Song Review: Florida Georgia Line, “Talk You Out Of It”

This song would be pretty sexy…if it wasn’t so irritating.

Florida Georgia Line embodied everything people loved and hated about the Bro-Country era, but when the duo released “Simple” as the leadoff single for their upcoming fourth album, it signaled a stark change from the bombastic guitar-and-drum-machine sound they had been known for. In country music, however, zebras don’t change their metaphorical stripes overnight, and the pair’s follow-up single “Talk You Out Of It” is a bit of a compromise between the Mumford & Sons vibe of “Simple” and FGL’s earlier work. To be honest, I’ve got mixed feelings about this one: While I really like the romantic sound and sexy feel of this song, I’m put off by the narrator’s pushy attitude and the double-standard embodied by the writing.

Let’s start with the positives first: I’m really impressed by the sensual vibe of the production here, especially in the wake of the many failed attempts at sexiness I’ve heard within the genre over the last few months. While the track ditches the raw acoustic vibe of “Simple” in favor of a more-manufactured sound closer to FGL’s past work, it doesn’t have the in-your-face, manufactured feel of FGL’s prior work either. Instead, the track seeks a happy medium between the two: The opening dobro is affected and the drum machine feels more conventional/artificial, but overall the instruments are restrained and relaxed, and they don’t have the excessive volume or complex riffs that might draw the listener’s attention away from the lyrics. I was also surprised at how warm the instruments tones felt (especially the steel guitar), and how they all came together to give the mix a decent groove and an understated sexiness that works hard to prop up the writing (even if the effort is ultimately futile). I’ve never been a fan of Joey Moi’s production (and I can’t actually find confirmation that this mix is his), but if this is his handiwork, he deserves some mad props for putting it together.

Now for the bad: It’s too bad the production tries to highlight the song’s writing, because I cannot stand this narrator’s attitude. On the surface, the track is an inverted version of John Conlee’s “Friday Night Blues” (which, for the record, is ten times the song “Talk You Out Of It” is): This time the woman is the one who is worn out from work, and the narrator is the one that wants the pair to go out on the town. The narrator successfully gets their way, and the woman dresses up for the date…only for the guy to say “Nah, you look too pretty, let’s get naked and have sex right now.” First of all, make up your damn mind, dude! Second, even if your partner eventually caves in to your demands, don’t yank their chain like that and expect them to cater to your every whim. (Every woman I know would have responded to that “talk you out of it” about-face by saying “I spent an hour getting dressed for that?!” and punching the guy in the face.) When contrasted with Conlee’s track, the scene becomes even more disturbing: The women bends over backwards to accommodate the dinner date here, but when she wants to go out in “Friday Night Blues,” she’s rebuffed and is left “dancing ’round with her broom.” This sort of patronizing attitude, coupled with the fact that the tired woman’s feelings are barely given the time of day, makes the narrator here feel unreasonable and unsympathetic, and ends up killing the mood the production worked so hard to establish. (For what it’s wroth, however, the writers at least tried to use a Luther Vandross reference, clumsy as it was, instead of a cliché Marvin Gaye one.)

With annoying lyrics like this, the song’s only chance for salvation is having a super-charismatic singer swoop in and elevate the track by softening the narrator’s edge and alleviating the listener’s unease with their sincerity and earnestness. Alas, Tyler Hubbard is not that singer, although a big part of that is his long history as a Bro-Country standard bearer. (In the hands of, say, Brett Young, this song might have turned out a lot differently.) Hubbard’s range and flow might be fine, and he certainly tries his best to sound lovestruck and sincere, but frankly, a guy who built his career on shallow, objectifying tracks like “Cruise,” “Sun Daze,” and “Smooth” just isn’t going to have the polish or debonair to pull off a song like this one. (Consider his attempts at complimenting the women, which are limited to “lookin’ like a grown man’s dream” in a “fine little dress” because physical beauty is apparently the only thing Hubbard notices.) As it is, Hubbard comes across as just another Bro trying to get into a woman’s pants (or dress, in this case), and it’s going to take a few more years of maturity and a lot more distance from the Bro-Country era before he can handle this kind of track. (As usual, Brian Kelley is so invisible here that you don’t even realize he’s here. Seriously, you might as well replace him with Brian Rolston.)

