forty-four spins and ninety-seven points)
  • Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” (holds at #34, but gained only thirteeen spins and forty-eight points)
  • Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” (down from #35 to #36, gained only two spins and lost 100 points)
  • Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” (down from #38 to #40, gained only eight spins and broke even on points)
  • Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” (down from #39 to #41, gained only ten spins and lost points)
  • Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” (down from #42 to #43, gained only twenty-nine spins and sixty-six points)
  • Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” (holds at #45, but gained only twenty-nine spins and 101 points)
  • Dylan Scott, “New Truck” (holds at #50, but gained only forty-two spins and 106 points)

Both Barrels Blazing:

  • Mirand Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” (debuts at #32)
  • Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” (up from #44 to #39)
  • Morgan Wallen, “Snd In My Boots” (down from #25 to #21)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Cold As You” (up from #10 to #8)

Bubbling Under 50:

  • Crowded out of Country Aircheck once again…

On The Way:

  • Luke Bryan, “Up”
  • Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll”
  • Justin Moore, “With A Woman Like You”

Overall Thoughts: Did someone turn the dial on the time machine back a decade? Because this week was mostly defined by the former power couple of Shelton and Lambert, with “Come Back As A Country Boy” posting a 1300+ point gain in the low forties/high thirties and lambert riding a massive 1500+ spin wave to debut at #32. Throw in a massive push from Shane to leap from #4 all the way to the summit, and this week turned into the driest spin drought that I’ve ever seen. If you weren’t comfortably in the Top Ten and didn’t have a ton of star power to lean on, you were holding on your dear life, and a lot of songs lost their grip (especially in the lower half in the chart). The spigot should open back up a bit more next week as Shane and Lambert come back to earth (as of today, Aldean & Underwood are easing into the top spot with a more-measured spin increase), and as that song and “Fancy Like” cycles off the chart, things should return to some semblance of normalcy and give everyone a fighting chance at success.

On the coronavirus front, the trend lines for new case and death averages continue to drop, but with over 80,000 cases and 1,500 deaths per day, it’s still too early to breathe easy, especially with a nationwide vaccination rate still at only 57%. Much of the focus recently has been on potential booster shots, with Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters joining Pfizer on the FDA-approved shelf and the official green light being given to getting any booster brand regardless of what your initial vaccine shots were. With the country now prepping to offer the vaccine to children ages 5 through 11, we’ve got a lot more tools at our disposal for combatting the coronavirus, as long as we can convince people to use them.

Given all of this, this is no time to let up on the guidelines and best practices we’ve been using thus far:

  • Wear a mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity, and be sure to get your booster shot once you become eligible.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

We’ve got the nationwide numbers moving in the right direction, and we should’t do anything to jeopardize this momentum. Keep doing the right things to protect yourself and others, and we may yet bring this draining, depressing, and deadly pandemic to an end.

My Reaction To Nintendo’s Animal Crossing Direct

How does an update feel like so much and yet so little at the same time?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons exploded out of the gate when it was released in early 2020 and is currently the second-best-selling game on the Switch (ranked only behind perennial powerhouse Mario Kart 8 Deluxe), but at some point, you simply run out of things to do on your island: Scour the world for your dream villagers, remade your island in your image, max out your house size…and then what? There are only so many fish you can catch or villager photos you can get before things start to get a bit repetitive.

In Nintendo’s recent Direct presentation, the company proclaimed that they had a big update in store for the game, so big that they needed a whole separate Direct to talk about it all. The rumor mill kicked into high gear: What sort of content would be added? Would it be new new, or just leftover features from New Leaf? Would the Froggy Chair finally make its triumphant return? And would all this be enough to be lapsed ACNH players like myself back into the fold?

The answer ended up being affirmative to all of the above (including the chair)…except maybe the last one.

Honestly, for all the features that were added, there didn’t seem to be a killer feature that made me say “I have got to play this game again.” Mostly, I found myself saying “Oh yeah, I remember this from New Leaf; it’s about time the game got feature parity,” and while it’s great that some of these features returned, there was nothing here that I felt I just had to try out. Instead of bringing in features that might re-expand the player base, this felt like an update that catered to the hardcore AC enthusiasts, i.e. the people who were still playing the game anyway. If you’d already felt like you’d seen and played it all like I did, you won’t find much here to entice you into picking the game back up.

My detailed thoughts on the update are as follows:

