Song Review: Chris Lane, “Fill Them Boots”

When George Jones asked “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”, I don’t think this is what he had in mind.

Say what you want about Lane (and I’ve certainly said a lot about him), but you can’t call him unpredictable: Whenever he thinks he needs a hit, he goes to the same old “hit on a girl at the bar” well he’s been drawing from since “Fix” in 2015. (To his credit, he tries to rise above this material, but he struggles to sell it whenever he does: “For Her” only made it to #10 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and “Big, Big Plans” took nearly eighteen months to top the charts.) After no new releases in 2020, Lane was in need of a another hit, and the result is as predictable as it is sad: “Fill Them Boots,” the likely second single off of Lane’s next album, and yet another guy hitting on yet another girl in yet another bar. It’s not interesting, endearing, or even fun—it’s nothing but the latest exhibit in a mounting body of evidence suggesting that Lane should have his country music membership card revoked.

Lane has tried to move beyond the slick, synthetic sound of “Fix,” but unfortunately he’s only made it to the point of sounding exactly like everyone else on the radio. The mix kicks off with a single acoustic guitar and simple mostly-stick drum line, but the chorus brings in the usual electric guitars and a drum machine, and we’re left with the same arrangement everyone else is leaning on these days. However, that isn’t to say there aren’t some improvements here: The instrument tones are brighter and the electric guitars have a bit more texture to their sound, giving the song a more optimistic and hopeful vibe (which might work if someone else were singing the song, but we’ll talk about that later). Unfortunately, these improvements aren’t enough to make the mix stand out from its peers, and the overly-positive vibes feel a little awkward in context (“how great is it that you’re going through a painful breakup, eh?”). Overall, I think Lane’s sound is trending in the right direction, but it’s nowhere near where it needs to be right now, and as a result, the listener doesn’t even realize it was playing until it’s over.

Somebody needs to sit Lane down and tell him that there are more ways to become a country superstar than being a creepy dudebro (although admittedly that’s been one of the more-effective tactics over the last decade). There aren’t any technical issues here (he handles some isolated rapid-fire syllable okay, although it’s weird to here someone who was jumping into their falsetto on “Fix” stay deep within their lower range here), but there’s a serious lack of empathy on display during this conversation. The other person is going through a painful breakup, but instead of showing any compassion or sympathy for them, Lane’s attitude is more “hey girl, I’m right here; let’s party and forget about him!” He doesn’t care about the other person’s well-being—he just smells a chance to score with a hot lady on the rebound. Through this lens, the implications that there don’t have to be any strings attached sound less like giving the other person control and more like he’s just in it for the good time and doesn’t really care if anytime comes of the moment or not. Overall, despite his occasional forays into more wholesome subjects, it’s the horny, disingenuous narrator from “Fix” and “I Don’t Know About You” that shines through on this track, and we’ve got enough losers like that in Nashville already.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A guy walks into a bar, sees someone else already drinking, and decides that they are “too fine not to try” approaching and picking up. Sure, the writers try to frame in a chivalrous manner by making the other person a victim of a breakup and having the narrator be up for anything, but that’s not a terribly original angle either, and they undermine the narrator with immature lines like “what you think about a late night turn-it-up,” and the cringiest of all, “hold you like a Dixie cup.” (That “scoot on over” line is a bit too pushy for my tastes as well.) Instead of acknowledging the pain and letting the other person tell their story, the narrator immediately jumps to all the things the pair could do together to put the memory aside, treating said person not like a wounded soul but as an easy mark for a pickup line. Even worse, the suggested activities are the same drink-and-party tactics that these meatheaded bros use even when there’s not a breakup—it’s the same old song with a slightly different context, a weak hook, and no story beyond the initial setup. In other words, there’s nothing to hear here, and the listener tunes out the whole mess before the second verse.

“Fill Them Boots” winds up being an empty song, with no emotion, no substance, and no reason to pay attention. The sound is cookie-cutter, the lyrics are half-baked, and Chris Lane is absolutely terrible in the role of a sympathetic narrator that totally has the other person’s best interests at heart. At this point, I’ve had my fill of Lane’s boots and I’m tired of putting up with his shenanigans—he’s flashed some talent in the past, but if he’s going to keep creeping on people in bars and dropping stinkbombs like this track on us, I don’t want him anywhere near my stereo. There are way better artists looking for a spot in Nashville right now, so Lane needs to take a hike and not let the door hit him on the way out (and take Dustin Lynch with him when he goes).

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You”

I was just thinking that Dustin Lynch hadn’t popped up to annoy me in a while…

I called Brett Young’s chart credentials into question recently, but Lynch’s bona fides are even more suspect: He’s got a few duds mixed in with his seven No. 1 songs (“I’d Be Jealous Too,” anyone?), and his latest single “Momma’s House” spent fourteen months on the airwaves and couldn’t even reach #1 on Mediabase (it stalled at #5 on Billboard’s airplay chart). I’d call Lynch a hat stand that’s just taking up space in Nashville, but even hat stands have more charisma than Lynch does, and perhaps sensing that he alone won’t be enough to get a song over the top (and perhaps to increase Lynch’s profile north of the border; “Momma’s House” only made it to #35 in Canada), Broken Bow has chosen “Thinking ‘Bout You,” a collaboration with Canadian country artist MacKenzie Porter (who last appeared on the blog in 2020 with “These Days,” a meh track that didn’t even break the top fifty in the States), as the fourth single off of Lynch’s Tullahoma album. Unfortunately, the song is yet another soundalike nostalgia track that is half-baked, uninspiring, and ultimately forgettable, which at this point is a fitting description of Lynch himself.