Despite it’s sensual sound, “Talk You Out Of It” just doesn’t talk me into believing it’s a good song. I’m getting really tired of hearing unconvincing male narrators trying to talk women into doing their bidding, and even after “Simple,” I’m getting tired of waiting for Florida Georgia Line to become an act I actually want to hear. With Dan + Shay emerging as a serious challenger for the ‘best male duo’ label (ugh, is that really the best this genre can do?), FGL needs to step up its game if it plans on sticking around Nashville much longer.

Rating: 4/10.  Do yourself a favor and check out John Conlee’s discography instead.

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Song Review: Justin Moore, “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home”

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…this song just isn’t cheesy enough.

After a decade on the radio, Justin Moore is being forced to confront the mortality of his mainstream career. His last two singles have labored through long, 40+ week chart stays, and while “Somebody Else Will” eventually reached #1, last year’s “Kinda Don’t Care” ended up stalling at a disappointing #17. In response, Moore’s team has closed the book on the Kinda Don’t Care era, and are now pushing “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” as the leadoff single for his presumed fifth album. The song is your typical “praise the fallen soldiers” song, but while I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, the track doesn’t actually make me feel any sentiment. It’s a tepid tune that never decides if it’s supposed to be happy or sad, and it just doesn’t draw out enough emotion to truly get its point across.

The production here is the same standard guitar-and-drum mix you’ve heard a hundred times before. The electric axes lack the texture and bite they had on “Kinda Don’t Care,” the steel guitar is relegated to the background, and the drum set is unremarkable at best. The biggest surprise is the producer’s decision to take the song in a positive direction: There are a few minor chords tossed in to highlight the sadness of the event, but the instrument tones are bright and the atmosphere feels almost celebratory, as if the mix is trying to invoke memories of the good times before the fallen character’s passing. It’s an understandable approach, but it doesn’t mesh very well with the lyrics, which focus on the present and how the community reacts after the death. As a result, the listener is left feeling not much at all when the song is over, as neither the sadness nor the nostalgia are strong enough to make an impression.

Likewise, Moore’s performance feels a bit lukewarm for the subject matter, especially when compared to previous singles like “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.” Neither his range nor his flow are really tested here, so the song is completely reliant on Moore’s charisma to sell the story and make the audience pay attention. Unfortunately, he’s only half-successful: He’s believable in the narrator’s role, but he comes across as stoic and distant, and it’s this lack of emotional investment that comes through the most in his delivery. By not choosing a side between the brighter sound and darker writing, Moore adds more confusion than clarity to the song, and the listener is left wondering if they should care about the story at all.

While the writing is fairly solid here, it lacks the emotional fire to cut through the mixed messages sent by the rest of the track. Stories about fallen soldiers are nothing new in the genre (Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck” and Trace Adkins’s “Arlington” spring to mind), but they usually try to make their mark by tugging at the listener’s heartstrings, often crossing the line into sappiness in the process. This song, in contrast, drifts a bit too far in the opposite direction: While it’s imagery is primarily sad (and, outside of the “green bean casserole” reference, incredibly generic), there’s also a strange matter-of-factness to the writing, as if this was originally intended as a newspaper obituary. Personally, I would have doubled down on the cheesiness and really aimed for the listener’s feels—grieving family members, more scenes from the soldier’s life, etc. (Come on, at least include a sad piano or a military snare drum in the mix!) Even if they had gone over the top, they would have at least made the listener feel something. As it is, it’s a sob story with no sobs, one that feels too clinical and sanitary to be heartbreaking.

“The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” isn’t a bad song, and I concede that someone who has actually lost a loved one to war might get more mileage out of this song than I did. To make an impact and prop up Justin Moore’s sagging career, however, the song needs to touch the hearts of “swing listeners” like yours truly, and the conflicting approaches of the sound, singer, and songwriting make it impossible for the track to do its job and hook its intended audience. When “not cheesy enough” is a legitimate critique of your song, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but don’t expect any miracles here.