  • Honestly, I’ve never understood Brewster’s appeal. You walk in, you buy a cup of coffee, you drink it…and that’s pretty much it. Occasionally another character would be around to talk to (and the new amiibo card functionality lets you invite other characters in), but otherwise I found the whole thing to be a bit boring (although in fairness, I never actually unlocked the ‘work at the cafe’ feature back in the day). It’s a long-overdue addition, but not something I’m overly excited about.
  • I was excited to see Kapp’n and his bizarre sea shanties return…until I discovered that he doesn’t take you to an island where you could partake in challenges with friends like in New Leaf, but instead pretty much duplicates the mystery island feature of Dodo Airlines. For all the New Leaf functionality they brought back, this was the one thing I was hoping for, because it actually gave people something to do together when they visited an island. Alas, it’s pretty much the one thing we didn’t get.
  • The return of the shop plaza is a welcome sight, because it finally gives you consistent access to characters like Sahara and Kicks without having to wait for them to show up randomly on your island. You may have to pay for the shops to arrive, but let’s be honest: You’ve probably got several gazillion Bells sitting around from the game’s broken economic system, so it’s nice to have a reason to have them. I’d call this the best “new” addition to the game.
  • The developers went way back in the archives to bring back group stretching from the original Animal Crossing game, and while it seems like a feature that will get old quickly, allowing players to participate themselves using motion controls is a great way to make it more interactive and engaging (and making it available anytime means that people will actually do it instead of sleeping through it). Still, it’s a minor addition that doesn’t add a ton of replay value in my book.
  • The return of island ordinances is a long-overdue feature that will improve the accessibility of shops and villagers. Some people simply have limited time windows with which to play the game, and things like the Early Bird and Night Owl ordinances will help let people enjoy the game on their own schedule. Again, it’s a welcome return, but not enough to entice me to return with it.
  • More storage space and house exterior options are great, but despite my hoarding tendencies I never actually ran into the game’s original 1,600 item limit, and I changed my house exterior all of once during my time with the game. Being able to reach 5,000 items and having more facade choices is a nice feature for the completionists and perfectionists among us, but I don’t number among them.
  • Oh hey, the gyroids are back. To be honest, I didn’t find much use for them in New Leaf, and I wasn’t waiting with bated breath to see them come back, even with extra customization options.
  • Things like cooking, room lighting, accent walls, and player options like new hair and reactions feel like natural additions and will give folks a lot of interesting options, but I don’t see anyone beyond hardcore ACNH players jumping back in just to try them out. My house decor hasn’t changed in a year and I’m still satisfied with it, so changing things up just for the sake of change doesn’t seem like a good use of time.
  • The camera functionality is Nintendo’s games are getting better over time, and giving shutterbugs more options via the Handheld and Tripod modes really helps you get extreme closeups and more-expressive villagers than the default controls. It’s a great feature for those that took lots of pictures beforehand, but once again, it may not be enough bring lapsed photographers back into the fold.
  • The storage shed and ABD machine are great quality-of-life features that let you access money and items when and where you want to, but they’re not going to give you a reason to play if you don’t already have one. Same thing with the ladder kits and tight-space navigation option. (Do I sound like a broken record yet? Don’t worry, K.K. Slider has some new records to replace the broken ones.)

After going through the free stuff, Nintendo hit us with a twist: Happy Home Paradise, a paid DLC update that basically adds Happy Home Desinger to New Horizons and let you endlessly customize homes and yards for various AC residents. I like that the home requirements are fairly minimal, allowing players to go wild with the theme and make the design their own, and the lack of limitations (at least the trailer didn’t mention any) and being able to customize common spaces like schools and restaurants gives the game some surprising replay value for master designers. (Also, the ability to carry over new features like partition walls and polishing over to the main gate gives you even more options for your own island!) At $24.99, it’s a reasonable price for an expansion that lets people who enjoy the customization part of Animal Crossing show their stuff.

…But I’m not one of those people, so I’ll likely pass on the DLC. Much like the free update, it’s geared towards the AC power users rather than casual players, and if you already feel like the game is played out, none of this will change your mind.

In objective good/bad terms, I’d say this was a pretty good update all around, making Animal Crossing: New Horizons the premier AC experience for the franchise. If you’ve already tired of the bug-catching and furniture-placing grind, however, there just isn’t enough here to warrant a return trip to your neglected island. If this were an “is it worth buying?” post, I’d say that the value you get from all this directly correlates with how much you’re playing the game right now: If you’re already playing a lot, it’s great, and if you’re not, it’s mostly window-dressing. (If you’re thinking of buying Happy Home Paradise, I’d recommend buying it outright relying on the overpriced Expansion Pass for the mostly-worthless Nintendo Switch online service…but that’s a rant for another post.)

It’s nice to see Animal Crossing: New Horizons getting some attention from Nintendo after all this time. It’s just a shame that what we get isn’t enough to warrant giving more of your attention to the game.

Is It Time To Bench Jason Aldean?

Image from The Grammy Awards

The short answer is “Yes,” but not for the reason you might think.

Three months ago, I wondered if it was time for Jason Aldean to “have his legacy reexamined.” For the most part, I’ve found his single releases to be at least halfway decent over the course of the blog’s existence, and I wondered if he was finally becoming more of a boon to the country music community than a bane. In the last week, however, recent events have pushed folks to perform that reevaluation, and for my money, the results haven’t been pretty.

The recent uproar over Aldean stems from pictures that his wife Brittany posted on social media of herself and the couple’s children wearing anti-Biden shirts, as well as Aldean’s recent rant against California’s institution of a vaccine mandate for schoolchildren. While these events may have gotten a bit more media coverage this time around, Aldean has been getting more outspoken about his politics recently: The Post mentions a social media post questioning the 2020 election results and an anti-mask declaration he made in the middle of the surge of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

Wading into hot-button political issues like this is a surefire way to provoke a shouting match, and represents a stark departure from Aldean’s 2016 position that politics is “one subject I do stay away from. Politics is a no-win.” It seems that Aldean and his team have come to the same conclusion that Blake Shelton did: Play to your base, get in peoples’ faces, draw a hard line between “us” and “them,” and then sit back and profit. At this point, the strategy seems to be paying dividends for him (witness his latest single “If I Didn’t Love You” rocketing up the charts), but it’s also become the latest flashpoint that’s got some folks reconsidering their country fandom altogether.

Personally, I consider Aldean’s stance and statements regarding masks and vaccines to be disappointing and dangerous, as they encourage people that follow him to flout the very public health measures that I’ve been asking people to follow in my Pulse posts for over a year now. The question posed by the post’s title, however, is very different: Does Jason Aldean deserve to get the Morgan Wallen treatment for his behavior?

Based solely on his recent statements, this is a tricky question. Aldean has certainly let people know how he feels about masks and mandates, but from what I can find he hasn’t crossed into outright misinformation yet, although the election meme he posted has some questionable implications and was beyond bizarre. (Brittany Aldean is a different story, and she’s already drawn the attention of Instagram moderators, but we’re only considering her husband here.) Based only on these incidents, I’m not quite ready to show Mr. Aldean the door for speaking his mind, despite how repulsed I am at what’s inside his mind.

Another recent event, however, provides much more clarity on what to do with Jason Aldean. If there’s any treatment he deserves, it’s the Jon Gruden treatment.

