Retro Review: Garth Brooks, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)”

(No YouTube video here because, well, you know how much Garth loves YouTube.)

“Garth Brooks is destroying country music.” It was a common refrain back in the early 1990s, as Brooks was tearing up the charts, lighting up the radio, and delivering a massive shot of energy through his live shows. Looking back, the critique feels a little misplaced, and not just because recent trends like Bro-Country feel like they’ve done far more damage than anything Brooks done. Going through his early single releases, his songs were pretty standard fare, ranging from the Western swing of “Not Counting You” to the barroom rancor of “Friends In Low Places” to the darker drama of “Papa Loved Mama” and “The Thunder Rolls.” Even the Bill Joel cover “Shameless” didn’t stray all that far from the meta of the time: The guitars may have been a little louder and little more prominent, but not egregiously so. So what was the catalyst for the Brooks backlash?

Brooks’s lively (and widely-televised) stage antics certainly played a role in this sentiment (my dad never truly forgave Brooks for smashing a guitar on stage), but I’d argue that there was one song in particular that turned many purists against him: “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up),” the 1993 #1 leadoff single from his In Pieces album. This was a very different sort of song than people in Nashville were used to, and it was not shy about letting you know. Different,’ however, does not necessarily mean bad, and while I wouldn’t rank it among Brooks’s best work, it’s a solid, well-executed effort that might be one of the best showcases of Brooks’s talents within his discography.

From a production standpoint, this thing hits you in the face with a hard-charging electric guitar stolen from a rock band, and it doesn’t let up until the song is over. There really isn’t a ton to the mix beyond that: The drum line is constant but not elaborate, a keyboard floats around in the background, and a harmonica jumps in to share the lead duties with the guitar, but that’s pretty much all you get from the arrangement. What it lacks in quantity, however, it makes up for in sheer energy: When an instrument has the spotlight, it gives it everything it’s got, giving the song a ton of momentum that will bowl you over if you’re not ready for it. (This sort of approach would normally overwhelm the lyrics as well, but the producer tones things down a bit when Brooks is singing to allow the listener to follow along.) It’s this energy and momentum that allows to connect with its audience, letting you feel the power behind the track even if you’re not a fan of the sound. This sort of kinda-sorta sex jam doesn’t usually get some heavy-handed approach, but the tones are generally bright and the vibes are positive, which at least gives the relationship a ‘fun’ feel that most love songs seem to avoid these days.) It’s an interesting approach, and I kind of wish there a little bit more to it, but it certainly gets your attention and stands out from its peers.

I don’t feel like Brooks gets a ton of credit for his singing abilities (I usually highlight his everyman charisma in my own reviews), but this is one of the most impressive vocal performances on a technical level that I’ve ever heard. This thing is as close to rapping as country music got in the 90s—it’s rapid-fire from start to finish (especially on the verses and bridge), and Brooks flies through the entire thing without missing a syllable. (I’d be really interested in knowing how many takes it took to record this.) The narrator serves as a neutral third-party storyteller, but Brooks cranks up the energy on this performance, combining an upbeat performance with his usual charm to make sure the audience knows that he finds the story important (and thus they should to). Old-school country fans might be put off by this delivery, but honestly I’d argue it helps cover for the song by glossing over what’s going on in the lyrics—there’s some hot steamy sex going on here, but you don’t have time to catch your breath with this song, much less ruminate over the writing. Brooks’s speed and skill help elevate this beyond a standard night out on the country, and that’s the mark of a great artist.

The writing…well, there isn’t a whole lot to the writing, either figuratively or literally. There may be two verses, three choruses, and a bridge, but when pared with this kind of tempo, the song is basically over by the two-minute mark (it’s perfect for the streaming era!). There’s enough space here to tell a story, and the song goes into great detail as to what’s going on, but the story isn’t all that interesting in the end (a couple takes a nighttime drive in a truck and makes love for half the night? This thing really would fit into today’s meta). I do like that you can really visualize each scene, but I also wonder if that contributed to the Brooks backlash, as the truck-rocking “hard romancin'” probably alienated a lot of folks in a genre that’s always had a strong prudish streak. Like everything else about this song, the writing pulled no punches and told you exactly what was going on, and while its construction was ahead of its time (and honestly might still be; Bro-Country tracks tended to be slower and more-deliberate, and country songs in general rarely run at this speed), it was overly-reliant on the other pieces of the song to make it interesting.

I think “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)” stands as the most polarizing entry in Garth Brooks’s discography (and that’s saying something given that, you know, Chris Gaines exists). With its blazing fast sound, plainspoken-yet-detailed writing, and Brooks fighting through the chaos to hold the whole thing together, everything about this track is raw, bold, and in your face, and while it energized a lot of his fanbase, it also cemented him as a supervillain in the eyes of many listeners as well. I’m not a massive fan of the song’s limp story, but the sound and singer are so on point that you can’t help but get taken in by the whole package. My main issue is that the song cast a long shadow over an artist who was so much more than the guy who smashes guitars and flies through the air, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s part of the reason why a guy who sold hundreds of millions of albums doesn’t seem to have the strong legacy that people like George Strait and Alan Jackson do. Garth was a darn good country singer, and while it’s darn hard to prove it without YouTube, Spotify, or iTunes, I’m more than happy to preach his gospel a little.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out, and then check out more of his stuff too! Provided you can find it…

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country…Gold?

It’s time to find out what radio has gotten from the seeds it sowed.

I gave up charting the Pulse of mainstream country music at the end of 2022, but I still pick up a Country Aircheck from the newsstand now and again to check in on the state of the radio and see if there are any interesting discussions going on in the format. This week, however, CA had a extra chart in the form of their semi-annual analysis of the Power Gold rotations, seeing which songs have survived their stints in current and recurrent rotations and have achieved some measure of longevity.

As I perused the chart, I suddenly realized that I’d run this darn blog for so long that I’d actually reviewed a whole bunch of songs on the Power Gold list. After gushing over and whining about so many songs for so long, I was curious: Just what impact has the last six years and change had on the long-term charts? No. 1 songs are a dime a dozen now, so which chart-toppers are still hits and which ones have been forgotten? I wasn’t impressed by the current rotations when I stopped the Pulse, so are Gold charts any better?