Song Review: Lee Brice, “Rumor”

…You know what, I’m going to let Grumpy Cat handle this one:

While Lee Brice has been around longer than you might think (his debut single came out over a decade ago), he’s never really progressedprogressed beyond the ‘hit-or-miss single’ stage. For every song he releases that makes you think “Yeah, I could get behind this” (“I Drive Your Truck,” “I Don’t Dance”), he releases another that makes your stomach turn (“Parking Lot Party,” “That Don’t  Sound Like You”). Now, four years removed from his last hit single, Brice is back to test our ears with “Rumor,” the second single from his recent self-titled album. It’s the sonic equivalent of a missed chip-shot field goal: The sound and writing put Brice is a solid position to succeed, but he manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and we’re ultimately left with this off-putting snorefest as a result.

The production has more of a bluesy feel than you’ll usually find on country radio. The song opens with a blend of Wurlitzer piano, electric guitar, and steel guitar that blends together way better than it has any right to, with a booming drum set giving the track a strong foundation. There are a few other instruments floating around in the background (an acoustic guitar and even an organ), they’re really just there to fill in the gaps in what turns out to be a spacious, reflective mix with a fairly chill vibe. However, while the track’s lack of energy is intentional, its utter lack of groove probably wasn’t, and as a result the track feels more run-of-the-mill than standout. It seems to flow a bit too easily in one ear and out the other, and doesn’t leave much of an impression on the listener after it’s done. It’s a decent sound that complements the writing well; I just wish it had done a bit more to grab my attention.

I don’t like pinning the failings of a track directly on the artist, but the truth is that Brice is the main reason this song just doesn’t work for me. Technically, his performance is fine: His vocal have a “Stapleton-lite” feel to them, his range suits the track well, and he does an impressive job handling the parts of the lyrics that try to cram too many syllables into a line. The problem is that a song like this one, which tries to entice/push someone into a romantic relationship with the narrator, requires a strong vocalist with enough charisma to keep the whole thing from feeling slimy, and Brice fails surprisingly hard on this count. Even when the lyrics give him the opportunity to say otherwise, Brice’s delivery gives us the clear impression that he’d really like this relationship to go forward, and thus when he says he’s willing to dispel this romantic rumor, he comes across as neither earnest nor believable. A better artist (say, Darius Rucker) would have been able to elevate this track and make it feel a bit more on the level, but Brice sounds like just another bro trying to pick up a date, and it’s not a great look for him.

The main reason I’m so hard on Brice here is that the writing gives him several explicit opportunities to take a step back and consider the feelings of the other person. The song’s premise is that there is a “Rumor” going around implying that the narrator and the person he addresses/dances with are in a romantic relationship, and the pair is pondering how to respond to this accusation. While I’m not overly impressed by the narrator’s calls to make this rumor a reality (“tell me why we’re even trying to deny this feeling/I feel, don’t you feel it too?” feels a little too pushy for my tastes), the writers seem to recognize the optics of the situation and built in some course corrections on the verses and bridge:

Well I can shut ’em down, tell them all they’re crazy
I can do whatever you want me to do, baby

Oh be honest girl now
Do you want to do this or not?
Should we keep them talking, girl
Or should we just make them stop?

There are some other unrelated issues with the writing (as mentioned earlier, they try cramming too many many words into a line on several occasions), but they at least went out of their way to try and make the song more conscious of the other person’s feelings. This make Brice’s failure to transmit these concerns via his performance a lot more glaring.

I believe there’s a good song somewhere inside “Rumor,” but it’s a track best suited for a more-charismatic artist. I noted during my review of “Boy” that I just wasn’t moved to feel the emotion that Lee Brice was shooting for, and while I wondered if the issue was his or mine at the time, he subsequent failure to elevate this track (despite the production and writing’s best efforts) makes me conclude that he’s just not a strong enough singer to handle this sort of material. Shoulda-woulda-coulda aside, we can only judge the track we’re given, and what we’ve been given is nothing but radio filler.

