Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 13: Mixtape Review Edition

Now this is the weirdness I’ve been looking for.

As part of our Memorial Day scramble to catch up on long-ignored work festivities, I pulled an old vehicle of mine out of storage to use during the summer, and in the process discovered an old mixtape (…okay, an old burned CD) in the radio that had long been forgotten. I was a serial CD maker back in the day, forever trying to capture the zeitgeist of the moment by mixing together both the hottest hits of the era with some of the new old stuff I’d recently gotten my hands on. The results were about as zany and random as you could imagine, and this one (which based on the evidence was created in late 2013) was no different.

Zany randomness was exactly what I was looking for in my last LITS post, and to have it end up as conventional as it did was kind of disappointing. With this CD in hand, I decided to rate my musical tastes from a decade ago: Did the song selections still hold up, or have they curdled like milk left out in the sun? There’s only one way to find out.

The normal concept of LITS is simple: Hit the shuffle button on my old iPad, listen to ten songs chosen by whatever random number generator Apple uses (which could end up being anything from sizzling singles to deep album cuts to songs not even remotely related to country music), make a snap judgement on how good or bad the songs are, and produce a highly-subjective ranking of the impromptu playlist. This time, however, we’re examining a carefully-selected list of tracks from a decade ago, seeing what the best and the worst choices are, and whether or not my younger self should be lauded or shamed for their tastes.

Is this silly and without purpose? Absolutely, but it’s also a chance to potentially introduce folks to some different songs/artists, and potentially introduce people to some great material that they had forgotten or missed. Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is.

(Editor’s Note: Since there are 22 songs on this list, we won’t go into the details of every one, and instead be sticking to the high, lows, and weirdest selections of the bunch.)

The Playlist

1. The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”

The CD kicks off with a long-forgotten group (although Kimberly Perry recently resurfaced briefly with “If I Die Young Part 2”), and honestly I think this might be my favorite of the group’s singles. With the deliberate banjo, heavy electric guitar, prominent fiddle, and generally dark/ominous vibe, this feels like the gothic sound that Blake Shelton keeps chasing (and failing to catch) done right, and it fits perfectly with the rantings of an unstable narrator proclaiming that the pair will have to die together if their romance ever fades. Kim Perry captures the narrator’s passion and, er, eccentricity perfectly, and brothers Neil and Reid provide solid instrumentation and harmony vocals to back her up. I’d say this track still holds up ten years later, so things seem to be off to a good start.

2. Brad Paisley, “Beat This Summer”

Ah, to have experimental Paisley back again! After several years of pushing the boundaries of the genre, Wheelhouse was the album where the genre slapped Paisley’s wrist and said to conform or else, which is too bad because I always felt like Paisley had a knack for blending modern and classic sensibilities in his songs. “Beat This Summer” was the second single from the album, and although the banjo was slow-rolling and the steel guitar was choppy (the fiddle didn’t get any airtime), the mix still managed to sound both fresh and familiar. The summer-fling topic wasn’t exactly novel, but Paisley had a knack for pointing out enough different details to make his take distinct (for example, explicitly referencing “rolling up windows and putting up tops”), and Paisley’s easy charm and charisma could make even the most mundane of topics seems compelling and catchy. I’m on board with this selection too!

3. Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams, “Get Lucky”

…Okay, I might quibble a bit with this one. The most notable feature of “Get Lucky” is it sparse-but-catchy beat, especially when Daft Punk jumps in with its more-robotic take on the sound, but the lyrics, while well-delivered by Williams, don’t really have a lot to say. It’s a generic party song that dials back the intensity and relies on the beat to establish a groove, and while I’d call it a bit more successful than country music’s attempts at such tracks, it’s kind of a sugar rush that is quickly flushed from your system, meant to move you physically for however long the song lasts (the version on the CD is over six minutes long!) and then quickly fade away to make room for the next banger on the turntable. It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t say it holds up as well as the first two.

4. Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”

Welp, I guess was on the list too. I can’t really explain (and certainly can’t defend) the presence of Brian Kelly and Tyler Hubbard on this CD, but I think it speaks to novelty and allure of such a sound in country music. We’re all sick and tried now of the heavy guitars and deliberate tempo and token banjos and objectifying lyrics that barely reached a third-grade level (my inner Twilight Sparkle is still yelling “‘Baby you a song’? Where are the verbs?”), but at the time this sort of thing was still a fresh idea, and even a little exciting! No, the song is no better now than it was then, but I think if Bro-Country hadn’t become such an overwhelming trend and dominated country music for the better part of a decade, the occasional song like this (which had always been a part of the genre in some form or another) would have been a bit easier to stomach. I’ll hit the skip button on it today, but I can understand why it’s here.

5. Chris Young, “Aw Naw”

6. Jason Aldean, “1994”

As ambivalent as I am about Aldean these days, I actually still think this is a decent song, simply because it’s so over-the-top that it falls into the “silly fun” category (and also because Joe Diffie deserves all the praise that he gets, even if it’s in a weird package like this one that doesn’t sound like anything like Diffie’s singles). I liked how the writers were able to weave so many Diffie song titles into the lyrics, and unlike 90% of his tracks Aldean actually sounds like he’s having fun on this one. The sound was a standard Bro-Country mix with hard-rock guitars and token banjos (however, the drums were mostly real this time around), but when paired with the lyrics it start to feel like a parody, a song that absurd that you can’t help but laugh at it. I liked it then and I still kind of like it now, so I won’t give past Kyle too hard a time over its inclusion here.

7. PSY, “Gangnam Style”

This song pretty much took over the world in the early 2010s, and I guess it falls into the same category as “1994” for me because I still couldn’t tell you what the lyrics are (apparently they talk about coffee a lot?). Instead, it was the rest of the presentation that attracted the audience, with an bright, mostly-synthetic beat and an ebullient vocal performance by PSY himself (you also can’t discount the impact of the bizarre music video and iconic horse-riding dance move that accompanied the craze). This was simply a fun song to listen that also introduced much of the world to the power of K-pop, and I can’t really argue with its place on the CD either.

8. Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs”

9. Easton Corbin, “All Over The Road”

Be honest: This is the first song of the last six or seven that you actually might have expected to see here, right? It might be hard to remember (heck, it’s hard to remember Corbin at all anymore, although “Marry That Girl” appeared briefly on the Mediabase charts recently), but Corbin was a promising traditionalist back in the day, and “All Over The Road” (for all its issues with promoting reckless driving) was a bright, upbeat fiddle-and-steel track that would have fit in on the radio ten or fifteen years before its release. Corbin played the role of the aw-shucks, what-can-you-do narrator to the hilt, and the lyrics managed to feel playful and romantic without seeming too cheesy or creepy. Corbin may have wound up as one of the many victims of the Bro-Country onslaught, but I think his early work still stands up well.

10. John Conlee, “Domestic Life”

Okay, now this is starting to look more like 2023 Kyle’s music than 2013 Kyle’s, but how did a random #4 from a not-all-than-famous artist from 1987 wind up on this mixtape? The truth is that I had been a Conlee fan for some time, but was never able to find his work from Harmony or American Faces online…until I found a double album of these records on Amazon randomly and immediately ordered it. Conlee had a lot of good work from this era (“Got My Heart Set On You,” “The Carpenter,” etc.), but “Domestic Life” was always my favorite of the bunch because it seemed to capture the 1980s middle-class lifestyle perfectly, with the narrator proudly mentioning their position in the PTA and noting that “I owe my soul to Mastercard.” Conlee’s distinct voice and the slicker sound of the era (complete with a saxophone, which was a lot more prominent in the genre then) make this a period piece worth checking out, and I have no qualms about finding it here.

11. Trace Adkins, “Dreamin’ Out Loud”

12. Alan Jackson, “There Is A Time”

Jackson’s career was winding down around this time, but he just took is as a sign that he could focus more on passion projects, and here it meant finding some excellent bluegrass musicians, writing a whole bunch of his own songs (although this particular track was not one of those), and putting together one of the better bluegrass projects I’d heard. This track in particular stood out for its minor chords and more-ominous warnings about not waiting too long to settle down (huh, I guess I never did take his advice. Oh well). The instrumental breaks are as superb as you would expect from a bluegrass band, and I’ve always loved that this genre can take so many different pieces (guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, dobros, etc.) and make them blend together so well while also giving them room to show off and stand out. Jackson is…well, he’s Alan freaking Jackson, and he’s able to get his point across without it feeling too sharp or aggressive. It’s a solid song, and continues to fill out what I’d call a solid CD.

13. Brad Paisley, “Harvey Bodine”

14. The Kendalls, “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away”

Bailey, “Who’s Got It Better?”