I’ve been begging Nashville for some arrangement diversity in their releases, but bringing different instruments into the studio is worthless if you don’t actually feature them in the final mix. Sure, there’s a steel guitar and what sounds like a dobro in the production here, but the former is buried in the background and the latter throws in a few notes but is ultimately overwhelmed by (you guessed it) a cacophony of overpolished acoustic and electric guitars and a punchless drum set. The instrument tones are surprisingly flavorless and neutral (whatever positivity and energy the mix generates comes only) from the vocals), and the vi-IV-I-V chord structure emphasizes the minor chord sections and makes the track sound far more serious than it should. The result is a mix that just kind of exists, and rather than supporting the subject matter, its sheer blandness encourages the listener to ignore it instead, and the listener is more than happy to oblige.

“Cowboys And Angels” came out all the way back in 2012, which begs the question: How have we let someone as charmless as Lynch hang around country music for this long? His performance here is passable from a technical level, but he’s terrible in the narrator’s role—there’s no excitement or emotion in his voice (especially on the verses), and his vocal tone makes him sound less like a guy happy to rekindle a relationship and more like a meatheaded dudebro hoping they can get some more sex out of an old hookup. It doesn’t help that Porter absolutely sings him under the table here (despite the fact that the key is a bit too low for her): She brings some unexpected power and feeling to her parts, and the producer has to keep her volume low so she doesn’t overwhelm Lynch’s part (it reminds me a lot of how Jordin Sparks had her volume turned way down to not drown out Thomas Rhett on “Playing With Fire”). I wouldn’t exactly her performance memorable, however, and it’s not nearly enough to elevate this song beyond mediocre, especially with a dead weight like Lynch along for the ride.

The writing puts our two narrators on either end of a random phone call some time after a relationship has cooled off and ended, and they spend the song rehashing the good times and promising to meet up again sometime in the future (a promise we’ve all made and later forgotten at some point). My main issue with the story is that there’s a giant hole in the middle of it—more specifically, if the pair had so many good times together (which are exactly what you would expect them to be: a night in the country, a weekend on the lake and “that one time in Baton Rouge when we made out in the rain”), why are they separated at the time of the call? The reason could be benign (someone left for “the big city” to chase a dream, for example) or not-so-benign (the guy was a sleazeball who didn’t treat their partner right, which tends to be the first thing you think when Lynch is involved), but you’ve got to give us more context before we can invest in the story—otherwise it’s just a phone call to reminisce about the past. The writers deserve some credit for trying to frame this song differently then, say, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” on “Everywhere But On” by trying to focus on the positive, but the truth is that this song is no different from the other generic lost-love snoozers we’ve heard over the last year, and you can’t just ignore the past without getting some questions from the audience. In other words, the story just isn’t worth paying attention too; not only is it incomplete, but it’s so boring that you won’t remember it after the song ends anyway.

“Thinking About You” is a story song minus the story, and an emotional love song minus any love or emotion. The production is ill-fitting and cookie-cutter, the writing is unengaging and unfinished, and Dustin Lynch is his usual unlikable self. As ambivalent as I was (and remain) about MacKenzie Porter, she qualifies as the high point of this song by virtue of being the only person in the room to bring some actual feeling and presence to the table. It seems that being forgettable and uninteresting is Lynch’s ceiling at this point, and at some point we can’t keep a hat stand around just because we have a place for it when we could make better use of the space it’s taking up. It’s time Nashville gave Lynch the Marie Kondo treatment, because he’s certainly not bringing anyone joy.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth thinking about.

Song Review: Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am”

There’s projecting confidence, and then there’s unnecessarily punching down. This song feels more like the latter.

Callista Clark is a Georgia native and musical prodigy who signed a record deal with Big Machine when she was fifteen, and is finally beginning to make a push to radio with her debut EP Real To Me and her single “It’s ‘Cause I Am.” I’m usually a sucker for a confident, empowering single like this one claims to be, but after listening to it I really don’t see what all the hype is about: This track is middle-of-the-road at best and surprisingly irritating at worst, featuring an uninteresting sound and a performance dripping with smug condescension that doesn’t feel justified and frames Clark in the worst possible light.

There are many things that annoy me about Nashville, but one of them is how they saddle every new act (honestly, it’s getting to be just every act in general) with the same soundalike arrangement that blends into the background and fails to catch the listener’s ear and make the artist stand out from the crowd. The production here falls into the same trap: We open with a drum set and a slick, deep-voiced electric guitar, we get some more-generic electric axes are tossed in for the chorus, a keyboard is buried so deep in the background that it’s barely noticeable, and that’s it. This is the same darn mix we’ve been fed over and over again, and while there’s the slightest hint of an edge here (mostly from the percussion), the arrangement has nowhere near the punch it needs to properly support the writing. (Also, despite the fact that Clark “can play a total of eight different instruments,” she’s only credited as a vocalist on the track—why the heck didn’t they let her play on her own single?) It yet another blown opportunity to let an emerging artist find their own style, and Nashville really needs to rethink their formula and make it less…well, formulaic, at least in the sound.

I’d like to jump to the writing here, because it honestly reminds of Travis Denning’s “ABBY” for all the wrong reasons. It tries to portray the narrator as a strong, confident individual breaking out of a dysfunctional relationship, but it falls on both ends: Lines like “I’m an MVP, you’re little league…and I’m gonna get bored” overshoot the mark and sound arrogant and immature, and when they say “Might be born in the same year, but boy we ain’t the same age” and “If I’m a little too salty, it’s ’cause you’re too sweet,” the image that comes to mind is less a meatheaded Bro only motivated by sex and more an awkward teenager whose biggest fault is being generally clueless. (All of the accusations feel too indirect as well: Instead of saying “you wish I was simple,” provide direct evidence and actually put those words in the other person’s mouth.) It makes the narrator look like the aggressor, bullying their target without providing a strong-enough rationale for doing so, and they lose the audience’s sympathy as a result. People are free to enter and exit relationships however they see fit, but the post-breakup antagonism we get here just feels mean and unwarranted, and it repels the listener more than it drawn them in.