Rating: 5/10. Yet another mediocre track that’s not worth going out of your way to hear.

Song Review: Lauren Alaina, “Ladies In The 90s”

I’m confused: Which “Ladies In The 90s” are Lauren Alaina actually paying tribute to?

I recently called out Brothers Osborne for being a one-hit wonder, but this particular glass slipper fits Alaina as well: Outside of her 2016 #1 “Road Less Traveled,” her highest-charting hit since her debut seven years ago was 2017’s “Doin’ Fine,” which peaked outside the top twenty-five. Her mainstream career is on life support at this point, and as we’ve seen in the past, desperation can make artists do some crazy things. That’s about the only explanation I have for the existence of “Ladies In The 90s,” which is ostensibly the leadoff single for Alaina’s third album. Spoiler alert: The ladies Alaina lionizes here probably aren’t the ones you’re thinking of, and and the result is a synthetic mess of a song that ranges from awkward to downright cringeworthy as it goes along.

If the phrase “ladies in the nineties” brings to mind women like Martina McBride and Patty Loveless, you’re going to be really confused when this “pop-disco banger” gets going. However, if the first names that come to mind are Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, the production choices start to make more sense, because these artists have a heavy influence on this song’s sound. The track opens with a sitar-esque banjo stolen from Luke Bryan and a chorus of “nah-nahs,” but quickly turns into a slick, percussion-driven tune, with its mixture of real and synthetic drums ripped straight from a mid-90s pop track. Outside of the occasional piano riff and some omnipresent spacious strings providing background atmosphere, that’s basically all you get here, with absolutely nothing carrying the melody save for Alaina herself. While the track has a bright, energetic feel and a decent groove, they’re mostly wasted due to the confusion the track inspires: Not even Shania Twain or Faith Hill went this far with their sound back in the day, so the reaction from a 90s country fan like myself ends up being “These aren’t the ladies I remember.” This track is less a nostalgic remembrance of the 1990s and more a blatant attempt to generate some faux-nostalgia for 2010s country fans, and any good Pam Tillis fan will recognize this track as the snake oil it is.

It’s a crying shame to see what Alaina has been reduced to, because I still consider her one of the stronger vocalists in the genre. Her range and power remain as good as ever despite the , and she makes the story of the young, starstruck narrator feel both believable and heartfelt. In light of “Doin’ Fine” and this track, Alaina seems to have a special knack for autobiographical songs, and she makes the song part of her own story regardless of whether it’s actually true or not. That said, she has trouble overcoming the clumsiness of the writing, and despite her charisma, she isn’t able to dispel the dissonance that the lyrics and production bring to the table (that beat makes the Deana Carter and Dixie Chicks references feel token and insincere). I understand she’s staring at a 3rd-and-long on the field of country music, but a metaphorically well-thrown ball doesn’t change the fact that she’s throwing into triple coverage.

Much of the awkwardness I cited earlier can be traced to the lyrics, which tries to take broad-brush approach to celebrating…well, the “ladies of the nineties.” We’ve already discussed the production’s bizarre choice to celebrate the pop starlets of the era, but the truth is the producer’s hands were tied when the writers started quoting Madonna, Spears, and the Spice Girls in their choruses—are you really going to set “hit me just one more time” to a steel guitar? The effort to include influences from outside the country genre feels completely unnecessary, as there are plenty of successful women from that decade who could have been referenced (Martina McBride’s omission is the most glaring). While I appreciate the coming-of-age stories told on the verses, the title feels like a really awkward choice for a hook, the attempt to give the song a weightier message falls flat (the one line about not being “afraid to make a statement” flies by so quickly you barely notice it), and the chained-together lyrics from 90s hits both smacks of laziness and makes my skin crawl.