Image from SB Nation

During its investigation into the Washington Football Team, the NFL uncovered a trove of emails from Gruden (who was an ESPN commentator at the time, and was later hired as head coach of the Los Vegas Raiders) that “contained racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments.” The specific comments that have come to light are absolutely disgusting, and while Gruden resigned from the Raiders before he could be fired, it’s safe to say that he won’t find another job in the NFL anytime soon. (Unfortunately, it’s also a safe bet that Gruden will likely be back in football at some point; the game is well-known for giving offenders second and third chances no matte how vile their transgressions were, especially is someone is considered a “winner.”)

So how does this relate to Jason Aldean? Well, he’s got his own bigoted skeleton in his closet, specifically his use of blackface as part of a Lil Wayne Halloween costume in 2015. Given the racist history of the practice, I would put the incident on par with Wallen’s casual use of the n-word in terms of its insensitivity, and would have thought that Aldean would have thought twice about doing something this prejudiced and stupid. The incident, however, barely made much of a ripple in the media at the time (I myself had basically forgotten about the incident until recently), and Aldean himself only half-apologized for his actions a year later (while also whining about how he thought people were overly sensitive about such behavior). In the end, Aldean paid absolutely zero price for his behavior, and his career just kept right on rolling.

I think it’s time that Aldean finally faced some consequences for his ignorant actions. Sure, it’s been nearly six years since the incident, but the Gruden emails were several years and one job ago too, and neither he nor Aldean should get a pass for their recent past. While I think Wallen got off a little too easily for his outburst earlier this year, I’d say that’s at least a starting point for what should happen to Aldean: Kick him off the radio, suspend his recording contract (honestly, I’d support terminating it outright), and force him to a) think about the implications of his behavior, and b) demonstrate that he has moved beyond it.

While I still like a lot of Jason Aldean’s recent single releases, I believe that there are some things that you just don’t do, and if you carelessly and thoughtlessly emulate and propagate racist behaviors, there have to be consequences. It’s not too late to take a stand and hold Aldean accountable for his actions, and that’s exactly what I think country radio and BBR Music Group need to do. If we’re ever going to change country music’s stereotypical image as a backwards, closed-minded community, we need to demonstrate that we’re more than just an insensitive old boys’ club, and that anyone can find a home within the genre. As I stated with Wallen, there’s a place for Aldean in this expanded genre tent too, but not without him serving penance for his sins and resolving to be a better person going forward.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: October 11, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
2. Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
3. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
4. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
5. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” -2 (3/10)
6. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
7. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
8. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
9. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
10. Luke Combs, “Cold As You” 0 (5/10)
11. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
12. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
13. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
14. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
15. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
16. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
17. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
18. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
19. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
20. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
21. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
22. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
23. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
24. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
25. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
26. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
27. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
28. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
29. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
30. Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” +2 (7/10)
31. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
32. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
33. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
34. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
35. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
36. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
37. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
38. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
39. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
40. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” +2 (7/10)
41. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
42. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
43. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
44. Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” -4 (1/10)
45. Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” 0 (5/10)
46. Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” 0 (5/10)
47. Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” +1 (6/10)
48. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
49. Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left” +1 (6/10)
50. Dylan Scott, “New Truck” 0 (5/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) -2
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +1
Overall Pulse -1
Change From Last Week
-4 😡

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Come Back As A Country Boy,” 1/10

Gone:

  • Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” (recurrent)
  • Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” (dropped below #50)

Leaving:

  • Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” (down from #1 to #3)
  • Scotty McCreery, “You Time” (down from #6 to #15)

In Real Trouble:

  • Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” (holds at #32, but lost its bullet)
  • Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” (holds at #33, but lost its bullet)
  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (holds at #37, but lost its bullet again)
  • Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (down from #44 to #42, but gained only one spin and five points)
  • Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” (up from #45 to #43, but gained only seven spins and fifty-nine points)
  • Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” (up from #47 to #46, but gained only twenty-five spins and lost points)
  • Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” (up from #50 to #47, but gained only thirty-one spins and sixty points)
  • Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” (up from #49 to #48, but gained only one spin and eighteen points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Lady A, “Like A Lady” (down from #11 to #12, gained only thirty spins and lost nearly 200 points)
  • Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” (up from #15 to #14, but gained only fourteen spins and ninety-four points)
  • Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” (down from #21 to #22, barely kept its bullet by breaking even on spins and gaining two points)
  • Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” (up from #48 to #45, but gained only fifteen spins and fifty-eight points)
  • Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left” (rejoins the chart at #49, but gained only twenty-six spins and sixty-one points)
  • Dylan Scott, “New Truck” (debuts at #50, but gained only nine spins and fifteen points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Nobody qualified this week.

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Cold As You” (holds at #10 and got run over by “Same Boat”?! Someone’s getting snapped out of existence over at Columbia Nashville…)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

Overall Thoughts: Janson rode in to save the day last week, but both he and Wilson rode off into the sunset this week, and just like that the Pulse is below zero for the first time here at Kyle’s Korner. Whether this is a temporary blip or not is still to be seen (it depends on if when “Bye Mom” rebounds), but I think the bigger issue in the spin distribution this week: With McCreery and Rodgers heading for the exit, Shelton regressing to the mean after a big debut, and no major debuts shaking up the charts (although McEntire and Parton made a surprise appearance at #52), it seemed like a good week for a lot of songs to grab a lot of spins. Instead, however, we saw a ton on consolidation at the top, with the Top 11 (plus Davis/Bryan and Hunt) vacuuming up the majority of freed-up spins, leaving those near the bottom of the charts (and even a few in the top half) struggling to post even mediocre numbers. It’s more evidence towards what we said last week: “People just aren’t that enthused with what Nashville is serving them right now,” and something has even a slight smell of a “hit,” it’s getting pumped out onto the airwaves over and over until it’s out of gas. Given how “meh” the Top Ten is right now, it’s a recipe for absolute boredom, and not a great way to convert new listeners to the format.