Salvaging this junk would be a difficult task for any artist, and for Clark, whose voice falls somewhere between Maren Morris and Miranda Lambert, it’s simply too big a challenge to overcome. There aren’t any technical issues here (the track really doesn’t test her range, flow, or power), but she replaces Denning’s anger with a too-cool-for-school, holier-than-thou smugness that doesn’t make things sound any better. She seems to be aiming for a level of poise and experience that she just can’t reach yet, and the amount of snarkiness in her delivery undercuts her attempt to sound mature and above the fray. Instead, it reinforces the idea that she’s actually the villain in this story, breaking up on a whim because the other person is simply beneath her. It’s simply not a good look for a debut artist, and makes me completely uninterested in hearing more from her in the future.

“It’s ‘Cause I Am” is the same sort of debut single catastrophe that Lainey Wilson dumped on us back in 2019 with “Dirty Looks”: A new artist brings a soundalike sound and an abrasive attitude to the table, and all the audience can do is hold their nose and say “Really?” Instead of empowering the singer, it demeans them by making them sound childish and petty, and for someone like Calissta Clark (who I’m betting Big Machine is looking to push as the next Taylor Swift), it sets them back rather than setting them up for success. Nashville has a real problem with pushing newer artists these days (although part of this is because the older established players keep purloining the preferred playlist positions), and if they want to help these artists break through, they need to stop forcing them into the same two or three worn-out templates, and do more to showcase their individuality and talent. Otherwise, why move on from old artists when the new ones sound the same?

Rating: 4/10. Pass.

Song Review: Brett Young, “Not Yet”

Do we have any idea what Brett Young’s standing in country music is? “Not Yet.”

By the numbers, Young’s career is off to an incredible start, with all seven of his single releases reaching #1 (although “Sleep Without You” was a Mediabase-only chart-topper). What that actually means, however, is a different story: #1 songs are not that hard to come by (especially for products off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line), and Young’s tracks haven’t exactly steamrolled their competition (“Catch” took about 10 months to top Billboard’s airplay chart, “Lady” took nearly a year, and Young has never topped the Hot Country Singles chart, as “In Case You Didn’t Know” was eclipsed by the Summer of Sam Hunt). I’ve generally liked Young’s work, but I wouldn’t call him one of the genre’s leading stars, and my concern has grown as his style has drifted away from its “Cali-ville” roots towards the more-generic Boyfriend movement over time. “Not Yet,” however, is a slight step back from the edge (at least in its presentation), and while the writing is nothing to write home about, the song feels like an ever-so-slight attempt to reposition Young in the current landscape, trying to find a niche in the middle in a sea of mediocrity.

The production here feels more reminiscent of Brett Young than Ticket To L.A. or “Lady,” for two reasons:

  • The basic elements of the arrangement are nothing special (it’s the same guitar-drum-keyboard setup everyone else is using), but the focus seems to be more on the acoustic elements The acoustic guitar is much more prominent on the verses, and Young’s usual drum machine is completely replaced by a real drum set (which goes sticks-only for the first verse!). Yes, the mix returns to more-conventional territory on the choruses, but even then…
  • Rather the the hyper-polished feel of “Lady,” this mix has a rougher feel: The audio effects are removed, the electric guitars has some actual texture, and the both the guitars and drums seem a bit louder and more in-your-face than usual. The overall feel is one of raw, unrestrained exuberance, as if the producer decided to take a step back and let the session players turn it loose.

The result is a song that really captures the enjoyment and anticipation of being together with someone you love: The moment may pass, but it hasn’t passed yet, and the mix gives you the sense that the narrator and their partner are going to enjoy this time to the fullest while they have it. There’s an energetic vibe here that calls back to “Sleep Without You,” and overall it does a great job supporting the subject matter and driving home Young’s message.

Young is a charismatic presence who’s at his best singing happy love songs like this one, and he delivers a predictably solid performance here. The song presents few technical challenges, but it demands that the artist be up on the mic at times, delivering the necessary enthusiasm and optimism to sell the story to the audience. These demands, however, pose no issue for Young: He is a ball of excitement here, barely dwelling on the negatives and delivering the choruses with gusto. (There’s a bit of effective strain in the vocals to indicate the effort Young’s putting in, which enhances rather than detracts from the message.) He is all in on the narrator’s role, and he brings so much energy and enthusiasm to the part that the listener can’t help but believe him. What really sets Young apart from his competition is his easy (perhaps even excessive) charm: Where lesser artists would have dropped the ball and come across as a shallow meathead looking for a cheap thrill, there’s something about Young’s delivery that convinces you he’s in this for the long haul, and truly committed to the person he’s with. There’s a reason Young is 7-for-7 on #1 singles, and the way he delivers the goods here means there’s a good chance he goes 8for-8.

If there’s anything that’s holding Young back, it’s the mediocre-to-awful writing he keeps getting stuck with, and while he’s gotten pretty good at elevating such songs (there is no reason for “Catch” to work as well as it did), it a sign that he might want to stop relying on his co-writers and find more outside material for his albums going forward. The premise here is that the narrator and their partner are spending a romantic evening together, and while the narrator knows that it won’t last forever, they’re determined to make the most of the time they had (it’ll end eventually, “but not yet, no, not yet”). It’s a fairly weak hook, and we spend most of the song going over all of the ways the eventual end will be marked (the moon will set, the alcohol will run out, they’re “gonna run out of excuses to not go to sleep”) and the many run-of-the-mill things the pair still has plenty of (kisses, times taking away the narrator’s breath or driving them wild, etc.). Instead of describing the scene and getting the audience wrapped up in the moment, we get an uninteresting list that’s just kind of there, making the song overly reliant on Young and the producer’s efforts to add the necessary feeling and energy. Young isn’t an A-lister yet, but spending some V-bucks to upgrade his material would go a long way towards getting him there.