“Ladies In The 90s” tries to pull a fast one on us with its title, but it’s not the song I expected to hear, and it’s not a song I’m interested in hearing again. The writing’s reliance on pop stars feels like a complete misreading of the song’s audience, and Lauren Alaina and her producer are forced to take a deep breath and make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. While I’m sure everyone involved with this song truly wanted to celebrate the women that came before them, in my book, a nineties-ladies tribute that doesn’t mention Suzy Bogguss is no tribute at all.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

Song Review: Old Dominion, “Make It Sweet”

If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If at first you do succeed, however,  you do it again and again until you stop making money.

After the radioactive Bro-Country disaster that was Old Dominion’s debut album Meat And Candy, the band introduced their follow-up disc Happy Endings with “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart,” an upbeat, lighthearted call to live and love with hope and happiness, regardless of the noise that surrounds us in modern-day life. The tune signaled a welcome change in the band’s sound and attitude, and they were rewarded with three No. 1 singles for their efforts. Now, with the book closed on Happy Endings, Old Dominion is launching their third, yet-to-be-titled album with “Make It Sweet,” which is…an upbeat, lighthearted call to live and love with hope and happiness, regardless of the noise that surrounds us in modern-day life? I know this trick worked out well for them the first time, but now it invites a natural comparison to their last leadoff single, and unfortunately “Make It Sweet” is the weaker and less interesting track of the pair.

While “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” had a experimental feel to its production, “Make It Sweet” features a much more conventional mix. Instead of leading with the percussion, the guitars take the lead right from the start, starting with a mix of acoustic and electric instruments and then slowly phasing out the former in favor of the latter. (The percussion goes in the opposite direction, moving from nothing to fake claps to a full drum set over time.) On its own, the sound actually has a lot going for it: It’s got a bright, energetic feel with enough of a groove to get your toes tapping, and it gives the song a real sense of optimism that complements the lyrics well. In the wake of its predecessor, however, the song feels a bit more run-of-the-mill than it should, and lacks that extra something to catch the listener’s ear. It’s a bit like eating a chuck eye steak: It’s not bad, but it doesn’t quite measure up after you’ve had the prime rib.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey seems to have found his niche singing light, fluffy tunes, and he actually shows some development as an artist on this track. I gave him some grief on “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” for his choppy flow, but he takes the edge off of his delivery and sounds a lot smoother here, even on some of the faster sections. Both his range and the band’s harmonies remain are solid, and Ramsey does just enough to give the listener a sense of the narrator’s feelings for their partner. I don’t feel like he does as good a job balancing the positive and negative pieces of the song as he did before, but that’s partially by design: The song isn’t trying to make the same sort of societal statement as “No Such Thing…,” and the bad stuff doesn’t get as much airtime in the lyrics. Overall, it’s a good showing from Ramsey, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the practice he’s had on the subject.

The writing is where I find this song fall short compared to its predecessor. “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” was a song that felt like it had something to say about living in today’s world, and while its happy vibe may have undercut that message a little, at least it had some action items buried deep within: Focus on what you can control, and stay positive even when the world around you is collapsing. “Make It Sweet” is not nearly as ambitious, and instead comes across as one of those “forget about the rest of the world and just have fun” songs that ave been clogging up the airwaves recently. Once all the world’s badness in enumerated in the first verse, the song dumps it by the side of the highway and turns into a generic road-trip romance song that doesn’t really care if the planet is spinning or not. (The song also features some disturbing callbacks to the Bro-Country era with lines like “I never gotta wonder where my honey be” and “I ain’t savin’ all my sugar for a Saturday night/Seven days a week I got an appetite.”) It’s an escapist song more than anything else, and while it might be fun for a while, we’ve got enough devil-may-care songs on the radio as it is.

“Make It Sweet” isn’t a terrible song, but it less-than-novel production and less-than-caring attitude make it a lesser song than the last track Old Dominion opened an album cycle with. The “fun distraction song” lane in country music is pretty crowded right now, and without a deeper message to anchor it, this track is nothing but a brief sugar rush that you’ll forget three minutes after it ends. Hopefully the band switches up their leadoff-single playbook before their fourth album rolls around.

Rating: 5/10. Stick with “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” instead.

Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)”

Wow, I don’t remember Brothers Osborne being this boring.