There’s only one way to find out: Scour the charts, see how many of the songs had been reviewed on the blog, and tabulate the scores! Without further ado…

Chart RankingArtist, SongRating
1Lee Brice, “One Of Them Girls”-1 (4/10)
2Gabby Barrett, “I Hope”+2 (7/10)
3Sam Hunt, “Body Like A Back Road”-1 (4/10)
7Parmalee ft. Blanco Brown, “Just The Way”0 (5/10)
9Maren Morris, “The Bones”0 (5/10)
10Thomas Rhett, “What’s You Country Song”0 (5/10)
12Russell Dickerson, “Love You Like I Used To”0 (5/10)
13Morgan Wallen, “Whiskey Glasses”-1 (4/10)
14Jason Aldean, “Girl Like You”0 (5/10)
15Kane Brown ft. Lauren Alaina, “What Ifs”0 (5/10)
16Luke Combs, “Lovin’ On You”+2 (7/10)
17Kenny Chesney, “Get Along”0 (5/10)
19Chase Rice, “Eyes On You”0 (5/10)
21Dustin Lynch, “Small Town Boy”-2 (3/10)
24Blake Shelton, “God’s Country”-2 (3/10)
25Dustin Lynch, “Ridin’ Roads”-2 (3/10)
26Blake Shelton, “A Guy With A Girl”0 (5/10)
27Luke Combs, “When It Rains It Pours”+3 (8/10)
29Luke Bryan, “One Margarita”0 (5/10)
32Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me”+2 (7/10)
36Sam Hunt, “Kinfolks”-2 (3/10)
38Billy Currington, “Do I Make You Wanna”+1 (6/10)
39Jordan Davis, “Singles You Up”-3 (2/10)
42Dan + Shay & Justin Bieber, “10,000 Hours”-2 (3/10)
44Dierks Bentley, “Living”+2 (7/10)
45Luke Combs, “Beer Never Broke My Heart”+1 (6/10)
47Eli Young Band, “Love Ain’t”-1 (4/10)
49Luke Combs, “One Number Away”+1 (6/10)
51Chris Janson, “Good Vibes”-1 (4/10)
54Old Dominion, “Hotel Key”+1 (6/10)
55Bebe Rexha ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Meant To Be”-1 (4/10)
56Blake Shelton & Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You”0 (5/10)
57Luke Bryan, “Down To One”0 (5/10)
58Luke Combs, “Better Together”0 (5/10)
60Russell Dickerson, “Blue Tacoma”0 (5/10)
62Thomas Rhett, “Unforgettable”+2 (7/10)
63Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen”+2 (7/10)
68Kane Brown, “Heaven”+1 (6/10)
71Jason Aldean, “You Make It Easy”+1 (6/10)
77Morgan Wallen, “Chasin’ You”0 (5/10)
78Dan + Shay, “Tequila”0 (5/10)
80Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot”+2 (7/10)
81Luke Bryan, “Most People Are Good”+1 (6/10)
82Lee Brice, “Rumor”0 (5/10)
87Morgan Wallen, “More Than My Hometown”-1 (4/10)
88Luke Combs, “Beautiful Crazy”+1 (6/10)
90Jameson Rodgers, “Some Girls”0 (5/10)
91Gabby Barrett, “The Good Ones”0 (5/10)
92Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Happy Anywhere”+1 (6/10)
93Niko Moon, “GOOD TIME”-1 (4/10)
96Scotty McCreery, “This Is It”+1 (6/10)
98Chris Lane, “Big, Big Plans”+1 (6/10)
Overall Score (52 tracks)+7*
*This was all pulled from CA manually and calculated by hand, so there’s bound to be an error in the data somewhere…

Honestly, +7 is better than I expected. So what conclusions can we draw from this dataset?

  • The songs that last seem to be ones that move people (for better or worse). Zeros may remain the most-common score among these songs, but they’re nowhere near as dominant as they were on the current charts. There are a lot more +/- 2s here than I expected (and even a +3 and -3 for good measure), and despite the clunkers present here, at least the songs inspire some sort of reaction, which might hopefully encourage the powers that be in Nashville to break out of their mediocre malaise and take some big swings with their releases in hopes of finding some staying power.
  • Things don’t appear to be getting better for women in country music. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are still the standard-bearers for women in this genre, but they’re down to a collective three songs on the Power Gold 100, and there aren’t many people coming up to replace them: Bebe Rexha is irrelevant in country music, Maren Morris has struggled ever since “The Bones,” and while Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” probably has staying power, “The Good Ones” probably doesn’t, and “Pick Me Up” took nearly a year just to peak at #6 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Unless Kelsea Ballerini can catch lightning in a bottle or Lainey Wilson can maintain her momentum, I foresee female representation getting worse on this chart in the short-term, with few chances to recover in the long run.
  • If we’ve already seen peak Luke Combs, what a peak it was. This chart provides a snapshot of just how dominant Combs was in the back half of the 2010s, and while his output is noticeably weaker these days (he only released three songs from Growin’ Up, and while they did well, they weren’t the monster hits of his earlier albums), he’s got a significant presence here that ensures that we’ll be hearing a lot from him for a good long time (and since his scores tend to be slightly positive, that’s not a bad thing). Sadly, two Dustin Lynch clunkers are here too, which means that he’s not going away anytime soon either…

Basically, as far as the newer old stuff goes, the Power Gold playlists aren’t in bad shape just yet. However, the trend line felt like it really took a nosedive over the last two years, so the more-interesting charts will be the ones in 2024 and 2025, when the mountain of blandness we’re climbing now becomes eligible for these lists. These additions aren’t stellar overall, but they’re not bad either, so…enjoy them while you can, I suppose.

Song Review: George Birge, “Mind On You”

Hypocrisy, thy name is George Birge.