On the coronavirus front, while some surprising hot spots are still raging (for example, Vermont’s pandemic numbers are the worst they’ve been since the start of this whole thing), on the whole the country is seeing a lower number of daily new cases and deaths, with both numbers dropping by double-digit percentages in the last two weeks. However, the vaccination rate nationwide is moving stubbornly slow right now (NPR has it at 56.5% right now), which means we could still see another rise in case as the weather cools down and people begin moving indoors. If we want to keep the good news flowing and the case counts dropping, we need to keep following essential public health guidelines:

  • Wear a mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity. (And hey, getting a flu shot isn’t a bad idea either!)
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

Even with reduced case/death numbers, the current counts remain far too high to take much comfort in right now. We need to continue doing everything we can to keep pushing these numbers down and keep ourselves and the people we care about safe.

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Bye Mom”

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.

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Canaan Smith?

Image From Forbes

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

Today’s installment of One-Hit Wonderings is brought to you by RAID: Shadow Legends Sam Wilson, who points out that while these artists may leave an impression on their audience, it’s not always a good one:

Canaan Smith’s claim to fame is “Love You Like That,” a generic Bro-Country pick-up line that was released in 2014 but needed an entire year to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The song is so formulaic and soundalike that it’s a wonder it made any impact on the charts at all, and whatever lightning Smith caught in a bottle leaked out after the follow-up single “Hole In The Bottle” stalled at #23. Smith quickly disappeared from the radio (so much so that there’s been no trace of him on the Korner until now) and has only recently re-emerged from exile with a new album on a new label. So what caused Smith to flare up and fizzle out so fast?

After looking through Smith’s story, there appear to be some surprising similarities between Smith’s experience and Ty England’s Nashville stint fifteen years earlier. Mercury Nashville attempted to shove a square peg into a trendy round hole, and while the experiment worked just long enough to get a #1 song, the experience bothered Smith enough that when the roof finally caved in, he simply walked away and started making music the way he wanted it, regardless of its commercial potential.

The Ride

England had Garth Brooks in his corner, and Smith had a similar arrangement with someone who was almost as powerful at the time: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, better known as Florida Georgia Line. The three men were friends from their days at Belmont University, and Smith and Hubbard co-wrote the song “Black Tears” for FGL’s self-released EP back like 2010 (Jason Aldean would later record the song for his 2012 album Night Train). While Hubbard and Kelley may not have had a direct hand in Smith’s signing to Mercury Nashville, they certainly had an impact on the label’s vision for Smith, as “Cruise” would drop in 2012 and kick off the Bro-Country movement that would plague the genre for the next few years.

Bro-Country would kick off the careers of a number of artists (Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, Chase Rice, Brantley Gilbert, Brett Eldredge, etc.) and supercharge the careers of others (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton), and after Smith’s more-conventional debut single “We Got Us” crashed and burned at #44, Mercury pivoted to try to capitalize on the surging trend. “Love You Like That” checks all the boxes for the sound that defined the era: A deliberate tempo, heavy electric guitars, a token banjo, a serious tone that feels too dark to be romantic, an alcohol-marinated nighttime ride, references to both Tom Petty and “Fishin’ In The Dark,” continuously using the word “girl,” drawing the city/country dividing line…the list goes on and on. (The notable omissions are truck references and an in-your-face drum machine.)

The ploy worked long enough to earn Smith and his team a #1 song and an eventual album release in Bronco, but it failed to establish an identity for Smith beyond “just another faceless young white male singer off of Nashville’s assembly line.” It left him vulnerable to another shakeup in the genre’s sound, and by the time “Love You Like That” reached #1 in 2015, one particular artist was doing a lot of shaking.

Image from People

A quick look at the Billboard county #1s in 2015 shows that the year was dominated by two men: Luke Bryan (who had already pivoted to a slicker sound with “Kick The Dust Up” and “Strip It Down”) and Sam Hunt, who exploded onto the scene with “Take Your Time” and “House Party.” (In truth, the seeds for this trend has been planted the previous year with Hunt’s “Leave The Night On” and especially Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down.”) This was the start of the Metropolitan movement, and country artists were once again faced with an “adapt or die” moment. Unfortunately for Smith, Bronco was built for the Bro-Country era, and without any real star power or name recognition, he would never again find traction on the airwaves. After some failed attempts to adapt and adopt the new sound (“Like You That Way,” “This Night Back”), Smith and Mercury parted ways in 2018.

So What Happened?

Much like Brooks did for England, FGL stepped in to fill the void left by Mercury, signing Smith to their own label Round Here Labels as their flagship artist. 2020 saw the release of a new single “Colder Than You,” and the difference between major label Smith and kinda-sorta indie label Smith was jarring:

Instead of a Bro-country purveyor with a “clean-shaven face and fitted leather jackets,” we got a slow, 6/8 track from a guy who looked like River Dave‘s next-door neighbor…and honestly, I think I like the change (“Colder Than You” is at least better than Thanos’s attempt at the same wordplay). So what led Smith down this path?

While Smith has been careful not to throw too much shade at his former employer while talking about his album (he calls them “a really, really great label…and a building full of people I love and felt loved by”), there’s a constant theme that comes up when discussing his new album High Country Sound:

“I just felt like I think I wanna take back a little bit of this ownership of my career, and just maybe hit reset for a second…Get back to why I moved to town in the first place, for great songs, and to do stuff without worrying too much about where we wanted to land.”

Smith, as told to Gayle Thompson, October 2019

“It’s me fully embracing, kind of, who I am, where I came from, you know, and not trying to be anything.”

Smith, as told to Amy Poulter, July 2020

“This whole album felt like a chance to make something that I truly wanted, which was extremely liberating…I really focused on having fun with it, and I didn’t feel pressure from anyone to do anything in particular—it all came from a place of my own personal love for these songs. Taking control and kind of steering the project in the way I wanted just made the outcome that much more special, and I couldn’t be prouder of it.”