The pair asked people to “Shoot Me Straight” on their last single, so here goes: As highly as people speak of TJ and John, it’s time to bestow the dreaded “one-hit wonder” label upon them. Ever since their breakout hit “Stay A Little Longer” in 2015, country radio has consistently shot them down, with the #28 airplay peak of “Straight” being their worst showing since their debut single in 2013. Now, the brothers are waving the white flag, dropping their hard-driving, outlaw-esque style for a more contemporary sound for their latest release “I Don’t Remember Me (Before You).” It’s the closest they’ve come to re-creating their 2015 hit since  its release. but they removed everything that was interesting about their music in the process, and we’re left with a plodding, lifeless song that doubles as a substitute for Ambien.

The production here is way more restrained than you’d expect from a Brothers Osborne, opening with a quiet acoustic guitar, some affected mandolin stabs, and a decidedly not-hard-driving drum set. The choruses turn up the drums and add an electric guitar borrowed from Van Zant for some added volume, but unfortunately the noise is the only thing you get (and even that isn’t much). This track has absolutely zero energy to it, and the mix makes the track sound more like a lullaby than a heartfelt romantic ballad. With its melancholy instrument tones and frequent minor chords, you won’t even realize this is a love song unless you’re listening carefully, which you won’t be doing thanks to the song’s sleepy vibe. (Even the guitar solo work feels halfhearted and lethargic, suggesting that John Osborne was actively trying to dial back his axe to soften its blow.) In short, this mix is neither memorable nor interesting, and it fails to get its intended message out to its audience.

Similarly, in taking the edge off of his delivery TJ Osborne turns himself into a dull, monotonous vocalist, and he lulls the listener to sleep long before they have a chance to care about what he has to say. The narrator questions whether or not they were alive before meeting their significant other, but Osborne’s flat, apathetic performance makes me question if they were alive after they met either. I hesitate to call the performance “mailed-in,” but in trying to match the tone of the production and make the track feel more romantic, Osborne plays to his weaknesses rather than his strengths, and despite his distinct tone and decent technical skills, he just doesn’t feel earnest or believable in this role. In truth, the song is a poor fit for TJ, and probably should have been left as an album cut rather than a single.

In a vacuum, the lyrics here aren’t terrible: The narrator is reflecting on the hard, shallow “life” they lived before they entered their current relationship, and can’t even recall how they existed before now. The problem is that the song focuses on philosophical and existential questions that are bland and high-level by design (the narrator wasn’t really living his life, after all), and unlike many tracks in this lane, its lacks any details about the narrator’s past that might catch the listener’s ear and draw them in. (For example, the narrator “heard he was a wild one,” but outside of the “last-call stranger” line, the listener doesn’t hear anything to that effect.) In other words, the song is intentionally boring, and thus needs a lot of help from the singer and the sound to make the story interesting and draw in listeners. When the artist and producer fail to hold up their end of the bargain, however, you’re left with a zombie of a track that has as much life as the pre-relationship narrator does.

“I Don’t Remember Me (Before You)” is a cautionary tale of what mainstream country music can do to promising performers. Before this, Brothers Osborne seemed to have find their niche in the genre as a rough-edged outsider in the mold of Eric Church or Dierks Bentley, and earned some critical acclaim in the process. Acclaim isn’t always profitable, however, and after several underwhelming singles the brothers have shifted to a forgettable, uninteresting style in an attempt to blend in with the rest of the radio and bump up their airplay numbers. The trick may very well succeed, but for my money what’s lost will outweigh what’s gained.

Rating: 5/10. Frankly, I doubt I’ll remember this one at all.

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “What Makes You Country”

And I thought Brantley Gilbert was protesting too much…

The question of what defines “country music” has been a hot-button issue in the genre for decades, and Luke Bryan has been one of the mostrecent lightning rods for this debate. His incorporation of elements commonly associated with other genres into his own sound has put him in the crosshairs of traditionalists who bemoan the corruption of the genre, and while he’s far from the only artist taking this approach, his immense popularity makes him an easy target when someone wants to highlight “what’s wrong with today’s country.” Now, Bryan is punching back as his critics over the airwaves by releasing “What Makes You Country” as the fourth (and final?) single from his album of the same name. However, while I appreciate his inclusive attitude, this song comes across as a wolf in poorly-fitting sheep’s clothing, and is more of a vehicle for Bryan to show off his own country credentials than it is to advocate for a big-tent approach to the genre. It’s just one of those “I’m so country” songs that I lost interest in hearing years ago.

On the production side, the song tries to find a happy medium between contemporary and classical country, hoping to both appease Bryan’s existing fanbase and win over some hardcore traditionalists. The track opens with a rollicking electric guitar and a hard-hitting drum set, but eventually turns the melody duties over to a slow-rolling (token) banjo (at least for the verses). There’s no fiddle or steel guitar to be found, but there aren’t any synthetic elements either, and the song ends up having more of a light country-rock feel than anything else (imagine a decaffeinated version of a Jason Aldean song). Unfortunately, the slower, methodical tempo means the song doesn’t have a lot of energy either, and it’s got a clean, cookie-cutter feel to it that doesn’t do enough to hook the listener and draw them into the story. I’ll leave the debate of whether this mix is “country” or not to smarter pundits, but one thing this sound is not is interesting.

For a guy with Bryan’s talent, I haven’t been all that impressed with his performances as of late, and that trend continues on “What Makes You Country.” On a technical level, he checks all the boxes: Solid range, decent flow, and the ability to own the narrator’s role and really make the song feel personal. Where he fails, however, is in forging a strong connection to the listener and actually making them care about the narrator’s country credentials. I’m sure the protagonist did a lot of hunting, fishing, and hay baling during his formative years, but I’m also zero percent interested in hearing them talk about it, and Bryan just isn’t able to inject enough life into the writing to make the story worth hearing. While the lyrics certainly deserve a lot of blame for this issue, I expect a much stronger sales pitch from a veteran performer with a shelf full of awards like Bryan, and he just doesn’t deliver here.

I tend to talk a lot about how the production complements or detracts from a song’s lyrics, but in this case it’s the poor fit between the artist and the lyrics that really hurts this track. On the surface, this song serves two purposes: It argues for a broader definition of “country” to accommodate a wide variety of experiences, while also firmly establishing the narrator as someone who fits that definition. Coming from a newer artist like Riley Green or Travis Denning, this premise wouldn’t raise any eyebrows: They’re still feeling out their place in the genre and trying to convince the audience that they belong, and pushing country music to broaden its horizons would feel more heartfelt than self-serving. When Luke Bryan delivers this message, however, his prior baggage makes this argument feel a bit less genuine.

With tracks like “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Bryan became one of the faces of the genre-bending Bro-Country movement, and his “country-ness” has been questioned by fans and journalists for the better part of a decade now. In this context, Bryan’s tone when bringing up the debate over what’s “country” feels more combative than it should, because he’s the one people are often talking about. The long, drawn-out laundry list of activities in the chorus makes him sound like he’s trying way too hard to convince people that he belongs in the genre, and he comes across as small and defensive as a result. Finally, his message of inclusiveness feels more hollow than it should because he’s clearly someone who stands to benefit from such an arrangement, making the listener wonder whether he really feels that way or whether he’s just trying to save himself from the pitchforks and torches of the traditionalist crowd.

There are other fundamental issues with the writing (the imagery is boilerplate by design, and the chorus feels like it needs a stronger narrative to bring everything together), but the bottom line is that screaming “I am too country!” isn’t a good look for Bryan, and makes him appear to be punching down at critics when he should be staying above the fray.

“What Makes You Country” is not inherently a bad song, but it’s a bad Luke Bryan song because he’s just too polarizing a figure to come across as impartial in this debate. “Country,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and with a discography like Bryan’s, no amount of fishing line or bird dogs is going to change peoples’ perception of his authenticity. There’s no point in him wasting time and energy talking about it, and there’s no point in you wasting time and energy listening.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.