If you feel like you’ve heard this guy before, you might be right: Birge may be making his radio debut as a solo artist, but he spent the better part of the 2010s as part of a duo called Waterloo Revival (which never managed to crack the Top 50 on Billboard’s airplay chart), and then had a bit of a moment in 2021 with “Beer Beer, Truck Truck,” an expansion of a 2020 TikTok song that poked fun Music City’s rigid beer/truck meta. Birge’s song attempted to claim that country music “ain’t all beer, beer, truck, truck, girls in them tight jeans,” but two years later, not only has his claim proved to be wrong, but also disingenuous: “Mind On You” is a forgettable cookie-cutter track that adheres to the meta tighter than a pair of jeans, revealing Birge to be just another cog in the machine that he claimed wasn’t there.

The writing might be the obvious place to start this critique, but the production actually adheres to the meta even more closely than the writing! This mix is a paint-by-numbers guitar-and-drum mix with absolutely nothing to distinguish it: The acoustic guitars carry the melody, the electric guitar provide some background noise and cover the bridge solo, the steel guitar fills some space here and there, and that’s pretty much it. (There’s a piano in here somewhere too, but it’s stuck deep in the background and barely audible.) The only thing that even marginally stands out is the percussion, and it’s for all the wrong reasons: Synthetic beats may have fallen out of favor recently, but this one’s got a prominent drum machine that dominates the verses and supports the drum set that jumps in on the first chorus (if you guessed that Grady Smith’s favorite snap track is here, you’re right). The beat makes this thing feel like a leftover album cut from the Bro-Country era, and the darker instrument tones and regular minor chords make this thing feel like a rejected Jason Aldean track, a song that feels far more ominous than romantic (not to mention far more creepy than sensual). If the producer’s goal was to make the song disappear into the background and get people to not notice it, congratulations; otherwise, whoever put this drivel together needs to have their mixing board taken away.

Of course, making making people ignore this song is the best-case scenario, because Birge sounds absolutely terrible here. He’s got a nasally voice that manages to make even Jon Pardi sound good in comparison, and while he’s passable in his upper range, he’s got absolutely zero tone in his lower register, and listening him repeat the “mind on you” is like rubbing sandpaper on your ears. He doesn’t demonstrate much charm or charisma either, and comes across as a creepy-yet-faceless dudebro that isn’t interested in romance at all. He’s far more interested in (ahem) a physical connection, but honestly there isn’t a ton of passion behind his delivery either, suggesting that he’s not interested in playing the long game—this is a devil-may-care hookup that will fizzle out by daybreak. It’s just a really bad look for Birge, and certainly not the kind of first impression you want to make in front of an audience. Where Vern Gosdin demonstrated the benefits of having a good vocalist behind the mic, Birge showcases the potential pitfalls of putting a bad one on your track.

*sigh* And then we get to the lyrics…

“It ain’t all beer, beer, truck, truck
Girls in them tight jeans
Small town, ridin’ ’round…”

Wait, aren’t those from “Beer Beer, Truck Truck”?

They are…and the problem is that “truck truck, girl in them tight jeans” is the entire plot of “Mind On You”: The narrator is driving around (“on a two-lane…cuttin’ through the night,” of course) with a girl wearing tight jeans, and the pair is getting handsy and anticipating a round of hot sex. There may not be any beer to speak of (in truth the word “truck” is avoided too, but it’s heavily implied), but not only are there more than enough other tropes tossed in here to fill the gap, but I’d argue that a lack of alcohol is actually evidence of stronger adherence to the meta, not less (I feel like I’ve used lines like “There’s no alcohol, but…” a lot in reviews recently). There are a lot of other missing pieces here as well: There’s no story to speak of, no depth to the characters, and nothing to set this junk apart from the fifteen thousand other songs that have driven down this exact two-lane road. It’s a track with zero imagination that winds up being boring beyond belief, and if the fact that it took four people to put this thing together isn’t a stinging indictment of Nashville’s current songwriting cabal, I don’t know what is.

“Mind On You” is a complete and utter failure, and as the absolute last song you want to use to break a new artist onto the radio. With its stock production, generic lyrics, and an awful showing from George Birge, this feels like a track that was built by gluing together whatever was lying on the cutting room floor of the studio. Nothing here is worth listening to, and I don’t see this changing Birge’s fortunes on the radio. The best place for this song is the trash can, and if Birge isn’t more careful about selecting material in the future, his career will be in that same can before lone.

Rating: 3/10. Nope.

Retro Review: Vern Gosdin, “If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)”

Blake Shelton may be associated with The Voice these days, but there’s only one true “Voice” in country music.

Nashville is a young man’s town, but it’s certainly seen its share of aging stars extend their careers into their fifties (see: Alan Jackson, George Strait). When this happens, however, it’s usually someone who’s a known quantity, someone who’s been a star for several decades and is well-known by country music fans. Vern Gosdin, in contrast, is a bit of an outlier: He didn’t reach the Top 10 until he was in his early forties, didn’t get his first #1 until he was fifty, and the generally-accepted peak of his career (1988-89) occurred when Gosdin was in his mid-fifties. Old guys generally don’t walk in and dominate like this if they weren’t already dominant, and while part of his success can be attributed to the rise of the neotraditonal movement at the time, part of it was because…well, there’s a reason Gosdin is known as “The Voice.” The man could flat-out sing the heck out of a country song, (especially an old-school tearjerker), and remains a revered figure in the genre despite his late-blossoming career.

Today, we shine the spotlight on Gosdin’s first visit to the Top 5, by way of the leadoff single and title track of his 1983 album, “If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right).” It’s the sort of slow, measured song that would stand absolutely zero chance on the radio today, which is too bad because it’s also one of my favorite Gosdin tracks, and a well-executed effort that demonstrates exactly why he earned his notable nickname.

The first thing that jumps out at you with the production is the near-complete inversion of the genre’s usual instruments. There are guitars and drums here, to be sure, but their roles are minuscule here. The acoustic guitar is pushed deep into the background in favor of a somber barroom piano and a full-throated string section, the electric guitars don’t show up until the bridge/chorus, and the steel guitar adds a few space-filling riffs starting on the second verse. The drums are also very sparse here, mostly leaning on regular cross-stick hits and only briefly upgrading to regular snare strikes during the bridge (and barely adding even a minor flourish when the rest of the mix swells up). The primary instrument here is “The Voice,” and the rest of the arrangement is very careful not to get in Gosdin’s way (they’re only allowed to pump up the volume when Gosdin isn’t singing or is backed up by the harmony singers). The overall tone of the song is neutral and measured, and does a good job supporting the writing by reflecting the resignation and “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude of the narrator. It’s a bit unorthodox as far as country mixes go, but it gets the job done.