Smith, as told to LB Cantrell, March 2021

“It was just a digging deep and reaching inside kind of thing to find that sound that best reflects me and not just a sound that we think is cool or is going to work or going to compete…I had 100% complete freedom from start to finish.”

Smith, as told to Annie Reuter, April 2021

The key here appears to be control: Smith grew unhappy with being a small cog in a major-label machine and with getting pushed in a certain direction, and wanted to reclaim his own narrative and make the music that he wanted to make, regardless of the public reception. On High Country Sound, he did exactly that, co-writing every track on the disc and self-producing most of them (he co-produced the rest with Hubbard and Kelley).

As an album, High Country Sound feels a bit scattershot to me, and includes some tracks that seem fairly radio-friendly and are occasionally even ripped straight from the Bro-Country playbook. It suggests that it wasn’t the kind of music Smith was making at Mercury that bothered him, but rather the lack of input or creative control over the career. Whatever he’s doing now, he’s doing it of his own volition, and sometimes that means more than earning success or validation. As someone who’s mashed together some seriously strange topics on this blog over the years, I can respect that.

However, despite Round Here’s partnership with AWAL, the label doesn’t seem to have the radio muscle of the major Nashville players (and in truth, the label seems to be focused primarily on metrics like streaming and download numbers), so barring a viral hit on the order of “Fancy Like,” we’ve probably heard the last of Canaan Smith on mainstream radio. However, Smith seems to be fairly content in his current position, and sometimes that’s all that matters. No matter what, he’ll always be a man with a #1 song, even if the rest of the world would rather forget it.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: October 4, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
2. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
3. Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
4. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
5. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like” -2 (3/10)
6. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
7. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
8. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
9. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
10. Luke Combs, “Cold As You” 0 (5/10)
11. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
12. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
13. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
14. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
15. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
16. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
17. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
18. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
19. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
20. Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt” 0 (5/10)
21. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
22. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi” +1 (6/10)
23. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
24. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
25. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
26. Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots” 0 (5/10)
27. Eric Church, “Heart On Fire” +1 (6/10)
28. Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” +1 (6/10)
29. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
30. Sam Hunt, “23” -1 (4/10)
31. Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do” +2 (7/10)
32. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
33. Jake Owen, “Best Thing Since Backroads” -1 (4/10)
34. Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts” 0 (5/10)
35. Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” -4 (1/10)
36. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
37. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
38. Dierks Bentley ft. BRELAND & HARDY, “Beers On Me” -1 (4/10)
39. Toby Keith, “Old School” 0 (5/10)
40. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
41. Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO” 0 (5/10)
42. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” +2 (7/10)
43. Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love” 0 (5/10)
44. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
45. Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” -1 (4/10)
46. Chris Janson, “Bye Mom” +3 (8/10)*
47. Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” 0 (5/10)
48. Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You” 0 (5/10)
49. Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” -1 (4/10)
50. Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” +1 (6/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) 0
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +3
Overall Pulse +3
Change From Last Week
-4 😡

*Preliminary Grade

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “Come Back As A Country Boy,” 1/10

Gone:

  • Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” (recurrent)
  • Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left” (dropped below #50)

Leaving:

  • Scotty McCreery, “You Time” (down from #1 to #6)
  • Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” (down from #6 to #18)

In Real Trouble:

  • Lauren Alaina ft. Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” (down from #35 to #36, lost its bullet)
  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (up from #38 to #37, but gained only thirty-five spins and 176 points)
  • Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty” (down from #45 to #47, lost its bullet)
  • Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots” (down from #48 to #49, barely keeps its bullet by breaking even on spins and losing points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Toby Keith, “Old School” (down from #37 to #39, lost spins and gained only four points)
  • Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” (down from #42 to #44, gained only three spins and lost points)
  • Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now” (down from #44 to #45, gained only fifty-seven spins and eighty-three points)
  • Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” (down from #49 to #50, gained only nine spins and lost points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” (up from #18 to #14)
  • Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “But Dirt” (up from #24 to #20)
  • Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” (up from #46 to #42)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Cold As You” (up from #12 to #10)

Bubbling Under 50:

  • Crowded out of Country Aircheck again…

On The Way:

  • Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days”

Overall Thoughts: There are two developments to discuss this week:

  • I was sure that Shelton’s tire fire of a song would finally be the stake through the Pulse’s heart…and then Janson rode up to save the day with his best single since “Drunk Girl.” There’s been a noticeable influx of quality onto the chart recently to counter the usual doses of mediocrity (thanks to Rucker, Jones, Pearce/McBryde, Brothers Osborne, Janson, and eventually Cam, the #40-#50 score is an impressive +8, compared to the -2 score of the Top Ten). The Pulse still took a big hit and is very shaky right now, but the seeds of a potential comeback are being planted.
  • CA had an interesting feature on the recent success of some “Classic Country outlets and heavily gold-leaning stations,” and tossed out a couple of theories as to why this was the case:
    • The demographics for these stations seem to trend a bit older, which makes senseyounger generations are more likely to be using a streaming service (though this study lumps both and video streaming services together), so older consumers may be more likely to stick with the airwaves.
    • Longstanding, well-known radio shows and personalities, which give these stations a unique feel and help them build connections with their audience.
    • The “comfort food” theory, suggesting that people are seeking comfort in the known/familiar when everything around them is unknown/unfamiliar. This caught my attention because modern country attempted a similar trick with the Cobronavirus era, but it faded relatively quickly because the songs pitched a temporary reprieve from reality and reality ended up outlasting the high. Older material has connections to a wider range of listeners and has already been culled down to the timeless classics (and thus individual songs are generally stronger and less ephemeral).