“Not Yet” is a forgettable song that is elevated to the realm of “okay” through its execution—specifically, through a strong, emotive performance from Brett Young and an effervescent sound to back him. While the track will be a welcome upgrade to the airwaves, it also makes me frustrated with the way Nashville does business: Instead of, you know, investing in ways to help their artists improve and make them better, they invest in things that will inflate coveted-but-artificial metrics of success such as their chart-topping single count. Young is a talented artist that has the ability to break into the Bryan/Aldean/Rhett orbit of stardom (maybe not the Thanos orbit though; that dude remains on another level right now), but his team is not taking the right steps to get him there, and that’s a shame. Hopefully this changes, or someday Young and his audience may be left wondering what might have been.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the Victrola to see what you think.

Song Review: Parker Denning, “To Be Loved By ABBY”

Okay, this is a trend we need to put an end to quickly before it spreads.

Country music has had a bit of an anger management problem over the last few years, and to be fair there is plenty of stuff to be angry about in the world: For example, Eric Church demanded that country music get back to telling the stories of the downtrodden, and Ashley McBryde wasn’t happy to find someone fooling around with her father. The problem, however, is there are a lot of things that are not worth getting angry about, such as when Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Robert Counts scream about not getting enough respect, or when Tucker Beathard whines about how his ex doesn’t miss him enough. It comes across as petty, immature, and just plain dumb, and that’s why when I first heard Travis Denning’s “ABBY” on satellite radio last year, my first thought was “Please tell me this piece of junk never never never gets pushed to conventional radio.” Unfortunately, the bad news dropped last month, and thus I’ve spent the last month putting off reviewing the track hoping that it failed to crack the Mediabase chart (so much so that I wrote a massive Tenta Brella how-to guide rather than acknowledge this drivel).

Unfortunately, it seems that Parker McCollum (who I’ve also spent the last three months avoiding) has now breached the Mediabase Top 50, which means I’m obligated to discuss and rate his latest single “To Be Loved By You” for my Pulse posts. After hearing the song, however, I realized that this and “ABBY” are pretty much the same track, as they both feature a guy throwing a tantrum over a woman who just won’t do what they want. While the two singers draw different conclusions (McCollum goes all in, Denning walks away), they both have the same insufferable attitude that repulses the listener and makes them actively root for the narrator to crash and burn. These songs, along with the entitled, thin-skinned frame of mind they showcase, need to be deposited in the nearest garbage can.

My contract states that I’m obligated to discuss the production on these tracks, so let’s get this out of the way quickly: Both tracks rely on the same tired guitar-and-drum formula that most of Nashville is using these days. Denning’s track opts for some slicker guitars and effected, synthetic-sounding percussion on the verses (the keyboard is also more organ-sounding, and is actually noticeable at times unlike on McCollum’s track), but the choruses sound like they were recorded in the exact same studio with the exact same band. The tempo and tone of both tracks are eerily similar, and both mixes are completely flavorless, devoid of punch, and completely dependent on volume for any energy they can muster. In other words, this sound is so stock that it should copyrighted by Getty Images—it’s an awkward-fitting default option that does little beyond fill the space between the vocals.

Vocally, Denning and McCollum are some of the latest creations to roll off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line, and neither acquits themselves well here at all. Denning remains a derivative of the Tyler Hubbard coaching tree, and while he actually puts some feeling behind the song this time (as opposed to the lifeless “Where That Beer’s Been”), that feeling is primarily contempt, and he winds up sounding completely obnoxious and unsympathetic as he tries to justify his breakup and ultimately makes the failed relationship sound like his fault. (If this song were a game of Among Us, he would have been voted out immediately for sounding so sus.) McCollum, on the other hand, is a Beathard clone who comes across as completely clueless as he complains about the other person rejecting his advances and swears that he’s all in on a relationship that just keeps falling apart, leaving the audience begging for him to take a freaking hint and leave the other person alone. There are no technical issues with either performance, but both artists showcase exactly zero charm or charisma, leading the listener to root for both of them to receive karmic justice and wind up completely miserable. In other words, these aren’t the sort of tracks you want to drop if you’re trying to expand your fanbase, because you’ll wind up doing the opposite.

But Kyle, I hear you say, you can’t claim these tracks are the same when the writing is so different! It’s true that the narrator in are very different positions: Denning is giving up on a relationship, while McCollum is trying to start one and keep it afloat. The problem is that both stories are underpinned by the same selfish, entitled way of thinking:

  • In the case of “To Be Loved By You,” the narrator has unilaterally decided that the relationship will work, and can’t seem to figure out why the other person reacts so poorly to his advances. Bruh, have you ever considered the fact that she’s just not that into you? If you’re wondering “Why do you sleep alone when I know you don’t like it?”, it’s probably because they think that sleeping with you would be worse! When you ask “Will it kill you to tell me the truth?”, my response is “Are you blind?” If they’re “always angry,” “always quiet,” and are “pissed off, hanging up the telephone,” that’s your answer right there: They’d like you to go away, and the sooner the better. It takes two to make a relationship work, and if one person isn’t interested, it doesn’t matter what you think. You need to stop acting like a creep and move on.
  • In the case of “ABBY,” my biggest issue is that Denning’s narrator never actually makes the case for his departure, and instead tried to pin all the blame on his ex. He’s as free to walk away as the woman in McCollum’s track is, but doing so by telling his ex they they suck and he’s going to find someone way better is incredibly off-putting and childish. The whole song just reeks of immaturity: The primary issue seems to be that the other person isn’t a fan of Denning’s Bro-Country-esque beer/truck/party lifestyle, and the narrator spends much of the song fantasizing about a imaginary waifu “Abby” (“anybody but you,” an acronym that isn’t nearly as clever as the writers think) who will love everything about him and never ever ask him to change or grow up. The narrator tries to turn the blame back onto the ex, but the charges simply don’t stick: The few mentions of “drama” are never elaborated on, and since when is driving a Honda grounds for a breakup? This guy needs to stop acting like a baby and just slink back into the shadows quietly.

