Retro Review: Lonestar, “Mr. Mom”

Won’t anyone think of the children? Because country music certainly won’t.

I’ve written in the past about the lack of maturity in modern country music, and one of the effects of this trend is the near-total disappearance of songs that mention kids in any capacity. On some level, this shift mirrors a larger societal change: Country music is continually chasing a younger audience, but the age at which people are having children is increasing, so the music and the market have been diverging for some time now. Outside of a few isolated examples (Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes,” Elvie Shane’s “My Boy”), you won’t find any children on the airwaves.

It wasn’t that long ago that country music was obsessed with chasing the “suburban mom” demographic, trying to capture the hearts and minds (and wallets) of women who doing the dirty work involved with maintaining a home and family. A good example of this is our song for today: Lonestar’s “Mr. Mom,” a 2004 multi-week #1 from the band’s Let’s Be Us Again album that wound up being the group’s final chart-topping hit. We’ve already discussed Lonestar’s career at length on the blog (real talk: I’d completely forgotten about writing that thing. 2019 feels like it was 50 years ago) and how the group went all in on courting women with kids in the early 2000s, but “Mr. Mom” is where “I would argue that the group officially jumped the shark.” This was a forced, over-the-top attempt to connect with the mothers of young children, and while there’s certainly a kernel of truth to its madness, this track felt silly to the point of absurdity, and it struggled to connect with its audience as a result.

The first issue with the song is the production, which feels a bit too sunny for the subject and includes some questionable sound choices. Opening with a mandolin and a fiddle is fine, but neither instrument gets any meaningful screen time afterwards, and the pairing of an electric guitar and something I can’t positively identify (organ? accordion?) on the song’s signature riff creates that synthetic, slightly-squealing sound that has a weirdly-absurdist feel, coloring the song is a less-than-ideal light. Most of the track is covered by acoustic guitars and a drum set, with the mystery instrument and a steel guitar floating around in the background but neither being loud enough to make much of a difference (the keyboard gets some space on the second verse, which at least lets people notice it). The overall vibe here is bright and bouncy, but it’s a bit too saccharine for my tastes, to the point where I think it trivializes the underlying point of the song. The producer’s heart was in the right place here, but they went a little overboard trying to make the song sound fun, and instead made the song more of a joke.

As strange as it might sound, I think lead singer Richie McDonald has the opposite problem on this track: He really doesn’t capture the frantic desperation of a father in over his head with child care. On the verses, he comes across as fairly placid, delivering his lines like a news anchor with little of the exasperation and fatigue that you might expect from someone in his position. (The problem seems to be that he’s trying too hard to keep up with the song that he can’t put that much emotion behind the lyrics; his best line is the closing “Honey…you’re my hero,” because he’s freed from the song’s time constraints and has room to make the line feel tired.) The volume goes up a little on the choruses and you kinda-sorta feel the panic in his delivery, but it’s not enough to get the audience to take him seriously. (I’m not that impressed with the band here either: Neither their harmonies nor their instrumentation work are distinct enough to be noticeable, and you can kind of see how McDonald could convince himself to embark on a solo career a few years later.) It’s not a terrible turn behind the mic, but it’s not enough to get the listener invested in the story.

The lyrics here read like an old episode of The Flinstones or The Jetsons (I can definitely see why they animated the video for this song): A newly-unemployed dad takes over the child care duties as their wife goes to work, and discovers just how much work caring for kids can be. I like the level of detail here, and that “charcoal cake” line is pretty good, but the chorus is a little disjointed and feels a bit like a laundry list as a result, and there are some brand name-drops that feel a little random (I guess “Pampers” might sound better than “diapers,” but “Maytag drier” is just there to fill space in the line). I know they were going for ‘overwhelming’ by dumping all the narrator’s misadventures on us like an overturned toy box, but doing so obscured the underlying message a little bit (you’re rubbernecking at all the chaos so much that you don’t really stop and think about how the wife, and many women in general, have been putting up with this themselves for a long time). The writing wants to use humor to make a point about how amazing mothers are in general, but I think it goes for laughs so much that it glosses over the key point, and even the closing line “now I know how you feel, what I don’t know is how you do it” is too late and isolated that it doesn’t draw much reflection from the listener. The writers went in here with good intentions, but they just didn’t stick the landing.

If you’re looking for country music that addresses more ‘adult’ concerns, “Mr. Mom” may be an example of this, but not a very good one. The production and writing get a little too cutesy on the topic of child rearing, and Lonestar doesn’t distinguish themselves terribly well here, leaving the song feeling a bit empty when it’s all over. Still, for all its faults the song is at least an attempt to talk about something beyond the Friday nights, first loves, and fiery breakups of life, and that’s far more than 95% of Music City bothers to do today. I think part of the reason modern country music struggles to resonate with me is that as I’ve gotten older and (in theory) matured into a responsible adult, the genre hasn’t matured with me, and focuses on things that simply aren’t a part of my life (if they were ever a part of them in the first place). Country music used to have something for everyone underneath its umbrella, and I’d really like to see it get back to that big-tent philosophy, even if we get some mediocre stuff like “Mr. Mom” as a result.

Rating: 5/10. There are far better country songs about the trials of parenthood than this one.

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Ken Mellons?

Image from Ken Mellons’s Official Site

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 work out. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

On today’s episode of OHW, we examine the brief career of Ken Mellons, a hat act and longtime Nashville native who spent much of the 1990s on the roster of one major label or another. Most of his singles disappeared quickly like ripples on a pond (out of 11 single releases listed on Wikipedia, 10 failed to crack the Top 35), but there was one notable exception, a #8 hit from 1994 that felt far more ubiquitous at the time than its peak indicated:

“Jukebox Junkie” was one of those fun, uptempo numbers that can’t help but catch the listener’s ear, and for a moment it made Mellons a part of the country music conversation. However, he was never able to build on the song’s success, and within a few years he had all but disappeared from the scene. What happened?

After examining the evidence, it seems that “Jukebox Junkie” was not only a great song, but a great song for its time, and Mellons was never able to recapture that success…and then he fell into the clutches of a country music supervillain, and all hope was lost.

The Gateway Drug

Mellons’s style mimicked the old-school stars of the past (and one star in particular that’s we’ll talk about in a second), and it led him to a job at Opryland USA “impersonating country performers” and eventually a regular gig playing at the Grand Old Opry. His first record deal was signed with Epic Records in 1993, and his self-titled debut album arrived a year later.

Nashville, like the NFL, is a copycat league, and while the neotraditional sound of the era certainly made Mellon’s work a natural fit for the radio, what Music City really loves to do is find the next soundalike iteration of a current star (think of all the Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen clones clogging up the airwaves right now). For Mellon, his spiritual predecessor was clear: The man sounds almost exactly like John Anderson, a fellow old-school country star who had crashed fairly had in the latter half of the 80s, but then found a second wind in the early 90s behind hits like “Straight Tequila Night” and “Seminole Wind.” 1992 was Anderson’s best showing in nearly a decade (three top 10s, with #1s on either side of the year), and if Mellons could capture some of that same glory for Epic, he was worth taking a flyer on.