The vocal here are a great example of how much difference a singer can make for a song. We’ll talk more about the lyrics in the next section, but when looking through the narrator’s lines you get a strong sense of defeatism, and the sort of let-it-happen nihilism that I ripped to pieces when reviewing the atrocious “Heaven By Then.” Yet I’ve never reacted that violently to this song, and still don’t even now. Why? Gosdin in the primary answer here: He somehow manages to infuse his lines with palpable pain and emotion while also saying measured and generally dispassionate. There’s an inherent weariness in his performance that really makes you feel for the guy, and you get the sense that this was not a state or a decision he reached lightly: This has been a thorn in his side for a long time, and the narrator has already cycled through the five stages of grief and is ready for everyone to move on with their lives (which is exactly what I want all of these Ex-Boyfriend narrators to do). This is why the decision about who to put behind the mic on your song matters: A skilled singer can make mediocre material good and good material great, and paper over any potential pitfalls left by the writing. It also answers the question about how Gosdin found success at a relatively-advanced age: When “The Voice” is this good, age really is just a number.

The lyrics here put an interesting twist on the classic cheating song: The narrator actually makes suggestions as to how best attract and communicate with their soon-to-be-ex-partner’s suitor, proclaiming if they’re going to cheat, there’s no point in doing it halfway. It’s the rare song that doesn’t really have a chorus, with the “if you’re gonna do me wrong, do it right” hook being the only part of the song getting repeated multiple times (luckily, it’s a decent hook whose wrong/right contrast makes it more memorable). There isn’t a ton of detail here, but what’s present is particularly evocative, letting the listener visualize every scene in their mind and feel the emotions behind it. Yes, there’s a bit of a defeatist attitude here, but there’s also a recognition that the relationship is a lost cause and a willingness to move on and “end it all tonight” (although they’d rather the pairing linger in this awkward form, and are pushing the other person to end it rather than ending it themselves). It’s a poignant window into a relationship gone wrong, and while it’s not perfect, it’s more than enough of a story to both draw listeners in and let someone like Gosdin breathe life into it to give it meaning.

If you’re wondering why Vern Gosdin was able to defy the odds and ageism of Nashville, “If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)” is a good place to start. The production is suitably somber and stays out of the singer’s way, the writing provides a solid vehicle for an artist to make the song something special, and “The Voice” jumps in said vehicle and drives it deep into the hearts of the audience. It was a throwback performance at a time when throwback was just starting to come back in style in country music, and it helped pave the way for Gosdin’s success later in the 80s. He may be best known for “Chiseled In Stone,” but he built up a respectable discography behind that track as well, and while I doubt his approach and his style would find much success today, I suppose the odds were stacked against him a fair bit back then too, and he still managed to find his way into the country music pantheon.

Blake Shelton might be on The Voice, but Vern Gosdin was “The Voice,” and that’s the true mark of a superstar.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out, especially if you’re not familiar with Gosdin’s work. You’ll thank me later.

Song Review: Chris Janson, “All I Need Is You”

Yet another coin flipped in Nashville has landed on its edge.

Harvey Dent once said that “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” but Chris “Two-Face” Janson has kicked around Music City long around to go through multiple rounds of heel and face turns. He’s a maddening artist to observe: For every moment of great artistry he produces (“Holdin’ Her,” “Drunk Girl,” “Bye Mom”), he tosses out a corresponding flaming turd (“Fix A Drink,” “Good Vibes,” “Keys To The Country”). Some of this is undoubtedly an attempt to stay relevant on the radio, but that ship sailed a while ago: Since 2019’s “Done,” that’s exactly what Janson’s career has been, as he hasn’t even managed to crack the Top 35 in his four attempts since. He returns now with a new single “All I Need Is You,” a new record label (Big Machine, in partnership with Janson’s own label), and a new hope that someway, somehow, he can finally become relevant in the country music conversation once again. Frankly, I don’t see it: This is a middle-of-the-road, cookie-cutter love song that doesn’t do enough to engage the listener, and while Nashville loves nothing more than mediocrity these days, I don’t see this one reviving Janson’s career.

From a production standpoint, the song takes a more upscale approach that Janson is used to. Yes, the guitars and drums form the foundation for this sound, but the electric guitars are noticeably slicker this time around, the drums are turned down and don’t have the raw punch you might expect, and there’s even a string section that pops up from time to time to add some background atmosphere. There are actually a fair number of moving parts in this arrangement, but the issue is that the producer doesn’t deploy them effectively (or much at all). The steel guitar mostly mimics the repetitive riff of the electric axes, the keyboard is mostly left in the background, and the string section is only really noticeable on the outro and at a random moment during the second verse. (The YouTube video doesn’t credit one, but it sure sounds like there’s a token banjo bouncing around in the mix as well.) It’s like they really wanted to do more with the sound and assembled the pieces to do it, but didn’t end up executing the plan, and we’re left with a generically positive vibe that’s a bit too weak to move the needle for the listener. There’s some energy here thanks to the faster tempo and brighter instrument tones, but it just feels like empty sonic calories that don’t help drive the message home. It’s not a bad mix, but it’s not one I’m going to remember once I finish this review.

I hear a fair bit of Eric Church in Janson’s delivery here, but I’m not sure Church’s understated approach works as well for Janson. On one hand, I like the aura of confidence and contentment he has as the narrator, and when he declares that “all I need is you,” you absolutely believe him. On the other hand, his relaxed delivery doesn’t match the energy of the production, and while he’s a charismatic performer, he struggles to connect with the audience on this track (you can tell he cares about whoever he’s singing about, but you don’t really feel his happiness yourself). I think his performance needed a little more variation to it—without a few more power spikes to catch and hold the listener’s attention, it kinds of lulls the listener to sleep and causes their attention to wander. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with what he does, but there’s not enough right to push the song beyond just another love song.

And when I say “just another love song,” I mean it: The crux of the writing is that while the narrator would like a lot of things, “all I really need is you,” which even among love song topics is a bit overused. Among the things the narrator would like are many of the usual buzzwords: Trucks, bucks, boats, name-drops…even the lotto tickets and tropical getaways aren’t exactly novel (on the bright side, there’s no alcohol here for a change, putting it a step above Janson’s previous drinking songs). Beyond that, the song really doesn’t have anything to say: We don’t get any look into the relationship (the “boys’ ball team” hints that the couple has been together for a while, but the line passes so quickly it doesn’t leave much of an impression), and we don’t know what the speaker loves the most about their partner (their laugh? Their smile? I appreciate the lack of objectifying, but they didn’t bother to replace it with anything). The whole thing just end up feeling kind of boring as a result, and makes it kind of a chore to stay engaged.

“All I Need Is You” is one of those songs that’s really hard to review: You can’t find a ton to say about it, and you’re forever getting distracted by things that are more interesting (curse you Bryce and Ria McQuaid!). From production that squanders its potential to Chris Janson’s even-keel delivery to the rare piece of writing that probably needed more songwriters to have anything useful to say, this is an unremarkable track all the way around, and doesn’t strike as the comeback song Janson needs to get off of Nashville’s D-list. He really needs to find a way to channel his inner Harvey Dent soon, or otherwise he won’t get a chance to become the hero Music City needs.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

“Ring Of Fire”: Who Did It Better?

Last year I wrote a post about the disappearance of cover songs in country music, as artists were turning towards songs that a) were built for the streaming era, and b) gave them a cut of the writing royalties. Near the end of the article, however, I mentioned another possible obstacle: The comparison problem.

“A third issue, though not as closely related to money, is the comparison problem: If someone has already turned a song into a classic, why would anyone listen to your version over theirs? Given how accessible music is nowadays, finding the original copy of the song is as easy as typing the title into the YouTube search bar, so you’re already putting yourself up against some stiff competition.”

Kyle, “What Happened To Cover Songs?”, Jan. 7 2022

The comparison problem might give pause to artists wanting to record someone else’s track…but for someone whose old Pokémon Face-Off posts are still some of the most popular on the site, this also might be another kinda-sorta-recurring series idea. Comparison between different versions of the same song are inevitable, so let’s just lean into it and ask: Who did it better?

Let’s start with a classic: “Ring Of Fire.” The song was first recorded by Anita Carter, but it was made famous in 1963 by Johnny Cash and a mariachi horn section. It’s been covered many times in the years since, but the version I first heard back in the day was by Dwight Yoakam off of his debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. (I always thought it was a radio single, but it wasn’t!). It was perhaps my first introduction to the concept of a cover song, and it’s where we’ll start our inquiry: Who did it better?

Production: It doesn’t feel terribly fair to compare the sounds of songs that are decades apart, but hey, we’ve got to start somewhere. As usual, the foundation of Cash’s sound is the iconic boom-chicka-boom style of the Tennessee Three, but what’s new here is the horn section that drops a now-famous riff darn near every time there’s a break in the action. I like that the horns put a memorable twist on the sound, but I feel like the rest of the arrangement is minimized a bit as a result, especially Luther Perkins’s classic guitar (it’s much quieter and mostly keeps time with the percussion). The overall vibe of the mix is also a bit too chill for my taste: The song is supposed to be talking about unbridled passion and burning desire, but there’s nothing sensuous or dangerous or even all that exciting about the sound here, and it I don’t think it engages the listener very well as a result.

I give the edge to Yoakam’s sounds over Cash’s for a number of reasons. For one thing, there’s a bit more to the sound overall: A fiddle section replaces the horn, but there’s also a tinkling barroom piano helping to fill space (which makes the song feel a bit less repetitive), and the electric guitar gets a bit more volume and some actual room to breathe. The tempo isn’t all that different from Cash’s version, but it feels faster because the percussion backs some extra punch and helps drive the song forward. Finally, there’s more of an edge to the sound, giving it a risky, ever-so-slightly-dangerous feel even though the instrument tones are still pretty bright. Overall, I think Pete Anderson’s version of the sound is the better one, because it does more to make you feel like there’s an actual ring of fire involved.

Advantage: Yoakam

Vocals: Grab your ice packs and your sunscreen, because I’ve got a doozy of a hot take for you: Johnny Cash does not sound good on this track.

Come at me, bros. (Image from Know Your Meme)

Seriously, the man sounds so incredibly stiff on this track, cutting his words off quickly and delivering his lines with all the passion of a six o’clock newscaster. You don’t get any sense at all that the dude is “bound by wild desire,” as his voice barely fluctuates in volume or tone during the entire song. (You can just picture him behind the mic with his hardened expression, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world.) At least Yoakam tries to inject a little emotion in his song, holding his notes a bit longer and turning up the power on the choruses to let the listener know he understands the tenuous situation that the narrator is stuck in. Cash’s version gets some credit for bringing in the Carter family for backing vocals, as they add a little personality to the vocals and some needed variety to the sound, but it’s not enough to make up for Cash’s lack of emotion (in truth, I’m impressed by how good Yoakam sounds without any harmony vocals behind him at all).

Advantage: Yoakam

Lyrics: This is usually a major component of my reviews, but it’s not much help when you’re comparing two different versions of the same song. Not only are there no changes to the words between versions, but they actually sing the song the exact same way through the end of Cash’s version (Yoakam adds a an extra rendition of the chorus at the end). Cash also lets the song trail off while Yoakam’s track has a definitive end, but all in all, this category is officially a wash (and probably always will be).

Advantage: Draw

The Results

Yeah, this one’s not close. The horns and the backing vocals were nice, but on the whole I think Dwight Yoakam did a much better job than Johnny Cash did on this one. It may be a controversial take, but it also feels like a natural one: You can clearly hear Cash’s influence in Yoakam’s song, and given that Yoakam’s versions was released over two decades later, it seems like it should be an improvement over the original. Yoakam made a career out of cover songs, so it’s not surprising that he did a decent job with this track, and while Cash may have lost this battle, he is the guy who made this song cool enough for others to want to cover it, so that’s a pretty good consolation prize.

Winner: Yoakam

So this was an interesting exercise, but what do you folks think? Let me know if you want to see more posts like this in the future!

Is This The End For Blake Shelton?

Image from People

I may have given up tracking the Pulse of Mainstream Country Music, but I still occasionally swing by the Country Aircheck website to look for songs that should be reviewed. While looking at this week’s report, however, one statistic caught my eye: Blake Shelton’s latest single “No Body” lost nearly 400 spins and exactly 1440 points this week, a clear indication that Warner Bros. has pulled the plug and is ready to let this one go. The final tally for that track is less than impressive: A peak of #17 on Mediabase, #18 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and a rough #25 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs.

Any artist can drop a dud single now and again, but “No Body” represents a continuation of the losing streak that Shelton’s been on for fifteen months now. “No Body” is now his third consecutive disappointing single release, following 2021’s “Minimum Wage” (#9 peak) and “Come Back As A Country Boy” (#12, plus the honor of being the worst song I reviewed that year). His work as a featured artist during that time hasn’t done any better: His late addition to the Zac Brown Band’s “Out In The Middle” didn’t give the song much of a boost (it eventually peaked at #12), and his collab with Brantley Gilbert “Heaven By Then” is currently languishing in the low 40s on Mediabase four months after its release (and was the runner-up for the worst song I reviewed in 2022). While these results aren’t terrible—lots of artists would give their left vocal cord for a single to reach the Top Twenty—Shelton isn’t “lots of artists”: He’s been one of the biggest stars in country music over the past decade, a man who once took seventeen straight singles to #1. What’s going on here?

Well, there’s another number we need to factor in: 46, as in Blake Shelton’s age as of this post. Country stars seem to hang around a lot longer than their contemporaries in other genres, but Nashville is still a young man’s town, and Shelton’s contemporaries are looking a little shaky right now as well. I talked about Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney in my recent review of McGraw’s “Standing Room Only,” but Shelton’s fellow 46-year-old Luke Bryan recently fell on his face with “Up” and only made it to #15 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, while 46-year-old Jason Aldean’s “That What Tequila Does” snapped his airplay #1 streak and only reached #19 on the HCS chart. I questioned McGraw’s current standing in the genre in my review, and with Shelton seeing similar struggles, it begs the question: Is Blake Shelton, Inc.’s radio run finally over?

There are certainly signs that the end is nigh: In discussing his decision to leave The Voice after its current season ends, he noted that doing “a little bit of nothing [next] would be nice.” He’s also using talking points like putting his family first and kicking back after a whirlwind of travel, sounding a lot like Tom Brady in the wake of his own retirement. It sounds like Shelton is fairly comfortable with his current legacy in country music, and he may well want to leave on his own terms before he gets forced out.

Now, as someone who’s said a lot of negative things about Shelton’s output over the last six-and-a-half years, you might think that I’d be welcoming the idea of Shelton finally heading for the door. Much like with the majority of songs today, however, I’m really not that moved by the idea, and it’s only partially because celebrating people’s downfalls is in poor taste. It’s also because despite the clickbait title of his post, I don’t think Shelton’s time on the Nashville A-list is over just yet, and it’s mainly because his time on The Voice is.

Shelton has been a coach on The Voice ever since the show debuted in 2011, and while it’s part of the reason Shelton became such a major figure in country music, you have to wonder if it’s been dividing his focus and left him struggling to take the pulse of the genre. Shelton seemed to hint at this in a recent interview with People magazine:

“I’m really at a crossroads right now. The country music lane is changing so rapidly, and there’s some really good stuff out there. These young kids coming up, it’s amazing to see the music that they’re making and how creative they are…I’m enjoying watching what’s happening and putting a song out once in a while. That’s another reason that I’m excited to get some time back away from The Voice and concentrate more on, ‘What kind of record do I want to make? Is it going to fit in? Do I care? Do I not care?’ I got a lot to figure out.”

Personally, I’m a little skeptical of this argument: Shelton was the biggest play-it-safe artist in Nashville for a long time, and his move to songs like “God’s Country” and “Come Back As A Country Boy” felt like a direct response to the angst and anger that have been flooding the genre lately. Still, going all in on the 90s motif for “No Body” didn’t work out at all, and there’s no doubt Shelton’s been watching as the Combs and Wallens of the world compete for the country music crown while his own star fades. A Voice-less Shelton is a Shelton that can hyper-focus on a project and bring it to market with the full force of his personality, and one that can stay more in tune with the current vibes of Music City. He may say he wants to spend more time with family, but as Brady’s waffling on the notion of retirement indicates, talk is cheap, and retirement talk is even more discounted. Finally, while “No Body” may have been meant to be a leadoff single, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time an artist has stepped back and changed their approach after a song flopped (see: Dierks Bentley after “Bourbon In Kentucky” crashed and burned).

As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Blake Shelton just yet. I expect him to stay relevant for a while longer in country music, even if he takes a more-relaxed approach to his music. Country artists like Shelton rarely “go gentle into that good night,” instead preferring to “rage against the dying of the light” until they finally get dragged off the stage. Radio may be pushing him to go, but all it takes is one big song to rewrite that narrative, and Shelton will soon have all the time and space he needs to find such a song.

But be warned, Mr. Shelton: I don’t plan on going anywhere either (unless this whole YouTube thing really takes off), so if you’re going to keep making me review your songs, for both our sakes, they had better be good.

Song Review: Tim McGraw, “Standing Room Only”

I’m glad that Tim McGraw tried to be inspirational, but I wish he’d tried harder to be interesting.

Admittedly, I was wondering if after 30+ years, Music City had finally put the last two 90s holdouts (McGraw and Kenny Chesney) out to pasture. Chesney struck out on two singles in 2022 (“Everyone She Knows” only made it to #17, and “Beer With My Friends” limped to a #28 peak), and after “7500 OBO” took nearly a year just to stop at #4 (and somehow managed to get outclassed by Dylan freaking Scott), McGraw didn’t release anything new at all during the calendar year. McGraw, however, is determined to keep his Tom Brady impression going, and thus has returned with “Standing Room Only,” the leadoff single (and apparently the title track) to his next project. Honestly, I’m torn on this one: I like that McGraw reflects on his shortcomings and wants to be a better person and live a fuller life, but I’m also reminded why Mark Grondin over at Spectrum Pulse once labeled McGraw’s work “auditory Xanax.” There just isn’t enough feeling and force behind this song to catch the listener’s ear, and its impact is blunted as a result.

As I listen to the production, I understand what the producer was trying to do for the song, but I think the sound actually weighs the song down rather than lifting it up. Like most songs that want to create a serious atmosphere, this one is driven primarily by a piano (three of them in fact, if the YouTube video is to be believed). The electric and steel guitars provide backup on the verses and get a little space to shine on the chorus and bridge, but both the guitars and the percussion feel a little weak overall, and lack the punch to drive home the feels that the song is looking for. The overall tone of the song feels surprisingly neutral, with instruments that sound dim instead of bright and subtract energy from the song instead of adding to it (not even the guitar solo on the bridge really moves the needle). I know the producer wanted to create a reflective vibe and allow the listener to focus on the lyrics, but the sound is a bit too heavy and drags the song down instead of doing something that might draw the listener in. In the end, this mix stands around instead of standing out, and leaves the lyrics to try to elevate the track by themselves.

As for McGraw, he just sounds old on this track. Yes, this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation given that the man is in his mid-fifties, but he used to have some decent vocal power that he could tap into when the moment called for it (remember “Live Like You Were Dying”? …What do you mean that song is almost twenty years old now?!), so to hear him reach for a power ballad here and wind up sounding like Cody Johnson with a head cold is a little jarring. You can tell he’s really trying to connect with the audience, but there’s something missing here that causes him to miss the mark. I don’t know if it’s a lack of tone or texture in the delivery (the vocals sound rougher than I’m used to from McGraw) or whether he just suffers from comparisons to his past work (he’s done a couple of songs in this hopeful/aspirational lane over the years, and his current song pales in comparison to them), but he struggles to share his emotions with the audience this time around. (Maybe it’s an issue with trying too hard: McGraw had much better luck with a softer touch on “I Called Mama,” and trying to force things like he does here simply doesn’t work out.) Whatever the reason, the song just doesn’t resonate like McGraw and his team hoped, and its impact is minimal as a result.

It’s really too bad, because there are some real nuggets within the writing that deserve to be heard. The narrator talks about how they get swept up in their own pursuits and in unimportant debates, and resolve to be a better person going forward, engendering so much affection that their funeral will be “standing room only.” It’s certainly not the most novel concept for a song, but it feels exceptionally tuned to the moment, especially in the midst of the current Ex-Boyfriend country trend. When the speaker declares that they “get so mad at things that don’t matter way too much” and “wanna take my grudges and my old regrets, and let ’em go,” it feels like they’re issuing a challenge to their contemporaries, asking them to set aside their grievances, “start forgivin’ and start forgettin’,” and be a better version of themselves in the future. Combined with their desire to make a positive impact (or at least the perception of a positive impact), this is the sort of song I’d like to hear more of on the radio because it gets people to think about their own lives and how they might be able to let go of the past and better themselves for the future, and it makes the fact that it’s delivered so lethargically that much more painful.

“Standing Room Only” is a decent song that’s better than 75% of what’s on the radio right now, even despite the fact that it’s held back by subpar execution and doesn’t feel that remarkable or memorable. Neither Tim McGraw nor the producer deliver the punch or the emotion that the song really needed, and even then the message shines through enough to make the song stand out. McGraw will need to up his game if he wants to keep pulling rabbits out of hats and keep her roster spot in Nashville, but he’s at least got the right idea when selecting material, and sometimes all it takes is the right song to capture that old magic. He may not have captured it this time, but for now I’m willing to let him keep trying.

Rating: 6/10. Give this a few spins and see how it makes you feel.

Retro Review: Rhett Akins, “I Brake For Brunettes”

I think of Rhett Akins these days the same way that I think of Mitch McConnell: He wasn’t much of a power player back in the day, but he’s turned into one of the maleficent puppetmasters of the entire genre. He’s one of five songwriters that seem to produce 99% of the material coming out of Nashville nowadays, and has produced such “poetry” such as “Boys ‘Round Here,” “Parking Lot Party,” “Small Town Boy,” “I Don’t Want This Night To End,” and “Kiss My Country Ass.” (Whether or not foisting Thomas Rhett onto the genre was a good thing remains an open question.) It’s a fate that I would have never expected for a guy who has all of three Top Twenty hits to his name, but it seems that life moves in mysterious ways.

Instead of Akins’s hits, today’s review will be of the predecessor to his moderate success: “I Brake For Brunettes,” a #36 single and the second release from his 1995 debut album A Thousand Memories. Listening to it again, you can see where the song might be interpreted as a precursor to Bro-Country: It’s a song whose primary focus is on the objectification of women, and while it tries its best to feel like a fun, lighthearted song, its limitations keep it from achieving its purpose, and it winds up feeling like…well, a #36 single.

The production here is a fairly standard neotraditional mix, outside of the lack of a steel guitar. In its place, the fiddle becomes the primary instrument in the mix, with a tinkling piano and a rollicking electric guitar filling in the gaps and a punchy drum set that keeps time throughout the whole song. There’s certainly a energy to the sound that helps drive the song forward, but it feels like it’s fighting against a weight to do so, and the instrument tones feel weirdly neutral instead of universally positive (most noticeably on the verses), keeping the song from reaching the level of fun that it’s aiming for, especially given how it’s trying get there. (Also, that accident sound effect at the end of the song comes across as cheap and canned, like it was recorded at half the audio quality of the rest of the track.) It’s not a bad choice for the song, but it falls into the “necessary, but not sufficient” category, and really needed to lean more into its brightness (maybe up the tempo, or increase the volume of the piano, or maybe kick the fiddle up an octave) to stick the landing here.

About that weight the production is fighting against: I think it’s Akins himself, who feels like he’s missing a little bit of everything that’s necessary to make this song successful. He lacks the vocal power to stand out from the instruments around him, he lacks the vocal punch to really land his punchlines, and most importantly, the tone is his voice is slightly positive at best, like he’s trying to convince you that he’s having a good time but not actually having one. You can really tell why he found so much more success with the follow up to this single (the #3 “That Ain’t My Truck”), as he doing a much better job filling the narrator’s shoes on that song and making the song both believable and meaningful. In contrast, “I Brake For Brunettes” feels like a throwaway performance, one that doesn’t emote well enough for the audience to feel the intended good vibes (and can feel a little slimy at times). For as much as Rhett did to kick off the party-hardy Bro-Country trend, he really wasn’t that good at delivering such a song himself, and his quick pivot towards serious/heartfelt material indicated that he and his team reached the same conclusion.

The writing…well, there isn’t really a lot to the writing here: The narrator can’t help but stop and stare at beautiful women, and it’s wearing out both the street and their tires. The song never progresses beyond its bumper sticker slogan of a hook, and most of the track is just repeated references to where this happens and what it does to wheels. (That “I know I’m gonna wear out my tread” line at the end of the second verse feels particularly telling, as if the writers—of course Akins was one!—ran out of other ideas and just went back to what they’d used for the entire first verse. This might also explain why the song doesn’t have a bridge.) The image of a guy stopping and leering at women on the street really hasn’t aged well in the decades since the song’s release, and the song doesn’t provide any other details about anything (the voyeur, the people being watched, or even the truck getting its brakes worked over) to make the narrator even remotely likeable. The whole thing feels like a half-baked idea that was released two decades before its time, and honestly, I don’t even think it stands up well against the dregs of the Bro-Country era.

“I Brake For Brunettes” probably sounded like a nifty title at the time, but there wasn’t enough material behind it to actually make the song work. The writing is threadbare and a bit sleazy, Rhett Akins completely fails to sell the audience on the idea, and the producer just slapped a standard neotraditional mix on the track and hoped for the best. There’s nothing here to recommend the song, and despite all the Bro-Country junk that’s been dumped on us, this statement is no less true now than it was in 1995. Akins may have had the last laugh given his current position as a Music City influencer, but it doesn’t change the fact that this song is a total dud.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t bother braking—just pass this one by.

Retro Review: Shania Twain, “Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)”

It’s time to confront an artist that we knew was coming sooner or later.

Have you noticed how often Shania Twain plays the role of the villian on this blog? By being the pivot point between the early-90s neotraditional era and late-90s pop-country movement, Twain forced artists to face a reckoning much like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line did when they championed the Bro-Country trend a decade ago. Much like Garth Brooks before her, she was often accused of destroying country music, and just like with Brooks, hindsight has revealed the inaccuracy of that statement (in fact, I would argue that both Brooks and Twain are far better than anything Bro-Country dumped on us). The shift may have been a bit jarring for listeners at first, but looking back now, the difference is more one of attitude and approach than the sound, and honestly isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made out to be.

Today’s subject is “Don’t Be Stupid,” a #6 hit from 1997, the second single from Twain’s Come On Over album, and (at least according to Wikipedia) the first of her songs to attract worldwide attention. It’s a track that’s just brimming with confidence, with a bright, bouncy sound that tries to make the case for a more-equal partnership built on trust, and it’s honestly pretty fun to revisit.

The interesting thing about the production is how…conventional the arrangement is. An active pair of fiddles open the track and provide its signature riffs (they even handle the bridge solo), and a punchy drum set and a electric guitar with a rollicking tone give the sound a solid foundation. That’s basically it: Grady Smith’s favorite clap track may make a cameo appearance, but there are no in-your-face electric axes like Brooks had or blatantly-synthetic beats like FGL and the like employed. What’s difference is how the instruments are used: I use the term “punchy” to describe drums a lot, but this might be the first time that term applied to a fiddle! The song positively crackles with energy, and even though the tempo isn’t really that fast, the sound drives the song forward so forcefully that it feels much faster than it is. There’s just a confidence to this sound, one that both helps support the subject matter (it gives the impression that despite the other person’s feelings, everything will turn out okay) and declares that it has a home in country music, regardless of what its detractors think. It’s a mix that has grown on me over the years, and one that’s not nearly as subversive as some would have you believe.

The lyrics here tell the story of a narrator who is frustrated with a partner that is so insecure/jealous that they forever think the speaker is cheating on them or otherwise undermining the relationship, which is the actual thing that’s undermining the relationship. The verses are mostly here for the narrator to blow off steam, detailing the sort of behavior that’s been going on (and thus filling the listener in on the backstory and establishing a clear ‘good vs. evil’ divide). The choruses, however, give us a bit more clarity of the relationship dynamic: Despite the other person’s antics, the narrator still loves them, admonishing them “don’t be stupid” while professing that their feelings are deep and long-lasting. The partner may be insecure, but the narrator is not: They know where their true feelings reside, and they simply want to be given the trust and respect that they deserve. We’ve gotten plenty of cheating songs from both sides of the coin in country music, but the narrator doesn’t want this to be one, and while they are irritated by the constant surveillance, this is still a love song at its core. Unlike all of the Ex-Boyfriend songs on the airwaves today, this song wants to work through whatever anger and pain are present, and it’s a sentiment I wish more modern artists would take to heart.

“Don’t Be Stupid” stand as a good example of how to make a relationship work: Be honest about what’s bothering you, strive for mutual trust and respect, and ultimately there’s always a chance things will work out if the feelings are true. It’s a tale that feels incredibly real above everything else, and through upbeat production, skillful writing, and an impressive performance from Shania Twain, it resonated to the point where much of the world started to take notice. The shift that Twain kicked off within the genre disrupted (and even ended) a few careers in country music, but looking back at the whole ordeal, it doesn’t feel as seismic or as heretical as many claimed it was. After being out of the spotlight for so long after her career concluded, Twain is finally getting some recognition as the titan of the genre that she was, and for country music I’d argue that her story wound up being one of addition rather than subtraction.

Maybe there’s hope for Florida Georgia Line after all. …Maybe.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.