“To Be Loved By You” and “ABBY” are just plain bad, and if I had to choose to hear one over the other, I’d pick Door #3 and just stick a power drill in my ear. Both tracks feature the same bland, unengaging sound, the same annoying vocal performance, and above all the same ignorant belief that the world revolves around them and that everyone else should just bend to their will and be happy about it. The world doesn’t work that way, however, and if Parker McCollum and Travis Denning want to be more than ankle-biters in a Nashville pond that’s already overflowing with artists like them, they need to take a hard look in the mirror, resolve to better themselves, and then strive to do so at every opportunity. If they instead choose to keep shoveling out junk like these tracks…well, I’d rather listen to the freaking Chug Jug song.

Rating: 3/10 for both of them. Get that garbage outta here!

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Country Again”

It’s not “Southern Comfort Zone,” but it’s a step in the right direction.

I’ve been a Thomas Rhett booster for a while, but I’ve been growing increasingly less impressed with his output, from his “meh” Cobronavirus take “Beer Can’t Fix” to his bland, vague feel-good attempt “Be A Light” to the painfully-generic “What’s Your Country Song.” The man just seemed to be stuck in a rut, running out of ways to recycle his material (how many love songs can one person write to his wife?) and unsure of what direction to go next. (It’s a problem Cole Swindell as his label have been wrestling with for a while as well.) However, “Country Again,” the second single off of Rhett’s recently-announced double-album project, may finally offer some clues to Rhett’s next move, and they’re surprisingly encouraging: Both the sound and the sentiment here are a welcome respite from the uncompromising sameness of the airwaves, and while it’s not in the same ballpark as Paisley’s 2012 offering (it actually reminds me of how Easton Corbin’s “A Girl Like You” tried to rebuke certain tropes while simultaneously benefiting from their use), it’s still a fair bit ahead of most anything on the radio right now.

The biggest surprise here has to be the production, which mixes in a lot more throwback elements than you might expected. Sure, the fiddle and steel guitar are here, and the former actually sees significant time in the spotlight (they even gave it a solo after the second verse), but those are the easy neotraditional callbacks—what really caught me off guard was the retro electric guitar that opened the track and serves as the primary melody-carrier, with its 70s-era sound that calls to mind the best of Waylon Jennings’s discography (the bass guitar gives off the same vibe as well). This mix may not be all sunshine and roses (the first percussion line feels a bit too clean for the mix, and the token banjo feels leftover from the Bro-Country era), but this arrangement finally brings back the sort of instrument diversity I’ve been hoping to see for a while now, while also offering a bit of meta-commentary in support of the subject matter (after all, if a song is going to claim to be country “again,” shouldn’t the sound walk the walk by calling back to a classic sound?). It’s a nice change of pace that suits Rhett well, and is bound to draw some double-takes from its listeners and compel them to take a closer listen.

While I think Rhett is a better artist than people give him credit for, he’s felt a bit out of his element on his last few singles—he just doesn’t have the track record or gravitas to carry a song like “Be A Light” or “What’s Your Country Song.” He’s at his best when he can make a song feel autobiographical, and this is the first time he’s succeeded in doing so in quite some time. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of here (with its limited range and relaxed flow, the song doesn’t present much of a challenge in that area), but it requires a narrator that can find comfort amidst complexity, and someone who can feel credible in both the rural and urban spheres referenced here. By these metrics, Rhett might be the perfect artist to drop a track like this, given both his family’s roots in the genre and his rapid rise to stardom presenting the classic rural/urban conundrum (going “big time,” “forgetting where you came from,” etc.). With his earnest charisma and suitable backstory, Rhett fills the narrator’s role without breaking a sweat, coming across as both sympathetic and believable. It’s the sort of performance I haven’t heard from Rhett in some time, and one that should pay dividends in the long run.

The writing is an interesting take on the tug-of-war between the life (and lifestyle) the narrator grew up with, and how the demands of celebrity and modern life have pulled them away from it (and subsequently how nice it is to return and be “country again.” (Kelsea Ballerini and Kenny Chesney explore a similar theme on “Half Of My Hometown.”) This is probably the weakest part of the track: There are some rougher moments here and there (the Eric Church reference feels a bit contrived, and saying “my roots…started missin’ me” feels a bit awkward), the track conveniently glosses over the darker elements of being “country” (like, say, the misogyny and racism), and while it it deserves some credit for taking the first step and not outright dismissing anything that falls outside the traditional rural sphere (the narrator “love[s] me some California” and “wouldn’t change things I’ve done or the places that I’ve been”), it still incorrectly champions the “country” lifestyle as inherently superior. Still, at this point anything that doesn’t immediately dismiss modern life or confront the listener with unnecessary anger is a positive development, and the writing does a nice job of softly pushing the trucks, boots, and fishing trips that the narrator treasures, striking a much more inclusive and comforting tone. (The critiques of modern life being so fast-paced, isolating, and cellphone-centered are certainly fair, albeit not terribly novel.) While it’s not the boundary-pusher that Paisley dropped nearly a decade ago, it’s comes closer to that most of its peers, and that’s a (slightly) encouraging trendline.

“Country Again” is a solid prototype of the stance I’d like country music to take going forward. Don’t just preach to the choir and scream about how big your truck tires are over soulless guitars and drums—instead, be a true salesperson and show people why you love what you love. This song attempts to do that through it throwback production, less confrontational writing, and a strong performance from Thomas Rhett himself. With this and “Half Of My Hometown” officially dropping next week, could this be a sign that country music is on the verge of an upswing? …Probably not, but I suppose a guy can dream.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “Waves”

If Luke Bryan is looking to put Ambien out of business, he’s got the perfect song to do it.