Ah, the Jim Harbaugh era of the 49ers! The former 49er and current Michigan Wolverine coach had the city of San Francisco in the palm of his hand back in the day, so much so that a local rapper named Bailey wrote a song centered around Harbaugh’s famous catch phrase “Who’s got it better than us? Nobody!” The lyrics do a great job weaving together Bay Area neighborhoods, 49er legends and standout on the “current” team (although the choice to include Reggie Smith instead of Justin Smith on the iTunes version was always a head scratcher). Bailey demonstrates solid flow through the verses, and the beat, while nothing special, at least establishes a decent groove and keeps the song moving forward. Niner fans have been spoiled by the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch era that started not too long after Harbaugh left, but it was fun to remember the era in song all the same.

16. Hank Snow, “Old Doc Brown”

From a 2011 rap to a 1955 recitation? Apparently that’s just how we rolled in 2013, and honestly I’d rank this song among my favorites from “the other Hank” in country music. I just always loved the story of how Doc Brown served his patients and how they paid him with respect and admiration because it was all they could afford. (The way the hook tied into the sign used to advertise his place of business was a nice touch as well.) The description of the funeral and the procession were vivid enough to put you right at the scene, and honestly the writing made it feel like the kind of funeral you wanted to have when everything was said and done (and by extension, to be the kind of good person that the doctor was to earn it). The music might be stolen from another song (I think its “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”), but it’s just there as a placeholder, and never gets in the way of the song. It’s just a nice song from start to finish that never feels too sappy, and I’m a bit surprised that past Kyle had the presence of mind to include it here.

17. Easton Corbin, “Dance Real Slow”

18. The Cutie Mark Crusaders, “Babs Seed”

At this point, I’m not even surprised that there’s pony music here. To be honest, I kind of grew to dislike the music numbers from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episodes, but the stuff from the early seasons wasn’t bad (for example, “We Are The Cutie Mark Crusaders” was a nice 80s pop homage),and the CMC’s run-in with Apple Bloom’s cousin bully of a cousin apparently moved me enough to toss it onto this mixtape and add to its musical chaos. The sound is a bit lightweight, but the voice actors did a great job putting feeling and emotion behind their character’s takes, and the harmony work is nothing to sneeze at either. I may not be the diehard of the series that I was once was, but I’ve got no beef with including this song on the CD.

19. Bobby Bare, “The Streets Of Baltimore”

20. Randy Travis, “What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana”

I’ve already discussed this song to death in previous posts, but let’s be honest: It can’t be a mixtape of mine unless Randy Travis is included somewhere on the list.

21. Epic Rap Battles of History, “Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates”

For some reason I liked to sneak ERB tracks onto my playlists in the penultimate, but at least I put a decent one here. Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist do a nice job in the role of shade-throwing tech giant MCs, and the twist to include a secret third competitor in the end feels a bit prophetic now that AI is all the rage in Silicon Valley. The beat is suitably squeaky and synthetic, the disses are biting and (mostly) well-written, and the presentation (which featured a bit more back-and-forth than previous battles) made the battle feel a bit more competitive and interesting. The battles have mostly been on hiatus for the last few years, so it’s nice to recall how good they could be when everyone was on their game.

22. Don Williams, “And So It Goes”

Looking back, this seems like an odd closer for the mixtape. Yes, And So It Goes was a solid album all around, and if the title track was good enough to close that album, it’s more than good enough to round out this one…and yet, there wasn’t really any special meaning to the song besides “this things is darn good.” Williams sounds as good as he always did, the lyrics was a poignant tale of how lives can simply drift apart as people’s wants and needs change, and the sound was a soft, polished mix (complete with a string section) that probably would have felt like a bit much had the Gentle Giant not been behind the mic. I’d probably give this track a fairly high grade were I reviewing it today, so maybe that’s good enough of a reason to give it the last word here. The question now: What is the best word of the bunch?

The Results

#1“Domestic Life”
#2“Better Dig Two”
#3“Dance Real Slow”
#4“What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana”
#5“Beat This Summer”
#6“There Is A Time”
#7“Old Doc Brown”
#8“Streets of Baltimore”
#9“Who’s Got It Better?”
#10“Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates”
#11“Two Black Cadillacs”
#12“Dreamin’ Out Loud”
#13“And So It Goes”
#14“Heaven’s Just A Sin Away”
#15“Harvey Bodine”
#16“Babs Seed”
#17“All Over The Road”
#19“Gangnam Style”
#20“Get Lucky”
#21“Aw Naw”

Despite the dalliance into Bro-Country, I think this old mixtape actually holds up pretty well a decade after the fact (I actually think most of these songs are pretty good, even if some are certainly weaker relative to the rest). It’s interesting to chart how your musical tastes have changed over the years, but I was surprised to find my tastes were more steady than I expected, and I’m wondering if the playlists I’ve made here at the Korner over the last few years will have similar staying power. In the meantime, I think I’ll move this disc over to my current car…but perhaps after one more summer in the old ride, for old times’ sake.

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Perfect Stranger?

Image from Steve Hoffman Music Forums

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.

Do you ever find yourself humming or singing along to a song in your head, and suddenly realize that you have no idea what the song was or who sang it (or even if it was actually a song at all)? That’s been me for the last several decades, as pieces of several songs seem to be living rent-free in my head, resurfacing at odd moments despite me recalling basically nothing about the rest of the song. (Kevin Sharp actually had several songs stuck here until I finally looked them up a few years ago.) One such example was a bizarre singsong version of the Miranda rights opener that I could never place, until one day I fell down a rabbit hole on YouTube and finally stumbled across a name and a set of faces that were attached to the track:

The fact that it came from the heart of the neotraditional country era wasn’t surprising, but who in the heck was Perfect Stranger supposed to be? The band’s name turned out to be a bit too on-the-nose: “You Have The Right To Remain Silent” peaked at #4 on Billboard’s country chart and even reached the Hot 100 in an era where country song didn’t usually do that, but it was literally the only hit the group had that even reached the Top Fifty on the country side. So why couldn’t this group capitalize on their big song’s success? Well, it appears that the usual suspects (lack of label support, shifting genre trends, lineup instability) conspired to take down a band appeared to be poised to do big things.

First We Were Strangers…

Perfect Stranger originally formed as “Midnight Express” in 1986, and the original lineup included lead vocalist Steve Murray, guitarist Richard Raines, bassist Shayne Morrison, and drummer Andy Ginn. The group spent their early years kicking around the Texas music scene, but in 1992 the foursome took the plunge and recorded an album that they could shop around to potentially earn themselves a major-label deal. However, Music City passed on the record, and after two years of shopping the band got tired of waiting for a checkout line to open, and ended up releasing the album independently in 1994 as It’s Up To You.

To support the project, the band released two singles: The Vince-Gill-penned single “Ridin’ The Rodeo,” and then eventually “the title track”You Have The Right To Remain Silent.” The early results were promising: “Ridin’ The Rodeo” ended up becoming “the #1 independent country song in America,” while “You Have The Right To Remain Silent” found some radio traction despite being an indie release. All the noise finally caught the attention of a major label, who signed the group, took over promotion and distribution of the album (rebranding the album to make “You Have The Right…” the title track), and helped push the song to the chart heights mentioned earlier.

Up to this point, the band’s rise felt like the opening of a fairy tale: Scrappy underdog group pays its dues on the local circuit, get shot down by the clueless suits of Nashville, takes their act on the road themselves, develops a strong organic base of support among the people, and finally gets the powers that be in the business to get behind them and elevate them to new heights. If I’m honest, in looking back at I’m not 100% sure what the big draw was: The group’s sound was straight-down-the-middle neotraditional country like most of the genre at the time, with a little bit of rollick on “Ridin’ The Rodeo” and plenty of saccharine sentiment on “You Have The Right To Remain Silent.” Their style just didn’t stand out in any meaningful way, so how did they manage to even become a one-hit wonder?

Well, given that the chorus has been stuck in my head for nearly thirty years, I think the writing, and specifically the hook, have a lot to do with the song’s staying power. “You have the right to remain silent” is one of those famous phrases that you hear in every cop show ever made, so having that association means that the song is likely to jump back into your head every time you watch Law & Order (or in my case, watching Adam-12 reruns because there’s literally nothing else on TV). The story itself isn’t that novel, and can even feel a little creepy (a guy leaves his girl, and the narrator, who’s apparently “been wanting you but you didn’t know it” this whole time, decides to step in), but it doesn’t take much to carve out a spot in our brains, and that’s exactly what the song managed to do.

…And Now We’re Strangers Again

Of course, when your popularity is as song-based as Perfect Stranger’s was, the onus is on you to make sure your material is strong enough to keep you afloat until people start coming to hear you instead of your songs, and the rest of the singles from You Have The Right To Remain Silent were…well, they were there, I guess. “I Am A Stranger Here Myself” is a lightweight love song whose hook only connects back to the band’s name, “Remember The Ride” was a rodeo-flavored “women are unexplainable” song, “Cut Me Off” was a half-successful attempt at an uptempo drinking song, and none of the three managed to capture the public’s imagination. There were more singles and another album or two to come, but the band’s major-label career was basically done by 1997, and they quickly faded from the public consciousness.