While the article didn’t come out and explicitly declare older music to be superior to the new stuff, there were some heavy insinuations towards that conclusion some from of the interviewees:

“We keep our currents longer than we ever have because they test and it’s getting tougher to find replacements.”  —Dale Carter, KFKF

“This isn’t the heyday of country music…So much of it isn’t story- or lyric-based, as it has been in the past. We’re finding that songs from the middle ‘90s to 2010s are more in-line with the audience.”  Charlie Cook, WSM-FM

These are likely biased viewpoints, but it’s worth noting that Chris Owen has been noticing a growing movement based in the 2000s-era sound, suggesting that more people in the industry share Cook’s assessment.

In other words, a lot of people seem to be drawing the same conclusion that we’ve gotten from the charts: People just aren’t that enthused with what Nashville is serving them right now, and they’re scouring the market looking for something different. Whether this will lead to any sort of direction shift in the genre remains an open question, but it’s worth keeping an eye on nevertheless.

On the coronavirus front, the U.S. reached the 700,000 death mark over the last week, but current signs indicate that the current Delta surge may be starting to lose steam, with both daily new case and death averages falling over the last few weeks. The vaccination rate didn’t move a whole bunch this week (NPR puts it at an even 56% right now), but this should change soon, as vaccine mandates seem to be pushing people to get their shots and not leading to a mass staff exodus. If the FDA and CDC approve the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5-11 soon (and the data looks promising thus far), that could help drive vaccination rates up even more.

Could we be seeing a double comeback both on the radio and in our fight against the coronavirus? Perhaps, but to give ourselves the best shot at beating the virus, we need to keep following essential public health guidelines:

  • Wear a mask and maintain proper social distance from others when in public.
  • If you’re not vaccinated yet, get your shots at the earliest opportunity.
  • If you’re in a position to do something to minimize the spread of COVID-19, do it. More incentives, more mandates, reducing access barriers…whatever it is you can do to help, do it.

The light at the end of the tunnel grew brighter rather than darker for a change, and we need to do everything we can to build momentum and keep this push going. If we all do what we can to protect ourselves and our communities, there’s a chance that we can finally bring this painful chapter in history to a close.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy”

The moment I saw the flames on the single cover, I had a feeling this review was going to be rough.

Remember when Blake Shelton was “the safest artist in country music?” Unfortunately, over the last few years Shelton has been not-so-quietly making a play for Jason Aldean‘s title as the angriest artist in country music, which came to a head in 2019 with his back-to-back atrocious singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right.” The backlash to the latter track scared Team Shelton back to his bland roots with a pair of Gwen Stefani duets and the forgettable “Minimum Wage,” but he’s going back to this well of grievances with his latest single “Come Back As A Country Boy.” Instead of being the lightweight-but-heartfelt homage to rural life that I expected, this piece of junk is an over-the-top exclusionary track along the lines of “Old School’s In” and “The Worst Country Of All Time,” and its horrible execution weighs it down so much that it may be one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.

The production is reminiscent of “God’s Country” in the worst possible way: It’s got an ominous, almost apocalyptic vibe dominated by growling guitars that take the mix to a very dark place. After an unsettling opening featuring a choppy string section, creepy synth tones, and a wolf howl (you know, the sort of thing you might start a Halloween movie with), we’re left with a mix filled with minor chords and defined by dark-toned electric guitars and a punchy drum set (there’s a steel guitar here that adds a few stabs here and there, and while it’s a nice touch, it’s tone is noticeably different and clashes a bit with the rest of the arrangement). That fire on the single cover turns out to suit the song’s mood rather well, because scorched earth and bleak, barren landscapes are exactly what this mix bring to mind (which isn’t exactly great marketing for the “country boy” lifestyle). There’s a deep, visceral anger to this sound that is neither justified nor necessary, and it makes the song come across as overly dramatic while also pushing the listener away rather than drawing them into the subject matter. A song like this could easily be set up as pleasant, reverent or even whimsical, but instead this mix snarls at the user and warns them to keep their distance, which I am more than happy to do.

Shelton is a talented, charismatic singer who is capable of great performances, so why why why does he insist on coming across as a grumpy old man telling people to get off of his lawn? While there aren’t any technical issues to speak of (and at least he’s not screaming at us this time like he was on “God’s Country”), there’s still an edge to his delivery that makes it feel needlessly aggressive towards the audience. We get it bruh, you’re all about that country lifestyle—why do you have to get up all in our faces about it? There’s simply no reason to sound this PO’d here, yet Shelton draws a hard line with his words that puts the listener on the defensive instead of inviting them to find common ground. This divisive attitude turns my stomach and turns the audience off, and I can’t fathom why Shelton chose to take such a bleak and angry approach to the subject when there were so many other options available. (Okay, actually I can; more on that later).

The lyrics here are best summed up as hot, flaming garbage, and they fail hard for three reasons:

  • At its core, this is just another “I’m so country!” song, with the narrator going as far as to proclaim that they would never want to live any other way. This means that we’re which means we’re getting slapped across the face with all the same tired tropes: The beer, the trucks, the dogs, the boots, the fishing, the hunting, the Hank Jr. reference…is this really all that “country” has to offer? (Also, that “money has trouble making” line is about as weak an attempt at wit as I’ve seen in a while.)
  • The narrator is the poster child for the exclusionary, “us vs. them” attitude that’s becoming increasing prevalent in this genre, to the extreme that they declare that they would rather be dead than be anything but “country.” (They even claim that they “don’t wanna be born into money,” which I do not believe for a second.) They’re basically declaring that anyone who doesn’t fit this narrow definition of “country” should be scorned and would be better off dead, and I absolutely hate this closed-minded line of thinking. Seriously, what is so bad about other ways of life? Should someone stick a gun in their mouth because they don’t like drinking or fishing? I don’t think so, and insinuating that “non-country” lives aren’t worth living is beyond infuriating.
  • So let’s say you can overlook the first two points and are curious about this whole “country” lifestyle. Here’s what the song offers you:

My back is always breaking, my dogs are always barking
My money has trouble making and my truck has trouble starting
I’m up before the sun, either hauling hay or hunting
My work ain’t ever done, but son, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing

That sounds like a terrible way to live! Personally, I prefer my trucks to be reliable, my back to remain in one piece, and my work to eventually finish while not forcing me to wake up at 4 AM every day. The writing paints country living as a endless cycle of pain and misfortune, which isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of fun. If you’re trying to convince people that “there ain’t no better life,” you’re doing it wrong.

In other words, the people responsible for this drivel (oh, HARDY was a co-writer? Quelle surprise!) need to have their pens taken away until they complete a few more English classes.

Let’s not mince words here: “Come Back As A Country Boy” is one of the worst songs I’ve ever had the misfortune of reviewing. The production is overly dark and ominous, Blake Shelton is unnecessarily angry and aggressive, and the writing torpedoes its own argument that the “country” lifestyle is superior to all others by making “country” sound as unappealing as possible. It all begs the question: Why on Earth would anyone let a song this bad get out into the marketplace?

Back when I reviewed “God’s Country,” I mentioned that “there’s no money in the middle anymore…so you might as well play to your base and project as much defiance and swagger as you can as you declare that your way of life is superior to all others.” That reality has only wedged deeper into our society since 2019, and it’s threatening to split us apart entirely. As dangerous as such an attitude is, pandering to it has proven to be good for business, and thus we have artists like Shelton taking a hard line and stoking the crowd in order to fatten their wallets.

If Shelton is looking make a statement, I think it’s time I made one of my own. Mr. Shelton, there’s someone I’d like you to meet. His name is Michael Ray.

Rating: 1/10. GET THAT GARBAGE OUTTA HERE!

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Ty England?

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

In our first installment of what will hopefully be a recurring series, we examine the career of Ty England, a supporting character in the GBCU (Garth Brooks Cinematic Universe) that struggled when they tried to step in a leading role themselves. England only managed to put a single song into the Top Twenty when his 1995 debut “Should’ve Asked Her Faster” made it to #3, but the song must have left a serious impression on people, because this exact same article has been written twice within the last three years, including one by country chart insider Chris Owen! When a song makes that kind of an impact, it begs the question: Why wasn’t England’s success sustainable?

In examining England’s career, many of the same factors that we’ve seen in previous deep dives (notably timing and label machinations) are present here, but the biggest factors at play are luck and personality: It took a huge break to get England into the music business in the first place (one that he could never seem to replicate), and one he got a taste of the business end of the business, he didn’t seem all that enthused in being a part of the system.

The Dream

Ty England is the ultimate “right place, right time” individual: A few weeks after arriving on the campus on Oklahoma State University, he was introduced to a fellow student (and eventual roommate) that shared his musical obsession. England’s devotion to music over grades, however, eventually led him to leave campus and finish his degree via night classes, but his friend declared that if his career ever went anywhere, he would bring England along for the ride. Pacts like this are made, broken, and forgotten all the time, but this time was different: England’s OSU acquaintance wound up being the Garth Brooks (who, as of this writing, is still putting singles on the country charts) and he made good on his word:

“The day Garth signed his record deal at Capitol…he called my house. He told me he wanted me to move to Nashville and be a part of his band. I hesitated and said, `Man, give me a week to think about this. It’s a pretty scary thing.’ And then I went into work that next morning and told my boss that I would be leaving to move to Nashville. So it took me about 24 hours to come to that decision.”

England, as told to FuseVisual, March 2015

Say what you want about Garth Brooks, but the man is fiercely loyal to his friends (so much so that volunteered to donate part of his liver to Chris LeDoux when LeDoux required a transplant), and Brooks was both a friend and a superfan of Ty England, at one point calling him “probably the most talented person I had ever been around.” It was this connection to arguably the biggest star in country music history that eventually earned England his own shot at radio success.

England played in Brooks’s band for seven years, but Brooks continued to talk him up as a potential country star, and encouraged England to embark on a solo career on his own. England would eventually sign a solo record deal with RCA in 1995, and when “Should’ve Asked Her Faster” caught the public’s ear, he seems to be poised for country stardom.

The Reality

However, as a not-so-wise man is fond of saying, country music will give a debut #1 to just about anyone (yes, I know “Should’ve Asked Her Faster” only made it to #3 on Billboard and #4 on R&R, but the point still stands that it was a radio hit), and subsequent singles could never recapture the magic. Neither “Smoke In Her Eyes” nor “Redneck Son” could even crack the Top 40, the big leadoff single for his sophomore disc “Irresistible Girl” peaked at #22, and by 1997 England’s country career was basically a wrap.

So what happened? First, let’s consider the usual suspects:

  • Label Issues: England’s tenure at RCA was defined by micromanagement, with both the label and producer imposing their own artistic vision on the artist. England was less than thrilled with the process:

“We made several mistakes at RCA, number one being we chose songs by committee…We were exclusively trying to pick songs that we thought radio would play. And [producer] Garth Fundis didn’t know me for who I really was. He knew me for who I had been in Garth’s [Brooks] band.”

England, as told to Lisa Young, June 2003

“England said the folks at RCA weren’t too welcoming of his suggestions, so he was reluctant to suggest tunes to Brooks.”

Diane Samms Rush, Orlando Sentinel, January 2001

England also cited the political side of the business as a problem during his RCA tenure:

“I never wanted to look at (music) as a business because I enjoy playing so much. But it’s as much a business as the New York Stock Exchange…It’s very political, and you have to have two or three guys watching your back all the time.”

England, as told to Ben Scott, June 1999

It’s worth noting that RCA was going through a bit of a transition at the time, with Joe Galante (a man known for cutthroat business acumen and unafraid to ruffle feathers and bruise feelings) returning after a disappointing stint at the label’s main corporate headquarters. England, however, admitted that he wasn’t always the easiest person to work with either:

“I didn’t have as much tact as I should have had…I made some demands from RCA that I shouldn’t have. [Brooks] called his own shots. I had never seen it done another way. I learned I’m not boss hog at the record label.”

England, as reported by Edward Morris, January 2004

The frustrating experience and limited success led England to rejoin Brooks at Capitol Nashville in 1999, where he had both a sympathetic producer (Brooks) and CEO (Pat Quigley) that would give England the freedom to make the kind of album he wanted. So he did, and then

“Two weeks before that album came out, the president of the label was fired, and the walls came tumbling down…When a new person comes in, he always has new ideas and new plans, and I wasn’t in those plans.”

England, as told to John Wooley, December 2004

The album wound up flopping hard (none of the singles even cracked the top 50), once again that even the best of albums is just a plastic disc with a picture without some marketing muscle behind it.

  • Timing: If Marvel is playing the “What If?” game with its cinematic universe, we can do the same thing here. Suppose that Quigley never leaves Capitol, and that Brooks and England put together an album for the ages. (Truthfully, Highways & Dance Halls is a decent album as it is, and Brooks’s influence is palpable in the tracks—you could just imagine Brooks singing these songs himself, and he eventually did. However, England’s rendition of “Travelin’ Soldier” is pretty weak compared to The Chicks’ version.) Would the album have done well? I have my doubts:
Image from Amazon

By the turn of the millennium, country music was dominated by a pop-country movement headlined by artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill, and the neotraditional sound that had defined early/mid-1990s was fading from the scene. (For all of Garth Brooks’s star power, it’s worth noting that even he was starting to lose his grip on the genre by this point, and he would announce his retirement just one year after Highways & Dance Halls was released.) England’s sound in both his RCA and Capitol tenures was firmly planted in a more-traditional style, and it wasn’t simply wasn’t in vogue at this point. This album could have made some noise in 1990, but by 2000 the musical world had moved on, which makes me think that whatever window England might have had for stardom had already closed.

The Reasoning

So if timing and label issues were clear factors in England’s decline, why did I single out luck and personality earlier? The luck factor is easy enough to explain: Much like Lee Ann Womack, England simply missed his moment by a good ten years or so to make his mark in Nashville, and when did he take his shot, circumstances beyond his control never seem to work out in his favor.

But exactly how does personality fit into this equation? Much like Chris Cagle, after going through England’s statements I get the sense that the man simply wanted to make music on his own terms, and was uncomfortable in the role that a musical career demanded.

The biggest example of this is England’s attempt at “anti-networking.” There’s an old saying that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and as the guy standing beside one of the biggest musical stars on the planet for seven years, England may well have been one of the best-connected people in country music. Being the loyal person that he is, Brooks was more than willing to offer a helping hand or ten to England to aid his rise to the top, and given Brooks’s power at the time, he probably could have opened a lot of eyes and doors for his former sideman. England, however, didn’t want to be labeled as the guy who found fame just by riding Brooks’s coattails:

“I mean, when I left Garth and went on my own, I felt I would earn more respect by totally severing all of my ties to Garth. Now, I could have opened every show he did. I could have done duets with him on my albums. He offered those opportunities to me. Garth wanted to help me. But I turned down all of his offers.”

England, as told to FuseVisual, March 2015

“I felt I needed to get away from Garth so I could earn credit and wings on my own.”

England, as told to Lisa Young, June 2003

England eventually came to terms with his role as Garth Brooks’s understudy when he joined Capitol Records, but even then he made a point of declaring “I’m not saying that I’m going to use Garth for everything I can to get where I’m going.” England wanted his success to be his own doing, which is a laudable sentiment, but perhaps not ideal for someone looking to break through in a dog-eat-dog town like Nashville.

The duplicity of musical insiders seemed to bother England a lot as well: In addition to the politics quote from earlier, he explicitly references character when talking about his post-Capitol plans, saying that he was thinking about starting an Oklahoma-based label because “people here have a heart that’s right for country-music talent…They’re down-to-earth. They’re honest. They’re friendly.” (He also applauded Quigley back in the day for making Capitol “a lot more family-oriented,” which is a supremely weird compliment to give a record executive.) England thought of himself a purely a musician, and wanted to surround himself with people he could trust so he didn’t have to worry about their motives or schemes. Again, this is a great idea in theory, but it’s also a pipe dream in an industry that promises untold fame and fortune for those who rise above their peers.

Finally, while England claimed to be obsessed with music, after his RCA tenure he seemed to lose his taste for a formal musical career:

“In all honesty, I had done a lot of soul searching and looked through newspapers for jobs…I did everything to try to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I have never found anything that I care about the way I do music. When Garth called, my immediate response was, ’I want to try it again.'”

England explaining his actions after exiting RCA, as told to Lisa Young, June 2003

“This is the beginning or the end of my musical journey.”

England on his Highways & Dance Halls album, as told to Diane Samms Rush, January 2001

“I’ve got an album sitting in my back pocket, but I don’t want to sign with a record label and just be one of the guys on the label…I want somebody who’s willing to jump on the bandwagon with me.”

England after leaving Capitol, as told to John Wooley, December 2004

Basically, the dude was done with Nashville by 1997, and it took the perfect offer from an old friend to bring him back for a second go-round. (England would eventually release a fourth album Alive And Well And Livin’ The Dream in 2007, but whether that was the album in his back pocket is unclear.)

The Verdict

So what made Ty England a one-hit wonder? It appears that his career was a case of “be careful what you wish for”: He had a vision of what his career and his music would be like, and he got a rude awakening when a) his record label didn’t follow his roadmap, and b) he discovered his sound was out of step with the public’s tastes. Still, for one shining moment he was on top of the world (if not quite on top of the charts) with a catchy little Western swing number that still resonates listeners over twenty-five years after its release, and while the song would occasionally wear on him for being the only one people remembered, I would argue that it beats the alternative of not being remembered at all.