On some level, I feel bad for Bryan: Where once he stood atop the genre as one of the unquestioned kings of the Metro-Bro movement, these days he’s not even the best Luke in country music thanks to the rise of Thanos. It’s forced Bryan to go all-in on trend-hopping to maintain his influence, bouncing from Boyfriend country (“What She Wants Tonight”) to the Cobronavirus movement (“One Margarita”) to bringing back the “classic” Metropolitan sound (“Down To One”). Now, with country music seemingly stuck in neutral and unsure of its next move, Bryan is going back to the Boyfriend well with “Waves,” a song that may literally be the most boring track I’ve heard in the last twelve months. It’s a bland, uninteresting, unengaging snoozefest, a song so sterile that I had to look up the lyrics simply because the song couldn’t hold my interest long enough for me to hear them all.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The production here consists of…some electric guitars, a few spacious synths, and a mixture of real and synthetic percussion. How original! The major issue is that the producer seems to have gotten mixed up and put all the background instruments in the foreground: The louder guitars and real drums provide some occasional frantic energy bursts from them, but the bland background synths end up overwhelming everything else and cause everything to bleed together into an indistinguishable wall of noise. The tempo feels a lot slower than it actually is, and the neutral instrument tones and simple I-iii-IV chord progression cause the song to plod lifelessly from start to finish without building any momentum. There’s just nothing distinct or interesting here for the listener’s ear to grab onto, and ultimately it just kind of passes through unobtrusively without anyone realizing that it’s there.

Bryan is generally an emotive and charismatic artist, but he’s never been great with romantic tales (instead we get stuff like “Play It Again” and *gag* “Strip It Down”), and the axiom continues to hold here—something feels off, and it keeps him from truly connecting with the audience here. The issue is similar to what we heard with the guitars and drums earlier: There aren’t any technical issues with Bryan’s delivery, but it’s incredibly relaxed and much weaker than what we’re used to, which causes it to be overshadowed by the producer’s wall of noise. It makes Bryan come across as a bit dispassionate and not as emotionally invested as he should be (he just kind of glides over words and moments that are just begging for extra emphasis), which hurts his believability and prevents him from sharing the love with the listener. It’s a performance that should feel romantic but really doesn’t, and instead of making someone swoon, it puts them to sleep before the second chorus is complete.

The lyrics here tell the story of a narrator lying on a beach with someone, talking about how everything seems to be made for the moment and that the pair should take advantage of it. It’s basically Bro-Country on the beach: The trucks are traded for a “surf shop” and the drinking is limited to a metaphorical “margarita saltwater sunburned sip,” but otherwise it’s two people on a blanket under the stars about to get it on, with a couple of random references to flip-flops and tan lines thrown in. The “keep on coming in waves” hook feels surprisingly weak because the beach backdrop isn’t emphasized all that much (stick this pair in the middle of a cornfield, and the song barely needs to change), and for a song that focuses on a single moment, we don’t get a sense of the scenery because everything is focused on the narrator’s feelings (which are criminally undersung by Bryan and overridden by the production). The biggest issue is that the writing provides no hooks to draw the audience in: It’s just two people in a makeout session, and frankly a) nobody wants to watch someone else make out, and b) if they need a song to make out to, there are a million more options that are more sensual and less sterile than this track. Forget sex—this thing will put you to sleep long before then.

My “Blandemic” label never stuck the way Cobronavirus did, but we seem to be stuck in a very boring, uninspiring rut in country music right now, and “Waves” is emblematic of that trend. The production is a cacophony of nothingness, the writing fails to convince us that we should pay attention, and Luke Bryan doesn’t bring enough feeling or passion to his performance to make it work. This isn’t just background noise—it’s so sleep inducing that it’s dangerous for people to listen to it while driving. I’ve personally had it up to here with radio filler like this, and a veteran artists like Bryan should know better than to foist such drivel on the public. Songs like this won’t just keep him in the role of “the other Luke,” they may turn Thanos into the only Luke in country music if this Luke isn’t careful.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown”

The best way to sing a hometown song is to not focus on the hometown.

Kelsea Ballerini found herself in a tough spot after “Homecoming Queen?” only reached #17 on Billboard’s Airplay Chart, “The Other Girl” failed to launch at all, and the release of kelsea was disrupted by a global pandemic. Luckily, she had an ace up her sleeve in the form of “Hole In The Bottle,” a song that seems to strike a chord with the country music community even as it had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (and there’s no shame in finishing second to Thanos), and helped get the re-release of her album ballerini off the ground and out into the world. Now, she’s back with fellow Knoxvillian Kenny Chesney to discuss their shared place of origin in “Half Of My Hometown,” and while I generally don’t like songs like this, I feel a bit more positive about this one because it focuses on the people more than the place, and generally seems more clear-eyed and honest about the mixed emotions the location makes her feel.

Speaking of mixed emotions, that’s what I feel when I listen to the production: It generates a suitably wistful atmosphere to support the subject matter, but it also blends it a bit too much with the rest of the radio and is begging for a bit more instrument diversity. Yes, there’s a mandolin that helps open the track and gets some extended airtime on the second verse, and there’s a token banjo that’s barely noticeable as it slow-rolls in the background, but the primary melody drivers are the usual suspects: An acoustic guitar and a drum machine for the verses, and some electric guitars and real drums that jump in for the chorus. It feels like a “necessary but not sufficient”sort of mix: It supports the writing by reflecting the qualified devotion to the area and giving the song a balanced and neutral feel, but it could have done so much more to make the song stand out—an extra instrument here, a different riff there, etc. (I’m also a bit conflicted about how well the electronic beat blends with the acoustic instruments; the pairing seems a bit awkward, even despite how restrained the beat is.) I suppose that what we get is okay overall and you can’t say it doesn’t do its job, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to me.