To be fair, there were lots of other more-successful artists putting out middle-of-the-road material like Perfect Stranger did, and they managed to extend their stay in mainstream music for a decent length of time. There have to be other extenuating circumstances that brought this band down, right? Pull up a chair, because the list of problems this band faced is a long one:

  • Label Support: I’ve avoided mentioning exactly which label Perfect Stranger signed with originally, but it’s time for the big reveal: The band was yet another casualty of the Mike Curb regime at Curb Records. Consider this passage from my Ken Mellons One-Hit Wondering post:

My fellow Kyle over at Saving Country Music has compiled a list of Curb’s biggest blunders and pettiest moves, but the TL;DR version is that Curb does whatever he wants whenever he wants to whoever he wants, no matter how badly it makes him or the artist look in the process. He messed with LeAnn Rimes, he messed with Jo Dee Messina, he messed with Hank Williams III, he messed with Clay Walker, and he’s made a complete mess of Tim McGraw’s discography (9 compilations of McGraw’s hits? Really?). The bottom line is that this really doesn’t seem like a guy you wanted to go into business with.

The post went on to describe how Curb messed with Mellons as well, and in the least-surprising statement I’ll make here, there’s evidence that the label messed with Perfect Stranger too:

“After a certain point, it was like they didn’t know what to do with us or had new people coming in who they felt like were going to be bigger stars…We were doing a radio interview one day at a station in Abilene and a Curb rep happened to call the station at the same time, saying they wanted the station to pull the Perfect Stranger record out of the rotation and to and push another artist. The DJ told us what the label said.

“We were shocked. Then it took us three years to get released from our contract with the label.”

—Raines, as told to Tom Geddie, February 1, 2011 (emphasis added)

Swapping out one of your artists for another on the radio instead of pushing both of them? …Yeah, that sounds like something Curb would do. It’s also worth noting that the second album that the band managed to get released took six years to see the light of day, and was called (wait for it) The Hits, despite the only ‘hit’ here being a re-recorded “You Have The Right To Remain Silent.” (Seriously, what is it with Curb Records and their fascination with “hits” records?) This doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship at all, and it certainly didn’t do anything good for the band’s career.

  • Changing Genre Tides: 1995 was a bad year for groups like Perfect Stranger, for two reasons:
    • In the wake of Alabama’s success in the 1980s, a number of country bands sprung up in their wake (Highway 101, Restless Heart, Sawyer Brown, Shenandoah, The Mavericks, Little Texas, etc., etc.) as labels tried to find a way to ride this wave themselves. However, by ’95 most of these were in decline or had already been shown the door (even Alabama had started to struggle by this point), and only the bands that could adapt to the changing genre landscape (Lonestar, Diamond Rio) managed to stick around.
    • What sort of changing landscape did the group confront? Well, I’ve cited 1995 as the start of Shania Twain era in country music, when a more pop-oriented sound began to overtake the neotraditional meta. For a group whose act could feel a little generic even in the neotraditional era, having a completely new sound and vibe to contend with was more than they could handle.

In other words, you could argue that by losing those two years to Nashville rejections early in the decade, Perfect Stranger got stuck behind the 8-ball when they finally did start to make some noise. Suddenly the sound and setup that they relied on were no longer in fashion, and with Curb putting them on ice, they never even had a chance to adapt.

  • Lineup Turnover: The danger with bands is that there’s a good chance one or multiple people will walk away for whatever reasons, and the previous two issues we discussed only increase those chances. Ginn was the first of the original quartet to leave in 1998, but life would eventually get in the way of everyone:

“People were going through divorces and bankruptcies and different things. We were just kinda searching or something, wondering what we were going to do, what would be next. Then it just went away – dissolved peacefully.”

—Quote is officially unattributed but I think it’s from Raines, as told to Tom Geddie, February 1, 2011

Eventually Morrison would be the only founding member left, and having that much turnover (especially when losing a lead vocalist like Murray) completely changes the entire identity of the band, and whatever magic the starting four had was lost forever. (A review of the band’s last album Shake The World found the group’s rebuilt lineup to be severely lacking, and a poster of the Steve Hoffman music forum called the album “a painful listen with a generic modern country sound too far removed from the original band and it’s authentic country flavor.”)

Three of the original members came back together in 2010, but they never made it back to the mainstream scene, and Raines’s death in 2013 seems to have sealed the fate of the band as well.

In the end, the fairly tale beginnings of Perfect Stranger didn’t lead to a “happy ever after” for the band. Their hit was more about the song than the people behind it, and their position in the mid-90s might be the worst case of “wrong place, wrong time” I’ve ever encountered: Stuck on a bad label, facing headwinds in a changing industry, and facing life circumstances that would eventually pull them apart. Still, the group will always have a spot on the jukebox in my mind, and every time someone get busted on TV for some sinister plot, I’ll remember this foursome and their brief moment in the sun. They might have called Perfect Stranger, but thanks to “You Have The Right To Remain Silent,” they’ll never be strangers (or remain all that silent) to me.

Song Review: Luke Combs, “Fast Car”

Well, at least you can’t say that Luke Combs isn’t trying.

I may have revoked his “Thanos” title, but Combs is still one of the two most-powerful acts in Nashville these days (the other, unfortunately, is Morgan Wallen), and while his act has grown a bit stale and repetitive over the last few years (he’s either singing a love ballad like “Better Together,” “Forever After All,” and “Love You Anyway,” dropping a lost-love laments like “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and “Cold As You,” or trying and sometimes succeeding to be sensual in “Lovin’ On You” and “The Kind Of Love We Make”), he’s still capable of surprising his audience now and again. Case in point: After “5 Leaf Clover” appeared to be his simultaneous single release alongside “Love You Anyway,” a different song emerged: “Fast Car,” the first cover song to make any sort of noise on the charts in a while (Tracy Chapman wrote the song and took it to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 as he debut single back in 1988), the longest song to reach the radio in quite some time (it clocks in at nearly four-and-a-half minutes), and an involved story song at a time when such tracks had long ago fallen out of favor. It’s enough of a curveball to catch the listener’s attention, but it really struggles to hold said attention over the course of the song, and winds up feeling pretty “meh” as a result.

There’s a little bit more to Combs’s mix, but for the most part the production here stays faithful to the original song. The song is primarily driven by an acoustic guitar playing the same riff over and over (to the point where you start wondering if it’s a Garageband loop) and a simple, light-touch drum set, but this time around we’ve got some synth tones and steel guitar notes help fill out the sound from the background (although they feel like they’re just here to conform to the modern meta, and don’t actually add anything to the song) and an electric guitar to add a bit more punch and optimism to the chorus. Otherwise, the tone of the arrangement is mostly neutral and even a little bleak, and while the song bounces quickly back and forth between optimism and pessimism, I’d argue that neither Chapman’s nor Combs’s versions keeps up with it, and both mixes can feel like nothing but a space-filler at times. The sparse, restrained arrangement keeps the focus on the lyrics (and rightly so), but at the end of the day this is a standard guitar-and-drum mix that doesn’t do much or stand out or keep up with the subject matter, and it’s only here because the song would sound awkward if it were done a capella.

The original song wasn’t written for a male performer, but aside from when Combs calls himself “a checkout girl,” I think the song actually fits him quite well. Most of this is due to Combs’s copious everyman charisma, letting him channel the narrator’s troubles and credibly make them his own. However, much like the production, I think his performance is a little too faithful to Chapman’s original, and both of them a bit too neutral and measured to get the listener to really feel anything. (Part of this is the writing’s fault, as occasionally Combs and Chapman have to fit too many syllables onto a line to infuse them with any emotion, but there are plenty of places where the narrator could voice some real frustration and neither artist takes the opportunity to do so.) It’s a very dispassionate telling of a less-than-happy tale, which keeps the audience from sharing Combs’s emotions or feeling invested in the story. As such, the listener loses interest as the story drags on, and no one really cares how it ends by the time the song gets there.

…Which is probably a good thing, because one of the biggest problems the song has is that it ends with a thud, with the narrator’s partner leaving in their “fast car.” It’s a letdown of a conclusion after we’ve rode with them through escaping a small-town purgatory, watched them chase big dreams, and ultimately wind up in the same position that the narrator was in at the start of the song. You get the sense that the song really wants to say something important (maybe something about the hopelessness of small-town life and the inability of its inhabitants to escape its vicious cycle), and while such statements might actually carry more weight now than they did in 1988, the song shoots itself in the foot with its incoherent approach, leaving the narrator’s backstory to the third verse and then leaving jarring gaps of time between the later verses without any sort of smooth transition, and finally just leaving us on the side of the road while the narrator’s partner drives away. (Seriously, how can a song be this long and still feel like it’s leaving out half the story?) We don’t know why the partner ends up being as useless as the narrator’s father, certain details that seems really important (living in a shelter? Having kids?) are consigned to a couple of words apiece, and watching the “fast car” leaving is about an unsatisfactory an ending as you could possibly have. (The only thing it succeeds in doing is making you feel bad for the narrator, who keeps getting stuck in bad spots despite their optimism and the fact that they always seem to be “doing the right thing”…but all caring stops the moment the song does.) It’s a song that’s overly reliant on the listener to fill in all the disappointing details, and honestly the fact that it resonates so much is an indictment of a society that leaves too many dreams to die like this.

I have to admit, I was really surprised at how unimpressed I was by “Fast Car,” regardless of who was signing and when they were singing it. The production felt weak and stoic, the writing was scattershot and unsatisfying, and Luke Combs delivered his lines without any true feeling from behind the mic. It seems like this song should have had a lot going for it (it wasn’t from the current Nashville songwriting machine, it’s a longer story song that keeps its distance from the current beer/truck meta, Combs remains one of the better vocalists in the genre, etc.), but I just didn’t find this track to be moving or compelling in any way. Combs’s releases (even when they’re this unremarkable) may still be far better than anything Wallen could ever hope to put together, but I’m not overly thrilled with either of the genre’s biggest stars right now, and we’re going to need a lot more from the man formerly known as “Thanos” to break country music out of its current malaise.

Rating: 5/10. Nothing to hear here, folks.

Retro Review: Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”

Just because it’s history doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

It’s been over thirty year since Billy Ray Cyrus topped the charts with his debut single “Achy Breaky Heart,” but it’s hard to understate what a phenomenon this was back in the day. Spending five weeks at #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart was just the start: It reached #4 on the Hot 100 at a time when country songs rarely crossed over to the pop charts at all, became the first country song to go platinum in almost a decade, and kicked off a line dance craze that dominated the summer. When a song gets that big, there has to be something behind it…right?

Yeah, you already know the answer to that question.

“Good” and “popular” are very different things when its comes to music, and songs that only fit the latter definition tend not to have much staying power (witness how many “worst songs ever” lists that this track has ended up on over the years). I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of this track back in the day (although I still maintain that Some Gave All was a pretty decent album on balance), but I’d never put it on a “worst song” list either (especially after listening to some of the junk that’s come across my desk since I started this blog). So what made this song the phenomenon that it was, and what about it drives its critics up a wall? Sounds like an over-analysis is in order.

Something that struck me when revisiting Some Gave All is just how much of an outlier it is for the era: 1992 sits smack dab in the heart of the neotraditional era, but there isn’t a fiddle or steel guitar on this entire album. Instead, this sits closer to the guitar-and-drum mixes of the present day, although the electric guitar has a bit more texture here than you usually find today. It doesn’t rock as hard as, say, Garth Brooks’s “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Goes Up),” but this is definitely more of a rock guitar, and it serves as the primary melody driver on this track. The drums are simple but methodical, keeping time while providing some needed punch to the mix. Honestly, nothing about this thing screams “dance track”: The tempo is slow and deliberate, the chord progression is beyond simple (forget three chords and the truth; there are only two chords present at all), and the repetitive riffs do nothing to help the song stand out (seriously, the solos are just mindlessly follow the chords with the same riff). Yet these same attributes might be just the thing to get a line dance going: The slow tempo helps the less-athletic among us keep up and join in the fun, and the simple instrumentation stays out of the way of the groove and helps people stick to the beat. Despite its apparent lack of energy, it’s a song that’s custom-built to move you physically rather than emotionally, and though a critic like me won’t find much to dig into here, it’s easy enough to follow along with the craze.

As far as Cyrus’s performance here, I wouldn’t call it anything to write home about, but he does what he needs to do to keep the song moving and the good vibes flowing. There are far better songs on Some Gave All that showcase his talents as a storyteller and vocalist (the title track in particular is really strong), but I think the common thread is an easy, earnest delivery, one that conveys both sadness and frustration as he lists off all the people who can know that this couple is splitting apart (and even some genuine concern for how his heart might take the truth). There isn’t any levity in his delivery, but he never feels overly serious either, which helps him avoid looking like Leslie Nielsen when he’s giving a dog permission to bite him. Mostly, Cyrus’s job is to keep the song moving and stay out of the way of the track’s danceable vibe, and that’s exactly what he does. Unlike the meatheaded bros that can’t seem to help making themselves look like fools on lost-love tracks today, Cyrus walks away from here with both his dignity and the audience’s approval, and on a song like this, that’s about all you can ask for.

The writing here is…well, it exists, I suppose. The “achy breaky” hook has taken a lot of heat over the years (the Oak Ridge Boys famously turned the song down because of it), but I don’t find it to be all that bad: It’s catchy and memorable, and when the writing is minimized as much as it is here, that’s really all you need it to be. Beyond that, we get a list of all the people the narrator’s ex can tell about the end of their relationship, and the one thing (said achy breaky heart) that they can’t. There’s nothing particularly clever or witty here (the closest the song comes are its verse closers, like telling “my eyes to watch out for my mind, it might be walking out on me today”), and there’s nothing beyond the breakup that even resembles a story, but on the flip side, that’s kind of the point: The song wants people out of their seats and moving to the music, and any sort of backstory about the relationship is just a distraction that could get in the way of the fun. Oftentimes the sound serves as the vehicle for the writing, but here it’s the other way around: The writing is just an excuse to let the sound deliver a good time, regardless of what it’s actually saying. (I usually get more annoyed at mismatches like this, but this one doesn’t bother me as much more-recent tracks, mostly because the lyrics seem fairly benign.) This song has nothing to say, and it feels like that was the writer’s intent all along.

“Achy Breaky Heart” may have set off a national dance movement back in the day, but thirty years later there’s little reason to revisit the song. The sound was catchy, Billy Ray Cyrus was an effective deliveryman, and the writing was…there, but there are no lasting lessons to be learned here, no deeper story or emotions that might make it an all-time classic. It was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t last long (and neither did Cyrus’s career, which was effectively over by 1995). Cyrus is known more now for his daughter Miley and his feature on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” remix than anything on Some Gave All, but while I wouldn’t call “Achy Breaky Heart” a good song, I wouldn’t call it a bad one either, and there are still a few tracks (both on his debut album and later in his discography) that have better stood the test of time and are worth hearing (1998’s “Busy Man” is probably the best of the bunch). For what it’s worth, this song allowed Cyrus to build a legacy that people remember, and I suppose there are worse fates in life.

Rating: 5/10. It’s worth checking out once for historical purposes, but you’ll probably enjoy hearing some of his other works more than this one.

Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “Nobody’s Nobody”

Brothers Osborne may say that “Nobody’s Nobody,” but this genre is trying really hard to prove them wrong.

10 years after their first major-label single release, it’s become pretty clear that country radio wants nothing to do with this duo. After “Stay A Little Longer” may it to #2 back in 2015, T.J. and John Osborne have cracked the Top 20 exactly once in six attempts over eight years (two in eight if you count feature appearances thanks to Dierks Bentley’s collab “Burning Man,”) and after T.J. came out as gay in 2021, the genre demonstrated its “commitment to inclusion” by dropping “All Night” like a hot potato and leaving “I’m Not For Everyone” (which I still maintain is a really good song) to stumble to a #33 airplay peak. You could forgive the pair for wondering if they were still wanted in country music, and they ended up closing the book on their Skeletons album and sitting out all of 2022 before returning this year with “Nobody’s Nobody,” the presumed leadoff single for their fourth album.

So are the brothers primed for a comeback? Honestly, I doubt it: While better than the beer/truck drivel this genre has been dumping on us, this feels like a song that thinks it has something to say but really doesn’t, and it winds up feeling unremarkable and uninteresting thanks to poor execution on several fronts.

Not only is there not much to the production here, but the producer really doesn’t do a whole lot with the pieces they have. The primary melody carrier is a repetitive synthesizer, with a drum set provided a basic beat behind it and John Osborne’s signature electric guitar throwing some simple, overly-drawn-out riffs on top of the sound. Outside of some background singers on the chorus (which try to add a dramatic flair to the choruses, and only half-succeed in doing so while also being so loud that they drown out the vocals) and a few credited instruments that are generally inaudible in the mix, this is all you get, and even John’s electric guitar can’t keep the mix from feeling a bit samey and stale. The slower tempo keeps the song from building much momentum (and the frenetic opening of the song creates some false expectations that are never met), and while there’s a slight buildup of sound as the song goes along, the weaker lyrics make said buildup feel a bit over-the-top and unnecessary. Less can be more, but I think throwing in a few more instruments here to show off their individuality on this song would have both made the sound more distinct/interesting and helped pushed the message of the song (everyone’s a somebody in this arrangement!). As it is, this sound just doesn’t fit the song as well as it should, and the end product suffers as a result.

T.J. Osborne is generally a decent singer and he doesn’t turn in a bad performance here, but he doesn’t do enough to sell this story to the audience. There aren’t any technical issues in his delivery, but much like the production he takes a more-relaxed approach to the tale, with his voice providing some texture and clarity but not having a ton of feeling or power behind it. (Granted, the writing doesn’t give him a ton to work with, but the best singers are able to elevate mediocre material and T.J. doesn’t make it happen here.) I would have liked to hear him sink his teeth into this one a little more, to provide some of the energy that the production lacks and to grab the listener’s attention by signaling how much he cares about the story personally. (For his part, John’s contribution is primarily his guitar work, as whatever background vocals he provides are replaceable at best.) Again, T.J.’s work isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not enough get people interested in this song.

Despite its attempt to move past the ten words you have to say in a country song, the writing is actually the weakest part of this song. For one thing, it doesn’t feel like there’s one song’s worth of words her: Several lines (including some on the chorus) are stretched way beyond their breaking point to fill space, and the “no, no, nobody” lines get old really fast. For another thing, the song seems to be caught between being a love song or an inspirational song, and isn’t quite sure which of the two it really wants to be. If it’s the former, saying you’re “trying to leave my mark with a simple song and an old guitar” and highlighting people who are “keeping the Goodyears on the road” doesn’t make any sense, but if it’s the latter stuff like “forgettin’ someone they can’t let go” and “some lovers leave their mark with a pocket knife and an oak tree heart” are completely out of place. Either way, the hodgepodge of imagery we get is a bit too stock to be interesting, and it makes the “nobody’s nobody” hook (which wasn’t that good to begin with) feel even weaker than it is. The whole thing is at least a dozen drafts away from a finished product, and job #1 should have been to pick a lane for the song and stick with it, because in its current state this is a bland word salad that doesn’t have a whole lot to say.

“Nobody’s Nobody” is kind of a nobody of a song, with pieces that aren’t that strong individually and don’t fit together that well. With sparse, lifeless production to half-baked writing to a “meh” performance from T.J. Osborne, I don’t hold out much hope that this will be the track that ends Brothers Osborne’s losing streak on the radio. That said, I’d rather listen to a song that at least kinda-sorta tried to say something different and break out of the rut that country music is in, and I’m grateful that there’s only one alcohol reference and there’s not a truck or a nighttime dirt-road drive in sight. I wouldn’t say I’m a BO fan by any stretch, but I’m willing to let this placeholder of a song slide as long as they keep trying to shake up the genre and keep looking for better material to help make it happen.

Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing anything here.

Lost In The Shuffle, Vol. 12: On The Road Again

After three years of being mostly rooted in place, I’ve suddenly got a bunch of travel on my schedule, which means it’s time to dust off the old iPad, toss it in the back of the car, and spend eight hours remembering what my music collection sounds like. I honestly didn’t buy much music at all last year (new or otherwise), but given how many tracks I’ve accumulated over the years, perhaps that’s a good thing, and frankly I think I’ve forgotten just how random and weird some of this stuff really is. There’s no time like the present to jog my memory!

The concept of LITS is simple: Hit the shuffle button on my old iPad, listen to ten songs chosen by whatever random number generator Apple uses (which could end up being anything from sizzling singles to deep album cuts to songs not even remotely related to country music), make a snap judgement on how good or bad the songs are, and produce a highly-subjective ranking of the impromptu playlist.

Is this silly and without purpose? Absolutely, but it’s also a chance to potentially introduce folks to some different songs/artists, and potentially introduce people to some great material that they had forgotten or missed. Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is.

The Contenders

#1: Highway 101, “Cry, Cry, Cry”

A lot of bands emerged during the neotraditional era in the wake of Alabama’s success, but Highway 101 was one that ultimately lacked the staying power of a Shenandoah or a Diamond Rio. Listening to a song like “Cry, Cry, Cry” (a #1 from 1988, and the second of three consecutive #1s for the band), the reason for this is pretty clear: They didn’t have a terribly distinct sound beyond lead singer Paulette Carlson’s vocals (Jack Daniels’s guitar is noteworthy, but it was no Taxicaster), and when she left to pursue a solo career in 1990, the band’s success quickly dried up (although Carlson never found any traction as a solo artist either). As a song, “Cry, Cry, Cry” is a fairly run-of-the-mill lost-love song that mostly revolves around…well, crying, but Carlson does a solid job sharing her pain with the audience and the rest of the band constructing a catchy (although not especially moving or sad) mix around her. I wouldn’t call it one of their best songs, but it’s not a bad one either, and it’s certainly not as weird a start as this playlist could have had…

#2: Mark Chesnutt, “Ol’ Country”

Actually, I’d put this song (a #4 single from 1993) in the same category: I wouldn’t call it one of Chesnutt’s signature tracks, but in terms of country love songs and wannabe sex jams, it’s decent (and certainly better than some of Nashville’s recent attempts as this concept). It’s not sexy by any means, but the slower tempo, deeper tones, and strategic use of the piano and string section give it a refined and (slightly) sensual feel, and the story’s slow buildup to the foreplay and declaration that “they’re not some place they have never been” give us the impression that this is a deep-rooted relationship as opposed to a casual hookup. After the tire fire that was Conner Smith’s “Creek Will Rise,” this song feel like a tasteful (and perhaps even prudish) approach to romance, and while there’s certainly a whiff of country superiority here (the city woman never found love with city guys “until ol’ country came to town”), there’s nothing confrontational or pointed about the comment, and Chesnutt’s smooth delivery contains no hint of malice. Again, there’s not a lot to this track and there are much better listening options within Chesnutt’s discography, but the execution behind it is more than enough to keep from complaining.

#3: Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”

…Okay, so maybe my iPad is less weird than I remember? So far this list has featured more chalk than the NCAA tournament, and this song (a #1 country hit that crossed over to the pop charts, became Rogers’s signature song, and even spawned a series of TV movies) might be the chalkiest one of all. I really like the way the mix slowly builds up from a solitary acoustic guitar to include drums, piano, and a full complement of backup singers, expanding to meet the moment but never getting in the way of the story. The story builds up slowly as well and takes a while to really get going, but the payoff of the iconic chorus (I don’t need to write it out here; you all know how it goes) is immense, and even though the offered advice is vague and very poker-specific, it isn’t much of a reach to apply it to darn near anything: You have to recognize when to stick to your guns, when to be patient or get out of a bad situation, and when to spare a moment and appreciate what you’ve done. Rogers does a great job filling the narrator’s role (there’s a reason he was cast as “The Gambler” in those movies), and his smooth, clear delivery and abundant charisma made it eay to connect with listeners the world over. Whether this is one of the greatest country songs ever is debatable, but it’s certainly one of the most well-known, and it’s a strong contender to claim the top spot on this list.

#4: Midland, “Let It Roll”

This isn’t exactly “weird” either, but at least we’re finally getting an album cut for the list. Unfortunately, despite my strong fandom for this trio, the title track from their sophomore album is probably one of the weakest in their entire discography. The narrator spends the entire song enumerating the other person’s physical assets, marveling at their sexual synergy (that “spilling that sugar on my sheets” line is pretty cringe), and talking about how he wants to take her away for so long that the authorities will need to form a search party to find them. I generally like Mark Wystrach as a narrator, but his charm feels misapplied on this track, and he comes across as a bit more creepy and leering than he should. There are some decent lines hidden in here (“Love’s a pistol, darlin’, and you’re a round, and I pull the trigger just to hear the sound”), but the “let it roll” hook suggests that this is a devil-may-care hookup more than an actual relationship, and overall this feels like a leftover Bro-Country track with slightly-less-synthetic production. (In fact, it’s mostly a standard guitar-and-drum mix that makes the song feel even more raunchy and questionable than it already does.) Midland may be a fixture on my blog lists, but I don’t see them placing too well with this song.

#5: Jerrod Niemann, “Drink To That All Night”

Speaking of Bro-Country…this 2013 #1 was both the peak and the end of Niemann’s career (…okay, maybe the follow-up flop “Donkey” was actually the end). If you’re not familiar with this one, it’s exactly what you think it is: A vapid, shallow party track where the narrator hits the club, hits on a woman, and drinks themselves silly. The production feels more synthetic than it really is thanks to the audio effects the guitars and keyboards are buried under (the copious auto-tuning on the vocals doesn’t help matters), Niemann sounds like a robot as he talk-sings his way through the verses (to call it rapping would be a disservice to actual rappers everywhere), and the writing runs the gamut from sleazy (“workin’ on a sweet thing sitting on a bar stool”) to mind-numbingly repetitive (“take your cup, fill it up, you can’t raise it high enough” times infinity…) to the completely bizarre (“gonna ride that cow with the Dallas bull”? What does that even mean?). It’s an energetic track with a half-decent groove (and the choruses sound surprisingly conventional), but this is the very definition of empty sonic calories, and I don’t see it doing terribly well in my rankings either.

#6: T.G. Sheppard, “I Loved ‘Em Every One”

Gosh darn it iPad, when I said “weird”, I didn’t mean “sleazy”! The TL;DR on Sheppard is that he was basically an off-brand Conway Twitty wannabe from the late 70s and 80s, and he sent some really questionable tracks to the radio over the years (“War Is Hell (On The Homefront Too),” “Do You Want To Go To Heaven,” “Somewhere Down The Line,” etc.) “I Loved ‘Em Every One,” a #1 from 1981, isn’t as bad as some of the aforementioned tracks, but it’s not much better, as it’s basically just a guy gloating about his sexual exploits and saying “he loved ’em every one” when he didn’t really love any of them (at least not for more than a few hours). The guitar-heavy production goes so dark here you’d think it was from an unreleased retro Jason Aldean album, with the frequent minor chords giving the song an ominous feel that doesn’t fit with the song at all (in fact, it makes Sheppard’s character seem even more slimy). For the vocals, Sheppard pretty much played to his persona, coldly delivering his lines as if he didn’t have any feelings towards his partners as all. At this point, I think my iPad is trolling me with this sleazy mini-trend, but I’ll get my revenge when I soak it in Clorox to get some of this grime washed out of the circuitry…

#7: Kathy Mattea, “Train Of Memories”

Ha! I guess that last line about a bleach bath got the iPad’s attention, because it immediately veered back towards some better content. This one is a #3 hit from 1987, and while Mattea was generally a purveyor of quality, “Train Of Memories” throws some curveballs into the mix that fit together far better than they have any right to. Consider the production, with starts off with her usual subdued sound (this one anchored by a banjo, back before it was a token Bro-Country set piece), but brings in a horn section (!) for some slow-buildup stabs that help drive the writing’s point home. There’s an ominous feel to this track (though not as much as with Sheppard’s song) thanks to the frequent minor chords, but this time it feels warranted, as the narrator is confronted with the painful memories of a lost love every time they and their ex cross paths. Mattea does a nice job explaining her feelings to the audience (although you don’t really feel the depth of her pain, and as far as country singer train whistle imitations go, her “ooooooohhh” on the chorus is at least decent. It’s a song that pushes both the tempo and the envelope a little (although horns weren’t quite as rare in the genre then as they are now), and much like most of Mattea’s work, it’s an enjoyable listen.

#8: Blackhawk, “Down In Flames”

For the moment, I’m going to set aside the question of whether or not this band should change its name and focus on the song itself, a #10 single from 1994. For the most part, this feels like a middle-of-a-road love song, from its midtempo guitar-and-drum instrumentation (although the guitar has some actual tone to it here) to lead singer Henry Paul’s passable vocal performance to the standard “runaway love” story in the writing. The main differentiators here are Paul’s voice (he’s pretty much an improved version of Jon Pardi, and I think the harmony of Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins helps a lot by giving the vocals a fuller sound) and the twist of escaping a dying town (they’ve got nothing to lose by leaving, so why not take the chance?), and I’m torn on whether or not these are enough to really elevate the track. The overall execution here is pretty solid (especially the vocal harmonies) and the narrator’s emotion feels genuine (and they’re actually pushing forward instead of resigning themselves to their current lot in life), so there are at least a few things going for this song. Will it be enough to secure a prime position on this list? That depends on how wacky the last few contestants get…

#9: Jim & Jesse, “Paradise”

Out of eight songs thus far, all eight were country songs and seven were radio singles, so it looks like a bluegrass single from the mid 70s is as weird as the iPad feels like getting today. This is a later rerecording of the song, but honestly I might like this one better than the original: Jesse McReynolds’s weathered voice fits more naturally with a reflective song like this, and I like the addition of a fiddle on top of the dobro, banjo, and mandolin. I really like the writing on this track, and how it takes us on a journey back to a rustic Kentucky village courtesy of some banger lines (“The air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill,” “The coal company’s came with the world’s largest shovel,” etc.) and shines the spotlight on the damage an extractive industry like coal can inflict on a place. It’s an evocative tale that warns us about the collateral damage caused by “the progress of man,” and gets the listener thinking about the Faustian bargains we make in the name of economic growth and lower fuel prices. In other words, it’s a really good song, and if this is as weird as the iPad wants to get, I guess I can live with that.

#10: Michael Jackson, “Rock With You”

Okay, so the iPad had one more trick up its sleeve. Artists like Jackson leave a lot of listeners conflicted, as his questionable (to put it mildly) behavior later in life made it hard to separate the man from the music. For the moment, his tracks are still on the iPad, including this Hot 100 chart-topper from 1979. As a song, it’s a pretty solid fusion of disco and pop music, leaning heavily on a heavy bass linse and a drum set to give it a serious groove, and then layering all sorts of different instruments on top of it (a slick electric guitar, a string section, some synth tones, and even a flute) to add some flavor to the mix. There’s very little to the story beyond the fact that the narrator wants to “rock with you,” but Jackson’s excellent vocals and ebullient charisma at least make him seem sincere in his entreaties (even if later revelations make you really not want to think about who he’s talking to). This is one of those tracks that’s meant to move you physically rather than emotionally, but Jackson in his prime was talented enough to make both happen, and if we set the artists aside and consider the song simply on its own merits, it’s a pretty strong entry that could shake up this list.

Bonus #11: Grandpa Jones, “The Huntin’s Over For Tonight”

This one isn’t technically eligible for the list, but anytime you can work Grandpa Jones into a blog post, you do it. It took over forty songs to cover this leg of the trip; other highlights include The Kendalls’s “Pittsburgh Stealers,” Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town, Saturday Night,” Garth Brooks’s “Night Rider’s Lament,” and Schmoyoho’s “Once Again Rewind 2020…”.

The Results

2.“The Gambler”
3.“Train Of Memories”
4.“Rock With You”
5.“Down In Flames”
6.“Cry, Cry, Cry”
7.“Ol’ Country”
8.“Drink To That All Night”
9.“Let It Roll”
10.“I Loved ‘Em Every One”

It looks like my iPad contents aren’t nearly as weird as I thought! There are definitely some bizarre gems hidden in this thing, but there’s a lot more center-of-the-road establishment on it as well, and given that radio singles are going to be the things people remember (and thus are the most apt to be added to their music library), the strong bias towards charting singles makes sense. In the end, I think going back to Muhlenberg County is the way to go, edging out a ubiquitous ride with a dying gambler. (Also, I think that the two story songs finishing 1-2 isn’t a coincidence…) Given how this blog seems to be pivoting towards older music, perhaps I should start making these lists a more-regular feature…but still, the fact that we got only two entries from the past decade (and neither performed well) means that I need to get off my butt and start filling these holes with some modern gems (case in point: I haven’t even purchased all the singles from the my best-of list of 2022…or 2021…or 2020…). Old or new, weird or not, I’d like to think I’ve got a lot of good stuff here, and hopefully I can get back to growing this collection in the future.

Retro Review: Randy Travis, “Promises”

Brad Paisley once asked “Too country…what’s that?” This song might be the answer.

I’ve already written at length about Randy Travis’s career, but it’s worth reiterating just how massive a phenomenon this man was in the late 1980s. Darn near everything he touched during this period turned to gold (and platinum), he racked up shelves full of awards, and seemed to claim the #1 spot on the Billboard charts at will. From 1986 through 1989, only two singles did not reach the Billboard summit: “No Place Like Home” (which stopped at #2), and “Promises,” which sticks out like a sore thumb with a surprisingly-mediocre #17 peak. So what the heck happened here?

In some ways, this sort of performance is predictable: When you perform this well for this long, you gain the sort of clout and leeway to allow you to experiment and pursue passion projects, something that Travis would do a lot in the following years (see: his duet album Heroes and Friends, his Western album Wind In The Wire). “Promises” was the fourth single off of an album that had already been certified platinum and followed a string of seven consecutive #1 hits, so this was a classic “throw something at the wall and see if it sticks” moment, and in Travis’s case, that meant taking one of his own compositions, boiling it down to its very essence, sticking it on the airwaves and seeing what happened. The result was undeniably “country,” but it’s also undeniably slow and unexciting, and while I’ve grown to appreciate it over time, I’ll admit that I was pretty bored by it back in the day. It’s not a bad song (in fact, it’s easily one of the best Travis has ever written), but it didn’t catch the public’s attention the way his other work did, and it’s worth analyzing to see what happened and why it floundered the way that it did.

It’s hard to talk about to the production because…well, there’s barely any production to talk about! An acoustic guitar hits an open chords to start, and then…slowly walks up and down the chords for the rest of the track. In terms of instrument, that’s all you get for the rest of the song: No drums, no keyboards, no fiddle or steel…this is just a vocalist, a guitar, and some background “ooooooohs” on what passes for the chorus. Solo guitars or minimal instrumentation is often used to give a song an organic or back-porch feel, but there’s a level of polish here (note that the guitar is picked instead of strummed) that keeps the mix from achieving this vibe (and I don’t think Travis and producer Kyle Lehning were going for this vibe anyway). To its credit, the guitar strikes a suitably somber tone, and it’s darn near impossible for it to get in the way of the writing, but the slower tempo doesn’t allow it to generate enough energy to keep the song moving, and on its own it’s simply not enough to draw listeners in or keep them engaged in the story. (Even Lehning seemed to understand this on some level, as it’s the background vocals that actually add the necessary weight and impress the deeper meaning onto the audience during the choruses.) Basically, the primary instrument here is Travis himself, and the guitar is little more than a way to fill the space between lines.

Let’s talk about the writing next, which eschews the standard verse/chorus setup for more of a stream-of-consciousness storytelling model. There’s a chorus-like piece that’s anchored by the title (I kind of hesitate to call it a hook because it’s just one word and not part of a larger/consistent phrase), but mostly this is an unbroken cheating song featuring a hard-luck narrator (perhaps the same one as in “Reasons I Cheat,” although that was never a single) who turns to the comfort of others “when my troubles pull me down.” It doesn’t give you the feel of a classic cheating song thanks to the production, but the writing itself tells a pretty standard story, and although the opening lines are incredibly evocative (“Cheap perfume and painted faces, fallen angels fill the places…”), overall the song feels a little light on details when it could really use some to keep the audience tuned in. I’m also less then thrilled with the sense of resignation and hopelessness we get from the narrator, when it’s pretty clear that a) they are the problem, and b) it appears to be fully within their power to change their ways. Again, the writing isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s fairly bland once you get past the opener, and needs more than a single guitar to elevate it.

With little sound support and lyrics that are only decent, Travis himself is basically left on an island for the entirety of this song, forced to rely on his voice and presence to convince the listener to stick around. Luckily, this is Randy freaking Travis we’re talking about, one of the ultimate “stand there and sing” performers in country music history, and he delivers a near-hypnotic performance here that keeps the audience from turning away even if they wanted to. If you’ve read anything I’ve written about Travis over the years, you know what’s coming next: Plaudits for his smooth delivery, his understated-yet-emotional style, his infinite supply of charm and charisma, and so on. I talk about the “degree of difficulty” presented by songs a fair amount, but this might be the most-difficult of all because with next to no support from any other piece of the song, the ultimate success or failure of the song rides on the singer’s vocal execution, and if you make any mistakes, you’ve got zero cover for them. The flip side, however, is if you really nail the performance as Travis does here, you’ll have the crowd in the palm of your hand, hanging on every word no matter how bland it is. You won’t find much energy or excitement here, but you will find a ton of heartfelt emotion, and sometimes that can make all the difference.

I won’t deny that “Promises” is an acquired taste: With its slothful pace and run-of-the-mill story, it’s not hard to see why it didn’t excite listeners the way earlier Randy Travis singles did. However, this is a still a Randy Travis single, and a pretty decent one at that, mostly due to Travis’s immense talent and charisma and the fact that nothing here dares to get in his way. It may be an overlooked track from an artist who doesn’t seem to have the name recognition that his place in country music history would warrant, but honestly I’d call this experiment a success, regardless of where the Billboard numbers wound up. If for some strange reason you still haven’t familiarized yourself with Travis’s work, what the heck are you waiting for?

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Conner Smith, “Creek Will Rise”

That creek must have risen a lot to fit that shark county music keeps jumping.

I’ve been complaining for a while now about how most mainstream country adheres to a strict meta that only allows about three instruments to be used and five stories to be told, causing all the songs and artists to run together into an indistinguishable stream of background noise. It’s made the genre very hard to listen to over the past few years, and for some bizarre reason the trend seems to be getting worse: It feels like nearly every modern track I review now sounds the same, tells the same story, and even the artists are getting harder to distinguish. The latest incarnation of this trend is Conner Smith, a product of Nashville’s faceless young male assembly line who hasn’t cracked the Top 35 in two prior attempts (“Learn From It,” “Take It Slow”), who’s now hoping that the third time is the charm with “Creek Will Rise”…except that it’s another song about a horny guy with a girl in a truck on a nighttime dirt road drive, featuring skinny dipping, name-dropping, and steamy intercourse. Haven’t we heard enough of this drivel already?

Let’s try and start with the good news first: The production at least tries to make the song interesting by tweaking the standard guitar-and-drum formula. There are two main differences here:

  • The tempo is cranked way beyond fast, injecting a ton of energy into the mix from the word go.
  • A dobro is added to the later choruses and ends up anchoring the bridge solo, which combines with the frequent minor chords (and “frequent” is an understatement; it’s hard to find a major chord at all in this thing) to give the song an ominous, almost dangerous feel. (There’s a mandolin here somewhere according to the video credits, but it’s buried too deep in the mix to be noticeable.)

With the leeway the acoustic guitar and dobro get to define the mix, it feels like the producer was trying to recapture the magic of Dierks Bentley’s debut “What Was I Thinkin’.” It’s not a bad goal to shoot for, but the foreboding tone of the arrangement just doesn’t fit this track at all. While Bentley had some actual danger to contend with (running from the cops, escaping from a bar fight, and of course the father with a shotgun), the only dangers here are getting stuck with a dead car battery or catching hypothermia. The lyrics just don’t feel like they warrant such a fast-paced, in-your-face mix, and as a result it makes the story seem overhyped and the sound feel like nothing but empty sonic calories. It’s not a terrible mix and there’s a time and place for it, but this song is not it.

I really wish someone would get Smith a speech therapist for his birthday, because it took three full playthroughs to figure out what the heck he was saying on this song (spoiler alert: it wasn’t worth finding out). He struggles to put any real emotion behind the song (especially the faster portions, where he’s too busy getting the lyrics out to do anything else), and he comes across as this smug dudebro who’s only concern is getting laid (instead of being sympathetic or likeable, by the end you’re just hoping the creek washes him away when it rises)…and that’s before he starts talk-singing and loses whatever goodwill he had garnered. Worse still, the menacing feel of the production gives Smith’s vocals and intent a concerningly-dark vibe, and you start to wonder if you should be calling the authorities before he reaches the point the radio won’t let him talk about. In the end, this narrator is creepy AF, and instead of pulling the song out of the gutter, Smith just drives it deeper into the ditch. Given that his previous two songs didn’t leave much of an impression, this really isn’t the vibe you want to be giving off the first time people hear you.

And then we get to the lyrics, which are so cookie-cutter that I half expected to see ChatGPT as a co-writer. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The narrator and their partner are out on a nighttime excursion in a truck, going from lying in the truck bed to skinny-dipping in a creek and eventually to what Bill Engvall would call some “hot pig sex.” We’ve also got the dirt road, the sundress, the name-drops (not only is there a “Fishin’ In The Dark” reference, but NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon are randomly tossed into the song as well)…the only real twists to the tale are a) the massive rainstorm that sweeps through during the night (hence the “if the good Lord’s willing, that creek will rise” hook that’s not nearly as clever as the writers think) and b) the surprisingly-graphical imagery that we get as the song goes along. (There’s no beer here, but as I mentioned when I talked about George Birge’s “Mind On You,” even that is considered meta these days.) Even if “the radio won’t even let me tell you the rest,” he comes a lot closer to telling us that most songs do: I can’t even use euphemisms like “making out” herethese people are naked, sopping wet, and holding on to one another on a sundress “blanket.” They aren’t here to conserve body heat; they’re about to throw down like it’s a wrestling match. Aside from making fourteen-year-old boys snicker, what exactly is this song supposed to accomplish? It’s not interesting, it’s not thought-provoking, and it’s certainly not sensual. It’s a meathead bragging about how he got busy with someone, and given how many times we’ve heard some variation of this story over the last decade, this moron can go crow somewhere else.

All in all, there’s absolutely nothing to like about “Creek Will Rise.” With production that doesn’t fit the mood and can’t hold the listener’s attention, writing whose only innovation was taking mid-2010s Bro-Country and making it more cringe, and Conner Smith doing his creepiest dudebro impression while sounding like a off-brand Morgan Wallen, this song is easily one of the worst I’ve heard all year. Unfortunately, this is also apparently what Music City wants country music to sound like nowadays, so we’re likely doomed to deal with Smith and more of his ilk singing more of the same for the foreseeable future. I’ve been saying for years that the genre is ripe for a “Randy Travis moment” when someone will “take the industry by storm, reinvigorate the sound, and take the music in a new and unexpected direction,” but if they’re coming, they had better get here quick, or else there won’t be much of a genre left when they arrive.

Rating: 3/10. Yuck.

Retro Review: Diamond Rio, “It’s All In Your Head”

There’s a song about everything if you look hard enough.

Conspiracy theories have always been a thing in this world, but the combination of misinformation and platforms that can rapidly spread it has made these theories a major problem in society today, leading people to commit acts of violence (think the QAnon-fueled storming of the Comet Ping Pong restaurant, or the false claims of election fraud that led up to the Jan. 6th insurrection). The truth no longer appears to be engaging or profitable enough for the powers that be, and thus we seem to be stuck in a quagmire of mistruths and “alternative facts” meant to obfuscate actual facts and make it really hard to determine what’s true and what isn’t.