Mellon’s debut single “Lookin’ in the Same Direction” was basically a copy of Alan Jackson’s debut single “Blue Blooded Woman,” and like Jackson’s track, it went down in flames (it peaked at an awful #55 on the Billboard charts). The follow-up, however, was “Jukebox Junkie,” which became one of the most-played songs of the year and thrust Mellons into the mainstream spotlight. The magic left as quickly as it arrived, however, and neither of the next two singles from that album (“I Can Bring Her Back” and “Workin’ For The Weekend”) made it past #40.

So where did “Jukebox Junkie” succeed where its fellow singles failed? I think what happened is that it managed to find the sweet spot that Joe Diffie stumbled across with “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green”: It was a bit of a novelty song, but it had decent tempo, it was fun without feeling too silly, and its sound adhered closely to the meta of the era (which is to say, driven by rollicking electric guitars and punchy drums, featuring lots of fiddle and steel guitar, and seasoned with a tinkling piano). The song was the very definition of radio-friendly, and stuck the landing in a way that none of Mellons’s other work could.

Afterwards, Mellons alternated between more-serious fare and attempts to recreate the “Jukebox Junkie” magic, but nothing seemed to do the trick. His material wasn’t necessarily bad, but he fell into the same trap that a lot of artists today are stuck in: There was nothing that distinguished his work and made it rise above its peers. Songs like “I Can Bring Her Back” and “Stranger In Your Eyes” were decent ballads, but there was no reason to listen to them over the ballads of bigger names like Jackson or George Strait, and Mellon’s lighter material (“Workin’ For The Weekend,” “Rub-A-Dubbin'”) failed to find the same niche as “Jukebox Junkie”: The former felt a little forced and its sound was a little thin, and the latter overshot the mark and was too much of a novelty tune to have broad appeal.

It didn’t help matters that the genre was also shifting away from the neotraditional movement towards a pop-country sound. 1995 would mark the peak of Anderson’s last Top Ten single “Bend It Until It Breaks,” and was also the year Shania Twain earned her first #1 and began her reign atop country music. Fading fortunes and shifting tides conspired to make Epic decide to go in a different direction, and after two singles from a single album went nowhere, the label dropped Mellons from their roster.

The Kingpin

Label instability is something that derailed a lot of careers in our deep-dive series, but plenty of artists have switched labels and found success as well, so when Mellons found a new home with a new label, he probably figured he still had a chance at mainstream success.

…Except that he signed with Curb Records, headed by the infamous Mike Curb.

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.

I can’t find any specific statements detailing if/how Curb might have torpedoed Mellons’s career, but there’s an awful lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests that he did…

  • Despite signing with Curb in 1997, Mellons did not release a full album on the label until 2001. His first two singles were left as single-only releases for several years (similar to what happened to Messina), and when the album was finally released, it was under the bizarre title The Best Of Ken Mellons, as if they were trying to fool consumers into thinking it was a greatest hits package (because we know Curb loves to release those…)
  • I couldn’t find any direct statements from Mellons about his time at Curb, but the sources I did find indicated that he wasn’t thrilled about being there:

“Mellons subsequently parted company with Epic and, although he kept busy with live work and his fund-raising commitments, his recording career had largely stalled by the end of the decade due, in no small part, to record company politics.” (emphasis added), undated

Frustrated with the label, Ken asked to be released from his record deal in 2003…” (emphasis added)

—”The Music Know It All,” rareandobscuremusic, April 15 2020

We may never really know what went down at Curb, but we can infer that whatever it was, it basically put Mellons’s career on ice, and he wasn’t terribly happy about it. He was granted the release he wanted in 2003, but by then the industry had moved on, and later releases on independent labels (including “Paint Me A Birmingham,” which was released around the same time as Tracy Lawrence’s version but wound up nowhere near as successful) never found any traction. In 2005, Mellons decided to turn his focus to his family, and while he would release other records in the years to come, the book on his mainstream country career was essentially closed.

Could Mellons’s fate have been different under the direction of a different label? I think so, because Curb (at least according to the Wikipedia page) followed basically the same playbook that Epic did: Alternate between emotional-but-undistinguished ballads and silly novelty tracks. Mellons was a good-enough singer to hold his own behind the mic, and a label with better material and a better plan could have found a way to capitalize on Mellons’s strengths, even as the neotraditional movement faded.

So what derailed Ken Mellons’s county career? Honestly, it was a little bit of everything: Shifting trends in music, poor management and subpar business strategies, and Mellons’s own inability to elevate his music above his competitors and into the mainstream consciousness. Perhaps he was a man out of time, someone whose classic country instincts and influences meant that they missed their musical moment by a good decade or so, but I think there’s a plausible alternate timeline where Mellons seizes on his breakthrough and finds lasting success in Music City. Alas, that didn’t happen in this particular reality, but the stars did align for one brief moment, giving Mellons a taste of success that many aspiring artists never reach (ask Carlton Anderson if he would have rather have one hit and a short mismanaged career instead of getting kicked to the curb at the first sign of trouble). The success of “Jukebox Junkie” was a high that no drug could replicate, and it left enough of a mark that nearly thirty years later, us jukebox junkies still remember his name.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Angels”

Is Thomas Rhett too close to the “Angels” to make this song work?

I was something of a Rhett booster in the early days of the blog, partially because he was able to successfully navigate the transition from his clueless Bro roots to his current position as a devoted family man. Since then, however, Rhett’s work has gotten pretty stale: He released an uncountable number of odes to his wife, veered hard back towards the Nashville meta, and then released the exact same drinking song twice. He’s still a solid performer who is capable of elevating a mediocre track, but it’s got to be the right song, and “Angels,” the third song from his Where We Started album, isn’t quite the right song. It’s a classic tale of love, redemption, and spirituality, but it doesn’t quite square with Rhett’s squeaky-clean image, and its lack of detail causes it to struggle to hold the listener’s attention.

The production here is a fairly standard guitar-and-drum mix, primarily driven by an acoustic guitar and supported by electric and steel guitars (the electric axe is more of a background piece, while the steel is used mostly to fill space between the lyrics). An organ provides some spacious atmosphere, the drums do little more than keep time, and that’s pretty much all you get here. The main distinguishing factor of the mix is its 3/4 time signature (once a staple of the genre, you rarely here this sort of thing today), and its tempo is slow enough that the track practically qualifies as a waltz. Even more surprising than the beats per measure, however, is the neutrality of the instrument tones: The song seems to want to strike a balance between gratefulness and solemnity, and as a result it doesn’t create much of an atmosphere to support the track. A song like this should be unabashedly positive, rooted in the undeserved good fortune of the narrator and how appreciative they are for that fortune. The lack of auditory support forces the other pieces of the song to make their case that much more convincingly, and while they get part of the way there, the struggle and strain seems unnecessary to me. Outside of the time signature being a callback to old-school saved-by-love tracks, the sound really doesn’t do anything to move the track forward.