I would call Ballerini’s performance as quietly impressive, given the surprising degree of difficulty presented by the song’s tone. Its limited range and relaxed flow present no challenge, but the artist has to strike a careful balance with their delivery: The have to exhibit impartiality with their message without coming across as disinterested or bored. In this regard, Ballerini does a nice judge projecting feeling without judgement, painting a picture with their words and letting the audience draw their own conclusions. You get the sense that she appreciates her hometown and the people in it regardless of their feelings or behaviors, although I wasn’t convinced to reflect and be more appreciative of my own hometown as a result (it’s an evil place, don’t ever go there). I know Chesney also hails from Knoxville and is therefore a logical choice to help out with this song (even if it’s just for harmony vocals), but I honestly don’t think it was a good choice: His voice is distinct but doesn’t add a ton to the song, and he and Ballerini don’t sound good together at all (and given how little volume Chesney’s vocals get, the producers seem to agree). Despite that, however, I think the vocals are a net positive on balance, and reflect how far Ballerini has come from the pop-princess image Black River was pushing a few years ago.

Talking about someone’s hometown is old hat is country music (especially when an artist is trying to flex their credentials), but generally the songs devolve into checklist tracks featuring beer, mama, and old athletic achievements. Instead, this song takes a different approach by focusing more on the people the narrator grew up with, and how their behavior has diverged over time: Some stayed and reveled in their history, while others left to chase a better future. The song tries not to play favorites and deliver both sides of the argument, and does a nice job focusing on some aspects of leaving home that don’t get a lot of airtime (how opinions differ on the narrator leaving, the contrast between “miniskirts” and “dressed for church,” and so on). There are definitely some subpar moments here (the initial contrast between drinking and making out doesn’t really go anywhere, and the math doesn’t add up on the hook—”part of me will always be half of my hometown” feels like a awfully small percentage of hometown), but the descriptions are generally vivid and lively (the crowd singing the fight song at the end was particularly well done). I’m not a hometown homer, but I heard enough on this track to appreciate where the listener was coming from.

I wouldn’t call “Half Of My Hometown” a great song, but it’s a solid effort from Kelsea Ballerini that is radio-friendly enough to build on her momentum from “Hole In The Bottle.” While I think the track had a lot more potential in its sound and could have used another iteration or two on the lyrics, Ballerini does a nice job on the vocals (Kenny Chesney less so, but his role is effectively minimal anyway) and helps elevate the track above the soundalike songs I’ve been reviewing lately. It’s the kind of hometown ode that I can actually get behind, and given how stale the radio has felt lately, I’ll take any good news that I can I get.

Rating: 6/10. Give this a few spins to see what you think.

Song Review: Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You”

I’m confused: Did anyone actually look at this song before they went and recorded it?

Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris married back in 2018, but nobody has ever confused them for a Nashville power couple. Sure, Morris has had some big hits like “The Middle” and “The Bones,” but her single releases are pretty inconsistent (her last one “To Hell And Back” only made it to #32 on Billboard’s airplay chart), and Hurd has only managed to be consistently mediocre (his #22 single “To A T” remains his best showing, and “Every Other Memory” barely cracked the top fifty). Now, the pair has teamed up for a new single “Chasing After You,” and it’s about as bad of a clash of ideas as I’ve seen in a long time: The singers and the producer clearly went into the studio thinking “sensual love ballad,” so why in the world are they recording a song about an on-again, off-again romance that will never work out? Instead of trotting out the cheesy clichés and doing their best Tim & Faith impression, Hurd and Morris leave the listener feeling mostly confused, wondering why the heck they chose to deliver such a song in such a way.

On its face, I don’t actually mind the production that much—I just find it to be an incredibly awkward fit for the song’s subject matter. There isn’t a whole lot to this arrangement: It’s a simple electric guitar backed by a deep, sparse drum machine and wrapped up in some spacious synthesizers (eventually a real drum set joins in on the first chorus). It’s lacks instrument diversity and the riffs are mind-numbingly simple, but the slower tempo and deeper guitar and drum tones actually do a decent job of creating a sensual atmosphere (this sounds far more sexy than most of the attempted country sex jams I’ve heard over the last few years). The problem is there really isn’t anything sexy about the song: Sure, the narrators engage in some implied “physical activity,” but the crux of the song is that the relationship never holds up and the pair eventually separates, and there’s nothing sexy or romantic about a Groundhog Day-like breakup loop. It’s almost as if the song is trying to convince the listener to ignore the writing and get lost in the sound, but the twist on the chorus is impossible to ignore, and it leaves the listener confused about what the song is trying to say. It feels like the producer and the writers are working as cross-purposes here, and it leaves the listener feeling very little at all in the end.

The mismatch between the sound and the subject matter puts Hurd and Morris in a tough spot, and while both decide to throw their weight behind the producer, it’s still not enough to paper over the song’s inherent conflict. Hurd is clearly the weaker of the two artists here: He’s a product of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line (stick anybody else behind the mic, and this song sounds the exact same), and his soundalike voice and limited charisma do little to convey the passion within the sound. Morris’s voice is both more distinct and more emotive, but her role is a bit more limited (she’s the one always stuck on harmony duty when the pair sings together), and she doesn’t bring a lot of power to the table on this track, causing her to be drowned out by the added instrumentation on the second verse. I think the pair has some decent vocal chemistry and could actually make a romantic power ballad work, but this isn’t that kind of song, and trying to turn it into that song takes a tool on both their believability and their ability to transmit their feelings to the audience. It’s not a great look for anyone involved, and unlike the narrators, the listener is more than ready to move on after hearing this track.

The writing here tells the sad story of a couple who just can’t seem to find the magic formula for love, but can’t seem to stop looking for it. I’ve never been a fan of these kinds of songs, because it paints the speakers in a negative light: If the relationship has crashed and burned so many times, why don’t you show some self-control, stop beating a dead horse, and move on? Much like the relationship, the story never progresses either: We get a drunken night together, a few TL;DR statements about how the relationship cycles, and some lines about how the narrators can’t stay apart because “it feels too good” (which implies that the attraction is purely physical and not based on any meaningful feelings). It would be different if the narrators were doing something—anything—to change the outcome each time, but we get no indication that they do anything but drink and make out. (Even the “guess I love chasing after you” hook feels born of resignation more than anything else.) The whole thing make the song feel incredibly pointless: The narrator’s aren’t happy with the on-again, off-again status quo, but they’re too comfortable with it to do something about it, and thus they’re trapped in an unappealing cycle that the audience would rather avoid altogether.