Conspiracy theories have certainly inspired some songs over the years, but you rarely see them in country music (angry reactionary tracks like Aaron Lewis’s “Am I The Only One” are far more common, but they don’t usually veer in conspiratorial territory). However, there was a song that kinda-sorta dove into this realm back in the mid-1990s: Diamond Rio’s “It’s All In Your Head,” telling the story of a religious zealot who trusted no one and trafficked in some of the more-famous theories of the era, such as JFK’s death. Despite the band’s popularity, country radio didn’t really get on board with this one (it only made it to #15 on Billboard’s airplay chart, which was admittedly better than “Bubba Hyde,” but still far below the band’s other hits of the era), and I can see why: This is a genuinely weird tale that lacks both a purpose and a punch line, and when it’s over it leaves the listener wondering what the point of the song was in the first place.

The production is probably the best part of the song, and it’s pretty much what you would expect from a Diamond Rio track. It starts by leaning on an acoustic guitar and Gene Johnson’s mandolin, but over time Jimmy Olander’s “Taxicaster” and Dan Truman’s keyboards take control of the mix, making the song instantly recognizably as a Diamond Rio song. Despite Johnson and Olander being the most-recognizable pieces of the band (Olander gets the nod for the bridge solo), I’d argue that Truman is the most importantly player here: The Taxicaster and the mandolin are generally brightly-toned and remain so on this track, but it’s the keyboards (especially the one that sounds like a classic church organ) that pair with the unorthodox chord structure (there really aren’t any minor chords here, but there doesn’t seem to be too many full major ones either) to give the song an unsettling feel befitting the paranoid, fire-and-brimstone outlook of the main character. It’s the sort of risks that raises questions in the listener’s mind and invites them to hear the answers, and while said answers from the song are either unsatisfactory or nonexistent (more of that later), at least the audience was moved to look for them. I wouldn’t call this a great mix, but at least it appears to be an effective one.

Marty Roe is great vocalist, but I think he takes a really poor approach on this track. In theory, his narrator is supposed to be the child of the two zealots/conspiracy theorists, and thus you would expect him to show some conflicted emotion telling the story of their deeply-flawed parents (it could be affection or resentment depending on your reading of the tale, but he has to feel something). Instead, Roe seem to take the position of a neutral third-party speaker, and gives off no emotion at all as he walks us through the story (no love, no hate…in truth, he makes no judgement at all). I’m not sure what his thought process was here, but it makes him seem less believable as a narrator and his character seem less worthy of sympathy (it sounds like he had a fairly normal childhood despite the story making this seem impossible). The group’s harmony work is stellar as usual, but its impact feels minimal, possibly because Roe has to carry a fair bit of the song solo, or because the harmony feel like they’re broken up and limited to short bursts during the song. All in all, it’s a fairly “meh” performance to me, one that doesn’t really resonate with its audience.

I think the lyrics are the biggest problem here, mostly because of their abrupt and incomplete end. The song starts by introducing us to the narrator’s father, an old-school preacher with a strong distrust of authority and a zeal to open the world’s eyes to “the truth.” I wouldn’t call him a likeable individual, but as you hear about picking fights in pool halls and delivering sermons in parking lots, you have to admit that he’s a fascinating character, one that you might want to hear more from to determine how he turned into the zealot that he is…except that he dies to a snakebite on the abbreviated third verse, and the story basically ends right there. There’s no closing statement from the speaker about the legacy of their father and where they went from there, no grand proclamation providing insight about impact of unfounded conspiracy theories, and despite having the entire second verse dedicated to her, we learn next to nothing about the stepmother in the relationship or about her own role in the whole thing. The only “moral” I can possibly think of is that by depicting the mother and father as completely out of their minds, it makes them look supremely foolish, and in turn makes believing in such conspiracy nonsense seem foolish as well…but that’s a really generous interpretation of a song that most people aren’t going to read that deeply into. As it is, this reads like a book that’s had the last few chapters ripped out, and it leaves the listener deeply confused as to why anyone would bother singing about all this.

Despite its subject matter, “It’s All In You Head” is a song that ultimately doesn’t have anything to say, and fails to justify its existence as a result. The production is decent, but it’s weighed down by questionable vocal choices and writing that only seems to tell half the story. It’s hard to imagine what moved Diamond Rio and their label to release this as a single (there are probably some conspiracy theories about this somewhere…), but it’s easy to tell why it’s been mostly forgotten within their discography. Story songs can be great, but you’ve got to have a payoff at the end, something that rewards listeners for sticking with you until the final note. Without it, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing anything here.

Song Review: Ashley McBryde, “Light On In The Kitchen”

Could we please get this woman some more time on the airwaves?

Ashley McBryde has created some of the best country music of the last half-decade, and she’s got the metaphorical Korner hardware to prove it (#7 best song in 2021, #3 in 2020, and both #1 and #8 in 2019, a year in ), but it feels like country radio has never really gotten on board with her, and she’s yet to have a solo hit even make the Top Ten on Billboard’s airplay chart (“One Night Standards” only made it to #11, and “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” did finally hit #1 but was a collaboration with Carly Pearce). 2022 saw the release of her critically-acclaimed concept album Lindeville, but no official singles were released to radio from the project—instead, McBryde brought out “Light On In The Kitchen,” the presumed leadoff single from her fourth album, earlier this year. You can tell that McBryde is an Eric Church disciple, because this song is eerily reminiscent of Church’s “Some Of It” (#6 on my 2019 list, by the way), going through the various life lessons that a mother might impart to their child. However, it’s hard to knock a song for being unoriginal when basically no one else is dropping tracks like this today (and at least they’re copying a good song) , and the superb execution present here makes this a must-hear in today’s radio environment.

“This sound is a lot more familiar to Church fans, with an acoustic guitar carrying the melody and a drum set providing a simple, straightforward beat for the foundation.” I opened my “Some Of It” production review with this line, and honestly it’s a pretty good overview of McBryde’s sound here, at least to start. However, the producer definitely does some tinkering around the edges: The drums are much softer and sandier here, the keyboards that rise up from the background are a bit more prominent, and most notably there’s a mandolin here that trades lead riffs with the electric guitar (it even get half the bridge solo!). In the end, I’d say the vibe of these two tracks is about the same: Reflective, positive, and generally pretty balanced (it pushes the song forward without injecting too much energy, and makes itself heard without getting in the way of the lyrics). It’s an pleasant, inviting mix that does a good job drawing listeners into the song, and sometimes that’s really all you can ask for.

Much like Church, McBryde has this aura of hard-won experience about her, making her a natural fit for a song like this one. She’s always had everywoman charisma to burn, and she applies it well here by tapping into the shared experience of the song (most everyone has had that maternal figure in their ear, telling them what to do and how things will be). While she’s usually known for the edge and attitude she brings to the table, she wisely sets these aside here because there’s no need for it (nothing said here is all that controversial or aggressive). Instead, she sticks with a straightforward delivery that keeps the writing front and center, and avoids going over the top with emotion (and thus keeps the song from feeling cheesy), and there’s a distinct sense of both gratefulness and reverence in her performance, making her believable to the point that I initially thought this was a specific tribute to her own mother (it’s not; it was written with two co-writers and is more of a general tribute to the strong women in their lives). McBryde has already demonstrated that she’s one of the most capable vocalists in Music City, and there’s nothing here to change that assessment in any way.

The biggest compliment I can give the writing is that this is exactly the sort of thing I want to hear from a country song. I’ve done so much complaining over the last year or so about how little maturity is found is modern country music, but this song has it in spades, both in the maternal figure dispensing life lessons and in the narrator who’s relaying the tale and realizing its full value. Not only do these nuggets feel like advice that you can use (okay, maybe not ‘a dose of local honey will keep your nose from running’), but they feel especially timely for youth in the present day, given the current mental health crisis and the social-media-exacerbated body image issues that affect many young women. There are one-liners about weight (“when you feel fat, it’s mostly in your mind”), complexion (“your freckles make you pretty”), and romance (“honey, boys are dumb”…and yeah, at that age they really can be), as well as mentions of larger issues like race (“when you make friends, always be color blind”) and inequality (“pray for those that don’t have a prayer”). The lighter moments (“pancakes just taste better after midnight”) may not be as useful, but they serve to humanize the speakers and make them more relatable because everybody’s got a weird rule or two that they live by (mine is “don’t cheap out on dental floss”). There’s a lot of good stuff packed into this song (and not a beer or truck to be found, I might add), and with everything else here ceding the spotlight to the lyrics, it’s great to find that the song has something worth hearing.

“Light On In The Kitchen” is…honestly, it’s what we’ve come to expect from Ashley McBryde by now. With its solid production, useful writing, and a great performance behind the mic, this song is quality all the way around, the kind of song I really wish we heard more of on mainstream radio. Sadly, mainstream radio doesn’t seem to want much to do with McBryde’s work (although this song has made some decent headway so far, so maybe this will change?), so I’m still a bit pessimistic about its chances for success. Still, it’s radio’s loss if it doesn’t want a seat on this hype train, because McBryde has proven to be one of the best artists in the game today, and this track is already in line to grab some more non-existent hardware from this blog in 2023.

Rating: 8/10. You don’t want to miss this one.