As much as Rhett would like you to think he’s a rough-edged bad boy who’s been saved by love, we all know better: The man has been one of the slickest performers in the industry for almost a decade now, and no one who’s written that many love songs about his wife can credibly claim “I dang near drug [an angel] through hell.” This is the kind of song best sung by an rougher-edged artist (ideally an “outlaw”-type like Dierks Bentley or Eric Church, but any sort of hard-living good ol’ boy will do), and the worst thing Rhett’s done lately is dump copycat drinking songs on the public. That said, Rhett still has charm to burn, and he’s no stranger to lionizing his partner, so he’s still kinda-sorta in his element here. I think it comes down to market saturation: Rhett has sung so many songs like this that the audience immediately writes it off as something they’ve heard before, and it’s really hard to Rhett to draw their interest, especially when he’s not a great fit for the narrator’s role thanks to his family-oriented persona. It’s a decent performance, but it feels more awkward than it should, and for as many straightforward love songs as he’s dumped on us, he’s actually better when he sticks to his vanilla script.

The lyrics here…well, I’m not quite sure what angle they’re going for here. The song leans into the classic “partner as angel” comparison and goes all-in on spiritual language to describe the relationship, but it doesn’t really give us the context for where the narrator is coming from. There’s plenty of self-flagellation as the narrator chides themselves for their “selfish heart” and their “lessons to learn” and their failure to live life by the book, but the reaction feels a bit over-the-top for such garden-variety faults. I think the track was going for a redemptive angle with the angel saving the speaker despite their shortcomings, but it doesn’t go deep enough and provide enough examples of just how crooked the narrator’s path was (which I think hurts its audience retention numbers; some juicy details would have helped hold the listener’s attention). Instead, we’re left with a standard “I’m not worthy” tale that really that makes just enough of a halfhearted effort at a redemptive arc to make the song feel like a bad fit for Rhett as an artist.

In the end, “Angels” is a pretty “meh” song for me. It’s yet another gooey love song that only kinda-sorta tries to be something different, and its efforts only make the song feel less convincing. The sound doesn’t do enough to push the song’s agenda, the lyrics don’t do enough to strike out in a more interesting direction, and for all the love songs Thomas Rhett has sung, this feels like the least natural fit for him. It’s not a bad song, but it’s not really a good song either, and it contributes to the sense that Rhett seems a little stuck right now, and isn’t quite sure what direction to go next. My two cents is that he should go back to the family angle that made “Life Changes” such an interesting song, and give the uninspired love songs a rest for a while.

Rating: 5/10. It’s a thing, I suppose.

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Carlton Anderson?

Image from Sounds Like Nashville

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 on One-Hit Wonderings is…well, given that it’s been almost a year since I wrote one of these things, I’m calling my own number and breaking my own rules to try to tell the story of a no-hit wonder that seemed poised for country music mediocrity at the very least…and then his debut single hit radio, and Anderson went down both in flames and in history as one of Nashville’s most-botched rollouts:

I ripped this piece of garbage to pieces when I reviewed it back in 2018, and the radio didn’t think much of it either, as it barely reached the Top 50 on Billboard’s airplay chart. One of my favorite lines is that country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone, but apparently the flip side of that argument is that if you don’t find success off the rip, Music City doesn’t have a lot of patience for you. Anderson was quickly voted off the island and disappeared from the mainstream scene, and has barely been heard from since.

So what happened? Why did Anderson flop so hard in his mainstream showcase, and where has he been since then? Let’s see if we can find some answers.

What Went Wrong

Anderson’s origin story is right out of country central casting: A Texas native, he grew up a Willie Nelson fan, cut his teeth on the Lone Star music circuit, attended Belmont University in Nashville, and became a regular on the local songwriting and performing circuit. He signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music in 2015, upgraded to a full-fledged artist deal with Arista Nashville in 2018, and released “Drop Everything” as his debut single in May of that year.

The speed at which Arista dropped Anderson is notable even by Nashville standards, but it’s also worth asking what moved them to sign him in the first place. “Drop Everything” is a unabashed throwback to the neotraditional sound of the 1990s, pairing a rollicking retro-toned guitar with a fiddle (which had already been banished from the radio for a while) and a real drum set, with an organ and steel guitar adding some background atmosphere to the mix. Surely this wasn’t the hot sound of the era…was it? (Honestly, after everything we’ve gone through in the 2020s, I barely remember 2018 at all…)

Looking back at my single reviews for the year, it seems like 2018 was a transitional year for the genre. The Bro-Country and Metropolitan trends were on their way out, but Boyfriend country hadn’t quite taken over, and the Cobronavirus trend was still a few years away from taking root. Instead, the preceding few years had seen a slight resurgence in traditional country music, and while it never quite rose to the level of a trend, there were a few encouraging datapoints:

  • We started to see the rise of acts like Jon Pardi (California Sunrise, 2016), Midland (On The Rocks, 2017), William Michael Morgan (Vinyl, 2016), and Mo Pitney (Behind This Guitar, 2016).
  • Cody Johnson finally cracked the mainstream radio charts with “With You I Am” in 2016 (although he wouldn’t truly break through for another few years), and Aaron Watson would also see his biggest radio success with 2017’s “Outta Style.”
  • After spending most of the decade trapped in MCA purgatory, Josh Turner (the closest comparison to Anderson vocally) re-emerged with “Hometown Girl” in 2016 and released Deep South in 2017.

Put it all together, and you can see where Arista was coming from when they brought Anderson on board. A lot of signs were pointing to a classical country revival, and the label didn’t want to miss the boat. That being said, Arista was also well aware of the trends that had been so dominant in the decade thus far, and thus were also likely wary of alienating modern fans who weren’t keen on the old stuff. In that light, “Drop Everything” was a convenient compromise candidate: With its Metro-Bro writing and its old-school sound, it had something for everyone.

Unfortunately, it also meant that everyone had something they could point to in the track that they didn’t like. I’ll let 2018 Kyle take it from here:

“On one hand, the sound hits my neotraditional nostalgia right in the feels, and Anderson acquits himself incredibly well and demonstrates a lot of potential as an artist. This particular song, however, is pure garbage, as the typical Bro tropes and the narrator’s insufferable attitude completely ruin the song’s atmosphere…all the fiddle breaks and vocal ability in the world can’t cover up a song this slimy, and ‘Drop Everything’ is an unvarnished throwback to everything I despised about the Bro-Country era. This song belongs nowhere near country radio in 2018, and with any luck, Arista will move on to Anderson’s next single sooner rather than later.”

“Song Review: Carlton Anderson, ‘Drop Everything'”, July 27, 2018

Calvin & Hobbes had a great quote years ago that summed up this situation perfectly: “A good compromise leaves everyone mad.” Bro-Country deniers like me couldn’t get past the ugliness of the writing, and Bro-Country lovers couldn’t understand why the sound didn’t sound like “Cruise.” No one could get behind the song 100%, and it flopped hard as a result.

That being said, it’s not like there haven’t been zillions of artists who fell flat on their face out of the gate, and Arista and Anderson had an EP’s worth of tracks that they could draw from to take another shot at the brass ring. (I, for one, would have totally gotten behind a track like “Keep Abilene Beautiful,” and you can’t tell me “Country Music Made Me Do It” wouldn’t have found an audience.) Arista, however, never released another single of Anderson’s, and dropped him from their roster a year later. Why?

I think the biggest issue was that the readings on the tea leaves changed significantly in a short period of time.The dream of a classic country revival was already running out of fuel in 2018, but 2019 was the year that put the final nail in its coffin. Boyfriend country took over in a big way, and acts like Dan + Shay began dominating the airwaves and the mainstream conversation. Acts like Morgan, Pitney, Watson, and Turner vanished from the radio, and though Midland’s managed to stick around, they haven’t had a true radio hit since 2018’s “Burn Out.” Pardi and Johnson are the only ones who are still in the spotlight today, and I would argue that Pardi has made some major concessions to the Nashville meta to maintain his position. In other words, traditional country was pushed to the sidelines once again, limiting Anderson’s upside and pushing Arista to cut its losses.

So Where Is He Now?

Of course, labels drop artists all the time, and although the radio climate made him a risky bet, Anderson was still a young, talented vocalist with plenty of time to work his way back to the big leagues. However, performance opportunities dried up when the pandemic hit, and while he released some music independently in the meantime (he dropped “When Baby Gets A Buzz” late in 2019, and put out an acoustic EP Yours and a separate single “No Place Like You” a year later), the songs were hit-or-miss, and without the muscle of a major label behind them, they didn’t make much of an impact. A bouncier single “Burn Me Down” (a much more palatable take on the “Drop Everything” scenario) came and went in 2022 without anyone giving it a second look.

Now, the last few years have seen artists rise to prominence through the power of social media (for example, Priscilla Block), so why couldn’t Anderson find success through the same channels? My sense is that there are two issues here:

  • Anderson doesn’t seem to be any better at using social media than I am. He hasn’t posted on Twitter in almost two years, he’s an inconsistent poster on Instagram (although his activity picked up a bit at the start of the year), and his TikTok is only now starting to grow with some ‘This Day In Country Music’ videos. There’s still a chance he could find some traction, but it’s going to take more than cover songs to do it.

    The truth is that Anderson has been a tough guy to find any information on this decade. He talked to the Cowboy Lifestyle Network about “When Baby Gets A Buzz” in 2019, had a lengthy profile in Sounds Like Nashville a year later to promote Yours…and that’s pretty much it. He doesn’t seem to be that good at promoting his material in any format, and that really hurts when you’re trying to build an audience.
  • Honestly, I just get the sense that traditional country music remains a small niche in the grand scheme of things that people really aren’t searching for. “Burn Me Down” came out last June, and it has fewer views than my Undercover Brella gear guide from last month. You know that something’s not clicking with the public when my videos can outpace it.

The one major piece of news I can find is Anderson’s Instagram announcement from last July that he had lost his songwriting deal, which puts him right back at square one as far as building a country music career. While he mentions is both the CLN and SLN pieces that he prefers to be independent and be his own boss, there’s a reason so many artists fall in line with the Nashville meta: It puts a marketing machine in their corner to push their material to the top, regardless of how much say they have in what that material is.

So what does the future hold for Carlton Anderson? I don’t know, but I don’t think I see another major label deal in his future (although given his past associations with Cody Johnson, maybe the CoJo label is a possible fit?). The good news is that Anderson still seems to be writing songs; Ben Gallaher (yeah, I don’t know who he is either) has an Anderson cut on his album coming next week. Writing at least allows Anderson to keep a foot in the door, but whether or not he can eventually use it as a springboard back into the mainstream conversation remains an open question.

It’s really a shame: Anderson has a great voice and seemed like a really talented artist, the sort of act that Nashville could really use to diversify their musical offerings in this current climate of conformity. “Drop Everything” may have been terrible, and Anderson’s music may not have fit the era it arrived in, but I think Anderson deserved to be more than a one-and-done artist. Given a bit more time, I think he could have found at least a modicum of an audience for his style of music. Still, getting one shot (as mishandled as it was) is better than getting no shot at all, and for what it’s worth, I’m glad I got the chance to hear from Anderson and discover what he could do. In a perfect world, the rest of the world would get that same opportunity.

Song Review: Jackson Dean, “Fearless”

The only thing we have to fear is…not being interesting enough for people to bother being scared.

Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but Jackson Dean stretched that statement to its absolute limit late last year: I kind of liked Jackson Dean’s debut effort “Don’t Come Lookin’,” but after nearly ten months on the charts it was forced to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (it only made it to #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart). It was the sort of ambiguous result that made almost any follow-up move possible: Would he stick to his rough-edged, free-spirited style, or pivot back towards the Nashville meta to try to grow his audience? We now have the answer with Dean’s follow-up single “Fearless,” and…honestly, I’m not sure how to feel about this one, because I don’t feel a whole lot. He may stick to his guns on the sound, but the execution isn’t as crisp this time around, and the story doesn’t hold my interest as much this time around.

There isn’t a lot the production here: We’ve got an acoustic guitar holding down the verses, some electric guitars that crank up the volume and intensity on the chorus and bridge solo, some steel guitar riffs that add some flavor to the seasoning, and a drum set that jumps in late and doesn’t pack much of a punch, even on the choruses. The things that bugs me the most about this mix is the volume balance: It’s relatively serene and sets a calm mood for the verses, and then suddenly Dean starts screaming into the mic and the whole atmosphere turns raw and moody until the next verse arrives. (I usually scold producers for letting the sound overwhelm the vocals, but here the vocals actually overwhelm the sound, and it’s no less annoying.) It’s a jarring transition that shatters the immersion of the song, and you spend most of the track fiddling with the volume knob trying to keep your ears from bleeding. As far as the vibe, I think it supports Dean’s unpolished persona, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for the song itself: It doesn’t convey any sort of emotion to the audience (no love, no fear, nothing). It’s just an awkward fit for the track, and you can’t help but feel like this mix is an instrument or two short of being complete.

As far as Dean goes, his performance doesn’t have the nuance required to truly sell a song like this. Yes, he’s supposed to be a tough guy who specializes in hiding his feelings, but this song is supposed to be his moment to be vulnerable and scared, and I just don’t get that vibe from him here. Instead, he oscillates between calmly telling us that he’s powerless in the face of his partner and screaming his credentials at us at full volume. (There’s no anger in his delivery, but seriously, the man needs to calm down.) As a result, he struggles to step into the narrator’s shoes and sell their story, and while his bravado reinforces the persona he laid out in “Don’t Come Lookin'” (he does seem pretty fearless), he can’t quite convince the listener to engage with his story. There’s nothing new or interesting to explore here, and while Dean may feel some apprehension about what might happen, he fails to share any of that feeling with his audience.

The lyrics feel a bit unfocused and unbalanced overall, but the general thread is that the narrator, fiercely independent and unmoved by any hardship, has now surrendered control to their partner, and are worried about how the relationship will progress (“maybe you’re the right one…or maybe you’re the one that’s gonna break [my heart]”). The song opens with a random aside about seeing ghosts that doesn’t tie in with the rest of the story at all, and for all the hand-wringing over being afraid, exactly what the narrator is afraid of isn’t fleshed out as much as I would like. Is it the chance that things go could south, as we get in a single line in the first verse? Is it the feeling of powerlessness that consumes the second verse? Given all the credential-brandishing on the chorus, it is fear that they might be changing as a person, or that the only life they know is changing? (I really wish the song had spent less time brandishing said credentials and more time elaborating on the fear that’s ostensibly the center of the song.) I think there’s a good song buried in here somewhere, but what we’ve got right now is a few drafts away from its full potential, and it leaves the listener unimpressed.

“Fearless” is a thing that exists, and while it feels like a logical extension of Jackson Dean’s persona, it also feels like an uneven and haphazard effort from everyone involved. Dean is too loud and not introspective enough, the sound doesn’t really capture the conflict or support the subject matter, and the writing is too scattershot and sidetracked to tell its story effectively. I’m still kinda-sorta bullish on Dean’s prospects in the genre, but he’s got to get better material to work with, songs that can both build his reputation and tell whatever story he’s got with equal success. He’s already taking a chance by being a bit left-of-center from the Music City meta, so next time he and his team need to do a better job hitting their marks.

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

Retro Review: Chad Brock, “Yes!”

Dear artists of Nashville: Don’t be afraid to tell your own story!

A phrase that I’ve used a bunch in reviews over the years is “effectively vague.” The idea is that if you dial back the level of detail in your song and instead paint a picture using broad strokes, more people will say “Hey, that sounds like what I experienced!” and you’ll connect with a larger audience as a result. It’s not a bad strategy on balance, but it relies on the listener to fill in your blanks with their own memories, as if you’re playing a game of Mad Libs, and over time I think this has led to a strain of lowest-common-denominator songwriting, where the only provided details are the approved list of buzzwords you hear in every song. My feelings on the subject are that I already know my own darn story, and I’d rather hear about the artist’s journey through the topic, and how it differs from everyone else’s experience. While there are a few songs today that do this, most only offer a bare-bones framework that the listener has to finish building.

This brings us to the song I’d like to examine today: “Yes!”, the sole #1 and signature song for pro-wrestler-turned-country-artist Chad Brock. Released in 2000, the song served as the second single and title track for Brock’s sophomore album, and was based on the true story of how Brock met his first wife Martie (sadly, it seems the relationship didn’t last long). Over two decades later, the track still holds up as a solid love song, and despite being a fairly specific tale it still resonates with its audience through smart decision-making and solid execution.

First, let’s start with the production, and the cardinal rule for love songs is that they should feel like a love song: Positive, upbeat, energetic, and emotive. The mix here checks all the boxes, opening with a bright fiddle and bouncy electric guitar, leaning on the higher octaves of its piano and organ to give the some a more-expansive atmosphere, and giving every piece of the arrangement ample space to make their voice heard (the exception here is the steel guitar; it doesn’t get much exclusive screen time). The tempo is brisk, the drums drive the song forward without overwhelming the sound, and most importantly they not only set a suitable mood for the track, but the sound even helps pass the good vibes of the writing on to the listener. (The volume balance is also pretty good here—this can be tricky to pull off when the mix is this loud, but here it never feels like the sound gets in the way of the lyrics.) You feel this one as much as you hear it, and when the narrator talks about how much they love their partner, you know exactly what they’re talking about. This is a great mix for this track, and for as much grief as I give producers for bad mixes, whoever put this thing together deserves to stand up and take a bow.

There’s a part of me that is surprised that Brock performs this well on this track, and there’s a part of me that knows I shouldn’t be: Sure he was a pro wrestler, but what is a pro wrestler if not a showman who plays to the crowd? (The various prior occupations of Midland’s members haven’t hurt them either, so it’s unfair to judge someone’s musical prowess based on their resume.) Despite the tempo, the lyrics are fairly relaxed and don’t test the singer’s technical abilities, but as with all love songs it’s imperative that the artist bring the required charm and charisma to the table to let their feelings shine through, and honestly, Brock does this even more effectively than the production does. (Let’s not minimize his technical ability either: It’s the clarity and volume in his voice that truly keeps the production from swallowing up the lyrics, even at its loudest.) There’s a notable cheeriness in his performance (mixed with a dash of wonder), and he does a great job sharing his feelings with the audience and making the narrator a likeable character. Sometimes I think artists today try a bit too hard to be serious when they convey the depth their feelings, but I’d argue an ebullient performance like this does a better job because you can really feel it, and it makes whoever you’re singing to know just how much you make them smile.

Finally, let’s talk about the lyrics, and in particular the first verse, which is a blow-by-blow retelling of how the speaker and their eventual partner met. Meeting via mail being sent to an old address is probably one of the rarer ways to start a relationship, and while not a lot people have that experience firsthand, it’s a distinct and interesting start to the story that catches the listener’s ear early (it’s not quite “a farmer and a preacher, a hooker and a preacher,” but it’s not bad). I wouldn’t call the “Yes!” hook exceptionally strong, but the writers do a decent job tying it into the story (come on, you know the marriage vows are coming), and it’s a perfect summation of the ethos of the song: Unabashedly excited and positive. The song gets a bit more vague and cliché in its second half, but it’s less about buzzwords and more about feelings, and it’s enough to let the sound and singer elevate it with their standout performances. (There’s some actual story progression here as well, and even though it’s just the standard ‘meet to marriage’ thread, it gives the emotions of the track some deeper meaning, and keeps them from feeling shallow or ephemeral.) This song isn’t here to tell our story—it’s here to let us share in their story, and it succeeds.

“Yes!” is exactly what I would say if asked if this was a good song. Through its upbeat sound, its specific writing, and a really nice performance from Chad Brock, this song demonstrates that there are more ways to connect with your audience than being super vague and hoping they recognize the tale as their own. You don’t have to tell someone else’s tale if you can interest people in your own tale, and this track does a great job of connecting with the listener and giving them both insight and the feeling of being in the speaker’s shoes. Sadly, this song was basically the last we heard of Brock (he would never again reach Billboard’s Top Twenty after this), and the happy ending the song implied failed to materialize, but between this song and “Ordinary Life” (and to some extent “Lightning Does The Work”), he left a legacy that still holds up today. My hope is that some of Nashville’s current denizens take note of this legacy, and think about finding their own voice instead of being someone else’s voice for a change.

Rating: 7/10. Should you hear this? I’ll let the title speak for itself.

Song Review: Chris Young, “Looking For You”

It’s safe to say that no one was looking for this song.

I’ll be honest: I straight-up forgot Chris Young was a thing in country music. He’s had some scattered moments over the last decade or so, but he seems to be perpetually stuck on the Nashville B-list, consistently overshadowed by the bigger names in the genre. Of course, it doesn’t help that he’s released some of the blandest material in town over the last half-decade or so (the man has gotten 5/10 scores on five out of six songs that I’ve reviewed here, and the exception was the tire fire that was “Famous Friends”). Sadly, the trend continues on his latest release “Looking For You,” a lukewarm love song that doesn’t do anything to entice the listener to tune in.

The production here is a run-of-the-mill guitar-and-drum arrangement that brings to mind the phrase “Bro-Country-Lite.” Yes, the prominent guitars are acoustic (the electric axes are mostly shoved into the background, and even on the bridge solo they don’t have the volume or energy you might expect), but the punchy drums, deliberate tempo, and token banjo harken back to the early 2010s, and remind me of how Bro-Country tried (and mostly failed) to evolve with the times a few years ago by moving from synthetic to acoustic elements. (The video mentions other instruments, such as a pedal steel, but good luck finding them in this mix.) The instrument tones are bright, but they don’t seem have to much of an impact, and the mix is devoid of any energy and just plods along from start to finish. The only thing that even kinda-sorta catches your ear is the occasional high-pitched guitar riff, and that’s mostly because it feels out of place with the rest of the sound. It’s the sort of arrangement that oozes mild sameness, the sort of song you’ll swear you’ve already heard a hundred time before, and it does nothing to create the sort of romantic atmosphere that the writing requires. It feels like a placeholder mix that needed some serious fine-tuning to suit the mood, and it mostly lulls the listener to sleep as a result.

Young remains one of the better voices in country music, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with here, and he feathers the gas pedal instead of putting his foot down and letting the audience know how he really feels. While this is not a particularly easy song to pull off and Young does well to get through it without breaking a sweat, that’s actually part of the problem: He seems to be holding back a bit in his delivery, and while he seems pretty smitten with the other person, he struggles to let the listener share in those feelings. This easygoing, awkwardly even-keel approach hurts him on the flips side of the coin as well: He really doesn’t sound all that bothered while talking about his life before meeting his future partner, making you wonder why (or how hard) he was looking for them in the first place. He’s just kind of a guy who lucked into something good, and while I’m happy for him, I’m not all that interested in hearing his story.

Of course, it would help if there was an actual story to be told here. The narrator…well, they were looking for a romantic partner, and they found one. That’s pretty much it. The chorus is wasted on overused phrases and imagery that don’t really tell us that much about the relationship, the hook is a weaksauce attempt to tie into the search for romance, and the general lack of detail here is absolutely astounding. The line that really bugs me is when the narrator says “you were so original”…and then proceeds to tell us nothing about what makes the other person so original. (I already know what my retro review is going to be this week, because I’m really tired of this fill-in-the-blank style of writing that forces the listener to provide the details that the song omits.) The bars, the sunset, the “up all night long”…we’ve been here a thousand times before, and there’s nothing here that lets this song stand out and stand on its own. By the second verse (which is really only half of one), the listener is completely tuned out, and no amount of looking is going to bring them back.

“Looking For You” is one of those tracks that can’t justify its own existence, one that tries so hard to get you to tell your own story that it never tells one of its own. The production is some reheated Bro leftovers that don’t fit the song’s vibe, Chris Young doesn’t bring enough emotion or charisma to the table to hold the audience’s attention, and the writing manages to come up about ten drafts of a decent story despite the fact that they’re copying someone else’s story anyway. The whole thing feels like a halfhearted endeavor, a feeble attempt to remind the world that Young still exists. The sad part is that in this regard, it succeeds: We’re reminded just how bland and boring the man’s work has been over the last half-decade, and the harsh truth that emerges is that we haven’t missed him at all.

Rating: 5/10. Zzzzzz…

Retro Review: Sawyer Brown, “The Walk”

I debated for the longest time whether to review this song or Patty Loveless’s “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” but the points I want to make are pretty similar for both tracks, so feel free to replace one with the other while you’re reading this.

Modern country music is missing a lot of things compared to its predecessors, but one of the biggest omissions from today’s tracks is maturity, or any sense of perspective born of experience. The artists may get older (heck, people like Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are now in their mid-forties), but their music never does: Everyone is still eighteen, every night is still Friday night, and everyone still drinks and hooks up like they haven’t got a care in the world. There just aren’t many (any?) songs that deal with adult concerns and offer advice on how to deal with them (or even reassurance that they will deal with them, no matter how bad they seem), and there certainly aren’t any songs that put together an elaborate three-act play to make their case.

These kind of songs and setups were a bit more common back in the neotraditional era, and a good example of this is “The Walk,” a 1991 Sawyer Brown single that kick-started the band’s second act and was one of those late-single surprises that gets added to a subsequent disc to capitalize on its success (it was originally on the group’s Buick album, but was added to their next project Dirt Road as well). Fundamentally, it’s a song about the circle of life, and how those that come before us can provide guidance and perspective on tasks they went through themselves, even as they age out of that caregiving, decision-making role and we age into it. It’s the sort of strong take-home message that makes a song both enjoyable and practical, and it give the listener something to hold on to long after Friday night has passed and the liquor has worn off.

The production makes some interesting choices with its presentation, and for the most part I’d say they pay off. Despite the more-serious nature of the song, the dominant instruments here (acoustic and electric guitar, keyboard, mandolin, and even the drum set) have a brighter tone and a lighter touch, giving the song a spacious, reflective feel that invites the listener to think about the lyrics and their own similar experiences. It also emphasizes (for lack of a better term) the safety of the moment, reminding the narrator and the audience that things are not as scary as they seem and will generally work out in the end. The mix also doesn’t ramp up as much on the choruses as you’d expect, and in fact it pulls back during the last verse, letting the mandolin take the lead and giving the sound a soft-yet-fragile feel, helping to drive home the plot twist and adding some extra poignancy to the moment. It’s not the piano-heavy, super-serious mix that you might expect from a song like this (it’s certainly what we would get on a song like this in 2023), but it works by keeping the focus on the lyrics and providing some sonic reassurance that no matter the obstacle, it’s been confronted before, and it’s always worked out.

Lead singer Mark Miller was only 32 (i.e. the same age as Luke Combs is now, and far younger than Aldean or Bryan) when “The Walk” was released, but there’s a gravitas to his performance here that allows him to sell the story (and in truth, you don’t have to be that old to get through the first two verses credibly). The best word I could use to describe Miller’s performance here is controlled: He doesn’t shout or over-sing his lines, and instead opts for a measured tone that feels right for someone telling a story like this one (especially with the confidence of hindsight that yes, things really did turn out okay). Lots of artists struggle with this approach because they work so hard to restrain themselves that they don’t put any feeling behind their delivery at all, but Miller finds the sweet spot on this track, and he’s able to convey that the stories mean something to him without getting overly worked up or emotional about it. (As far as the band goes, they don’t contribute much of anything vocally, but they at least have a hint of a signature sound that distinguishes them from a bunch of session players, even if that sound isn’t as recognizable as, say, Diamond Rio’s.) It’s a performance that gives off an air of experience and wisdom, which is more than most country artists today could pull off.

The writing shows off the typical three-act story construction that was common of the era: The story begins with an innocuous tale of youth with a generalized message, the second verse shows us a later moment (usually late-teenage or young adult years) in which the original message still holds sway, and the third verse (which most songs don’t even get nowadays) introduces a heavier plot twist in which tragedy and/or death become involved but still reinforce the universality of the message. In this case, the narrator starts with a reluctant trip to school (a reassuring father says they’ve been there before and it will be fine), follows it up with the moment the narrator leaves home (a reassuring father says they’ve been there before and it will be fine), and then tosses us a curveball where the father now has to be taken to a nursing home (amazingly, the reassuring father says they’ve been there before and insists that it will still be fine). The wise father figure is the key here, and their steady hand and wealth of experience makes them a likeable and sympathetic character, making the knife twist in Act III cut that much deeper. While part of me wonders if such a zen response to leaving the family home would be believable (you’re not getting my dad out of the old homestead without a tranquilizer gun), but the fact that they understand what the speaker is going through and are trying to make it as painless a process as possible makes them even more likeable and sympathetic, which in turn makes the situation even more powerful and harder to bear. All the while, the message comes through loud and clear: We may fear the unknown (especially when we’re young), but quite often these roads are more well-traveled than we realize, and there are those around us who “took this same walk with my old man” and are willing to guide us along our own journey. The story can be a bit light on details at times (the second verse in particular felt a little sparse), but it’s a engaging tale with a strong message, and there’s simply nothing like it on the radio today.

The older I get, the more I find that songs like “The Walk” are what I want out of country music: They have something to say that’s worth hearing, and might even help you out in a pinch someday. Instead of drinking yourself into a stupor to avoid confronting your problems, this song encourages you to face them head on, and that many who have come before you (including some in your family) have walked this same path and can help you along the way. The sound encourages thoughtful pondering, the writing has a lot that’s actually worth pondering, and Sawyer Brown wraps up it all up into a palatable package that’s simply a joy to listen to. Nashville may be chasing an audience that’s eternally young and thrill-seeking, but eventually time catches up to us all, and it would be nice to have more songs that gave us an adult perspective on things, something we could use long after the music stops and the bottles are empty. We may not get songs like this anymore, but at least we got them once, and that’s just going to have to do.

Rating: 10/10. Sawyer Brown’s got a lot of good stuff hidden in their discography, and this is one of their best.

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “Drinkaby”

*sigh* I thought the reason I gave up the Pulse was to avoid junk like this.

I used to be a fan of Cole Swindell’s output, but I found his work to be scattershot and unfocused, as if he and his team couldn’t quite figure what sort of artist they wanted him to be. I even wrote the man an open letter imploring him to settle on a musical direction so that he could move forward in his career. Well, it seems that he’s made his decision, and like the legion of Splatoon 3 players that make up the Splash-o-matic army, Swindell will be following the meta to the letter to maximize his success.

Whether this was a good or bad decision depends on the metrics you’re concerned about. There’s no denying that commercially Swindell is have more success than ever, with songs like “Single Saturday Night,” “Never Say Never,” and “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” going as far as cracking the Top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Quality-wise, however, Swindell’s releases have never been worse, trading in the sevens and eights he was getting for fives and fours, and his latest single “Drinkaby” might well be the worst one yet. It pretty much combines everything I hate about modern country music (bland soundalike production, sound/writing mismatches, overdone tropes, nihilistic attitudes, laundry-list buzzword-laden lyrics, etc.) into a single track, and the results aren’t pretty.

Let’s start with the production, which goes all out in a party-hardy direction that feels inappropriate for what the song’s actually taking about. The instruments are exactly what you’d expect, and nothing more: Some rough-toned hard-rock guitars, an in-your-face drum set, a keyboard or two floating around in the background, and that’s it. (The good news is that while the mix would be a prime candidate for creating an impenetrable wall of noise with those guitars, it doesn’t because there’s literally nothing else here to bleed together.) Even if we set aside how badly this thing fails the context test (the lyrics talk about how the tale is “sadder than a steel in a country song”…but there’s no steel, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, or even an acoustic guitar anywhere to be found), this is yet another example of a song that just flips a long, stiff middle finger at the writing and cranks up the noise and energy to create an bouncy, positive atmosphere regardless of whether or not the song warrants it, and this song definitely doesn’t. The narrator is supposed to be putting on a brave face to escape the pain of a breakup, but the party vibes are so strong here that you get the sense that the narrator is actually glad that the relationship is over so that they can go out and drink and hook up. It just feels like a series or bad decisions, and as a result we’re left with a forceful-but-bland sound that works against the track instead of working with it.

Swindell is stuck in a similar spot: I still think he’s a good enough performer that he could credibly thread the needle between the pain and pleasure that the song really calls for, but instead he simply follows the producer’s cue and goes all-in on the party vibe. There’s no emotion in his voice that suggests any concern or sadness over the relationship ending, but he sure sounds excited to drink himself onto the floor and score with the hottie he just met! He paints himself in a terrible light here, as his lack of concern for the breakup and his enthusiasm for activities well-known for causing breakups make him the clear villain of the story despite no such implication in the writing, and he becomes a much less likeable or sympathetic character as a result. I also think that there’s nothing truly distinguishing about this performance—it’s certainly not an exceptional sales job, and if you put any other product of Nashville’s faceless young male assembly line behind the mic, very little would change. It’s just not a good look for Swindell, and it’s frustrating to hear because you know he can be better than this.

Then we get to the lyrics, and to start, who the heck thought the word/hook “Drinkaby” was a good idea? It’s the dumbest made-up word I’ve heard in a country song since “REDNECKER,” and trying to use it as a verb just sounds awful. The plot is about as basic and predictable as you can imagine: The narrator’s former partner has left (that’s all we know; the breakup only gets about two lines of total airtime), and in response the narrator has resolved to drink their face off and “get lucky…with a 10 from Mississippi.” The song feels really poorly-constructed at points: The attempt to shoehorn “Kentucky” into the song for a rhyme is beyond forced, the opening “I got a song, and I’m bout to sing it” feels like a placeholder that was never replaced, and of course the laundry list of liquors that make up the pre-chorus opener (side note: Every lyric site I see says it’s “Kilo Kai apple pie,” but it sounds like “‘quila lime apple pie” to me). The low point of the track has to be the attempt to mimic “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say A Word” on the bridge, as parodying a classic lullaby with alcohol-related lyrics make it feel both super sketchy and super cringe. Basically, I hate everything about the writing on this track, and the four lunkheads that wrote this drivel (yep, you guessed it: HARDY’s fingerprints are all over this thing) need to have their pens taken away until further notice.

“Drinkaby” is quite simply a colossal failure on every level, from its ill-fitting one-note production to Cole Swindell’s sunny-yet-sleazy turn behind the mic to writing that goes out of its way to make every mistake in the book. That said, none of this was done without intention: This is the kind of song that people want from country radio these days, and despite Swindell having the talent to rise above this sort of tire fire, he’d rather get burned in hopes of getting to cash big checks. It’s a sad state of affairs, one that pushes good artists to make bad decisions to make bank, and while I can’t blame them for their decisions, I can’t say I respect those decisions much either.

Cole Swindell made his choice. He chose poorly.

Rating: 3/10. Get that garbage outta here!

Retro Review: Clint Black, “One More Payment”

It’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses and turn a critical eye towards one of my favorite artists.

Tell people you’re a Randy Travis fan, and you’ll get a lot of nods of agreement. Tell people you’re a Clint Black fan, however, and the reaction is a bit more mixed: Despite a fast start out of the gate, Black was eventually pushed aside in favor of some of his fellow Class of ’89 members (Try this: Tell someone you’re a Clint fan, and see if they know who you’re talking about. You’ll have no such trouble with, say, “Garth” or “Alan”). Why this happened is hard to say, but Clint Black insisted on writing or co-writing all of his own material back in the day (a rarity at the time, although everyone does it know), and while he was masterful as turning a phrase, he could sometimes get himself in trouble by trying to be too clever by half and muddling his message in the process.

The song under the microscope today is “One More Payment,” which was released in 1991 as the third single from his Put Yourself In My Shoes album, and at #7 on Billboard’s airplay chart, it actually wound up being his worst-performing single until his 1997 collab with Martina McBride “Still Holding On.” The song is a bit of a mishmash of conflicting ideas, an attempt at a working man’s lament that doesn’t quite capture the laugh-to-keep-from-crying atmosphere of, say, Travis Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy On The Working Man” (another Class of ’89 member, btw). It’s one of Black’s weaker singles, and not a must-hear if you’re working through his discography.

The production here is pretty standard fare for the neotraditional meta of the early 1990s: Guitars and drums forming the foundation (in fact, the acoustic axe is used like a percussion instrument during the verses, only providing choppy strums on the second and fourth beats), with a fiddle, steel guitar, and slick electric guitar filling in any space not covered by the lyrics (the pedal steel appears to be the first option, but it splits the bridge solo with the fiddle). With its bright instrument tones and brisk tempo, there’s a real bounce to the sound here, giving the song a serious Western swing feel that was less common for the era. The problem, however, is that the mix goes all in on the positivity, which doesn’t fit terribly well with the subject matter. At its core, the narrator is lamenting their bad luck regarding…well, everything, and having such an upbeat and cheery mix behind them hurts their credibility (are they really broken up about all this?). It just doesn’t feel like the right mood for a song like this, and when combined with the ambiguity of the message, the listener really isn’t sure how to feel when the song ends. I like a good Bob Wills throwback as much as anyone, but I don’t think this was the right track to try it on.

Black runs into the same problem with the vocals: He just sounds so darn happy talking about his roof caving in and his mortgage being foreclosed on, and it just makes things feel a bit off. I’ve always found him to have a lot of charm and charisma (although perhaps not on the same level as Garth), but it feels misplaced here. His openness and interest in commiserating gives him the air of a glad-handing politician, but much like some elected officials you really don’t get the sense that he actually shares in the pain that he talks about. I’d prefer to see a bit more seriousness in this performance, to give the audience the sense that for all the merriment in the song, these are real problems that cause him some real heartburn. Instead, the listener isn’t able to connect with Black over the song, and don’t engage as much with the song as a result. It just feels like a case of clashing motivations: Black wants to get you moving like you’re in an old-school dance hall, but he also wants to connect with his audience on a deeper level over the problems they’re facing, and he only gets half way (up) there on this song.

Then we get to lyrics, and honestly, for as much as Black’s clever witticisms shine through (“that banker’s bound to foreclose, at this rate I’ll lose my interest in this town” is just sublime), the song not only doesn’t seem to have much to say, but also seems a little confused as to what it’s trying to say at all. It starts with crumbling cars and houses and the rising costs of life in general, but then pivots to proclaim that he’s on top of everything and that “I’ve got one more payment and it’s mine,” which suggests some weird feeling of pride tied into it all (“It’s a piece of junk, but it’s my piece of junk, darn it!”), and then awkwardly pivots again to try and tie romantic relationships into the whole mess (which honestly doesn’t make any sense at all), and it leaves the listener wondering what the heck the point of this whole exercise was. Black’s tracks often have something deeper or meaningful to say (and if they don’t, at least they make it clear from the start), and this song feels very scattershot by comparison, trying to tie together a few vaguely-related ideas and hope that the witty lines earn the performers a pass from the audience. To some degree they do (and they certainly did back when I first discovered the song), but if I’m putting my critic’s hat on here, this song simply falls short of its goal.

“One More Payment” isn’t a bad song, but when you’re looking into Clint Black’s discography, it doesn’t distinguish itself as a must-hear tune. Black certainly does his best to convince you to have a good time, and the Western swing vibe of the sound doesn’t hurt matters, but a good time isn’t really the reason you listen to one of Black’s songs or albums. If you’re looking for some serious poetry with a little something extra behind it, this track won’t quite get you there. Great wordplay can only get you so far, and if you don’t have a clear destination in mind, your audience is eventually going to wander off and fins their own path.

Rating: 5/10. There are lots of Clint Black songs you should hear…but this isn’t one of them.