“Chasing After You” is a song that is unsure of its true purpose in life, and when it tries to be two separate things, it ends up being neither of them. The writing is an uninteresting tale of woe from two people who aren’t bothered enough to change the ending, the production is more suitable for a sex jam than a melancholy song like this one, and Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd fail to make chicken salad out of the chicken you-know-what they’re left with. It’s the sort of unengaging track that’s only suitable for background noise, and I’m not sure even Morris’s star power is enough to make this one leave a mark on the airwaves. I think the there’s enough chemistry shown off here that the couple should try this trick again, but only if they learn from the mistakes of the protagonists here and make the changes necessary (stronger material and a more-consistent approach from everyone involved) to do better next time.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go chasing after this one.

Song Review: Clay Walker, “Need A Bar Sometimes”

This is a name I hadn’t expect to see, and frankly, after listening to this track I wish I hadn’t seen it.

Clay Walker may have peaked early by scoring five No. 1 singles with his first six releases back in the early 90s, but he was a consistent hitmaker throughout the decade, and he even managed to score the occasional Top Ten in the 2000s before finally petering out as the Bro Country wave hit the genre in the early 2010s. While he has continued to release official singles over the last ten years, he had been far enough out of the spotlight that I considered him a potential deep dive candidate…until he suddenly appeared on the Mediabase chart this week with “Need A Bar Sometimes,” a song released last August that I had pretty much ignored despite its occasional appearance in a Country Aircheck ad. After listening to the song, it turns out that ignorance was bliss: This is a pointless drinking song with a dated (and jarring) Bro-Country sound, and does more to ruin Walker’s legacy than burnish it. I called Tim McGraw’s “Neon Church” “as disingenuous an ode to an old-school barroom that’s you’ll hear today,” but frankly, this song takes that title away without much of a fight.

The production on this track is probably the most aggravating part of the song: With its deliberate tempo, token banjo, and heavy reliance on synthetic beats (yep, Grady Smith’s favorite clap track is here too), the mix makes the song come across like a Bro-Country reject that would have sounded out of date five years ago. A steel guitar is brought in to fill in the occasional dead space, but it’s drowned in so many audio effects that it sounds like it’s underwater, and beyond that it’s the same old guitar-and-drum mix you’ve heard a million times before. Worse still, while electric axes on a song like Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” (yep, that’s the first song that came to mind when I heard this, and it makes me sad) tried to force the issue by getting in your face and with a little power and attitude, the instruments here feel weak and watered-down by comparison, and don’t even compel the listener to look up from their drink. Finally, much like “Neon Church,” this mix completely fails the context test: For as much as it talks up the barroom experience, this is the last thing you’d expect to hear as a classic beer joint (honestly, they should have called this “We All Need A Club Sometimes,” because that’s the image it brings to mind with that drum machine). In short, this is a terrible sound for the subject matter, and whoever produced this drivel needs to get back in their DeLorean and return to 2012.

Vocally, Walker doesn’t quite have the fastball he had in his 90s heyday (his voice seems a bit thinner now and lacks the presence it had before), which means he’s not able to impose his will on the song and shape its impression on the listener (instead, the awful production winds up as the song’s defining feature). He handles the occasional technical challenge of the lyrics without any trouble (rapid-fire lyrics aren’t really his thing, but he manages to cram in all the extra syllables without seeming too rushed), but his delivery is very matter-of-fact and doesn’t really sell the song—instead of lauding the barroom atmosphere, the bar just kind of a thing that exists, and he really doesn’t convince anyone that they’ll actually need it sometimes. (Personally, who needs a bar when I have Walker’s Greatest Hits album and a decent stereo system?) To be honest, the biggest issue I have is that Walker brings nothing distinct to his performance—stick any current member of Nashville’s faceless young male assembly line behind the mic, and nothing changes. Instead of a Clay Walker song, the song comes across as nothing but a vehicle for its awful Bro-Country sound, and both Walker and his audience deserve better.

The lyrics here…well, they really don’t say much at all: “We all need a bar sometimes” to cheer up, chill out, or just drink a beer. It’s an incredibly scattershot song, trying to achieve broad appeal by saying that anything can happen there (you can be happy, sad, chill, rowdy, etc.) and hoping that one of these clicks with the listener and that they can fill in the details. By itself, however, the place they (barely) describe in the song doesn’t seem that appealing at all. Outside of beer and cigarettes, there’s no sense of the atmosphere or character of the bar: No mention of regulars, no mention of recreational activities, and not even a mention of drink selection beyond beer and tequila (I’m surprised there’s no mention of Jim, Jack, Johnny, or Fireball here, given how country songs love to drop those names). If you don’t already find a bar interesting, there’s nothing here to make you say “Hey, that’s where I want to be!” If this is all a bar offers, then I’d rather stay home.

Clay Walker is an underrated star of the 1990s and I would encourage people to check out his discography, but “Need A Bar Sometimes” is one of the weakest songs I’ve ever heard from him. The writing feels vague and incomplete, Walker’s sales job is unconvincing, and the producer tries to turn the whole mess into a generic Bro-Country throwback. The song is nothing but radio filler that’s forgotten thirty seconds after it ends, and given country music’s age bias, I doubt it will make much of an impact on the charts. If Walker is really hoping for a late-career comeback, he’s going to need better songs than this to make it happen.

Rating: 5/10. Skip this track, and dive into Walker’s older material instead. Here, I’ll help get you started: