Song Review: Chris Janson, “Bye Mom”

Darn you Chris Janson, you know I’m a sucker for songs like this.

There’s a thoughtful, talented country artist somewhere within Janson, and we occasionally get glimpses of it through songs like “Holdin’ Her” and the excellent “Drunk Girl.” Unfortunately, songs like these aren’t what Nashville is looking for these days, so most of the time we got stuck with drivel like “Fix A Drink” and “Good Vibes.” However, after “Waitin’ On 5” crashed and burned at #42 on Billboard’s airplay chart, Janson surprisingly decided to go back to the emotional well one more time, closing the book on the Real Friends era and bringing out “Bye Mom” as the presumed leadoff single for his next project (an unexpected and bold move given the stakes). The TL;DR version of this review is that this song is exactly what I’d like to hear more of from this genre: Mature, experience-rooted tracks that make the listener think more deeply about the subject matter and have some useful life lessons buried within them (and the classic, understated production doesn’t hurt either). After the tire fire that was Blake Shelton’s “Come Back As A Country Boy,” this was not only a welcome change of pace, but perhaps one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

While the production here is reminiscent of “Drunk Girl,” it’s not as heavy as that mix and is constructed very differently. While simultaneously impresses and confuses me about this arrangement is just how many instruments are included here: The video lists everything from the usual guitars and drums to a plethora of bluegrass instruments (dobro, mandolin, banjo) and makes you think that the sound will be incredibly busy and complex, but in reality this boils down to a simple acoustic-guitar-driven mix backed by a methodical drum set and occasionally featuring an electric axe and pedal steel. Everything else mentioned earlier is here, but they’re only used sparingly and are barely noticeable outside of a note or three (generally towards the end of the song). You could argue that some of these instruments are used so little that they could have been cut without impacting the mix, but they do help the song build some momentum as it approaches the climax, and their judicious use keeps the sound from drawing attention away from the lyrics and watering down the song’s message. This the rare Nashville mix that conveys seriousness without going dark: The instrument tones are bright and the chords are mostly major, giving the song a vibe that is equal parts reverent and reflective and inviting the listener to think about their own history and relationship with their mother. In other words, it’s an outstanding mix that does a great job driving home the song’s message, and it frames what’s ultimately a song about loss as a song about life instead.

I give Cole Swindell a lot of props for his flexibility, and while I wouldn’t put Janson in his league just yet (unlike Janson, Swindell can occasionally sell his Bro-Country nonsense), I’ve got to give him props for a) going in this direction for a radio single in the first place, and b) bringing the necessary emotion and charisma to the table to actually pull it off. He delivery gets a bit rough at times, but unlike on past singles, he tones down his talk-singing and sticks to a more-conventional style while still coming across as casual and conversational, making a song a bit more palatable and inviting to its audience. Lots of country singers praise Mama in their work, but Janson can bring a surprising amount of gravitas to his performance that others simply can’t match (witness his past forays into serious territory with songs like “Drunk Girl”), making him feel a lot more credible and his performance a lot more personal and heartfelt. In contrast to Shelton’s hard-line, exclusionary rant, Janson’s tone is non-judgemental: He just wants you to think about your mother and your relationship with her, and share what he’s learned about the bond over time. It’s a nice sentiment that’s well-delivered, and while it annoys me that current country music tends to frown on such songs, it’s nice to know that Janson is trying to do something about it.

The lyrics here tell the story of the narrator’s relationship with their mother, and the perspective and experience they’ve obtained about it as they’ve gotten older. If you’re lucky enough to have a caring parent, it’s something that you often take for granted and can even grow annoyed with (especially at a young age), and the writing does a nice job capturing the narrator’s nonchalance as they run off to new experiences (or more often are taken to said experiences by their mom). The line about how “you don’t know you’re somebody that somebody loves more than themselves” really strikes the listener because it explicitly highlights the depths of the mother/child relationship and forces us to think about and appreciate something that usually never crosses our minds. For a topic that could easily cross into cheesy and saccharine territory, the song mostly avoids this by focusing on the prior vignettes in which the mother was ignored/dismissed (and even though you know the death twist is coming, it’s limited to the bridge and isn’t dwelt on nearly as much as you expect). It’s perhaps not the varied advice of Eric Church’s “Some Of It,” but it’s a nice message that leads the listener to think about their own mother and how they may have treated their relationship in days gone by (and maybe even motivate some folks to be a little nicer to their moms), and that moment of rumination/reflection (regardless of what the exact subject is) is something that country music is lacking these days, and something I’d like to see more of from the genre going forward.

I don’t hold out a ton of hope for Chris Janson’s radio prospects with “Bye Mom,” but I have to give him some credit for trying to go against the grain. Writing with story progression and some words of wisdom to chew on, production that supports the subject matter and strikes a nice balance between the arrangement and the simplicity of the sound, and a heartfelt, believable performance from Janson himself resulted in a thoughtful song that’s easy to listen to yet gives you something important to think about. Amidst all the beer-and-truck background noise that dominates the airwaves, this song asks you to stop what you’re doing, listen closely, and consider your mother/child relationship and wonder if you truly appreciate what it’s meant to you over the years. Maybe it’s not a huge ask, but it’s something that’s worth thinking about, and if you can take the time to think about that, maybe you’ll be willing about bigger and deeper subjects down the line. It’s a potential first step towards a better genre of music, if only we’re willing to take it.

Rating: 8/10. You should check this one out, and let’s be honest: You should probably call your mom soon too.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy”

The moment I saw the flames on the single cover, I had a feeling this review was going to be rough.

Remember when Blake Shelton was “the safest artist in country music?” Unfortunately, over the last few years Shelton has been not-so-quietly making a play for Jason Aldean‘s title as the angriest artist in country music, which came to a head in 2019 with his back-to-back atrocious singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right.” The backlash to the latter track scared Team Shelton back to his bland roots with a pair of Gwen Stefani duets and the forgettable “Minimum Wage,” but he’s going back to this well of grievances with his latest single “Come Back As A Country Boy.” Instead of being the lightweight-but-heartfelt homage to rural life that I expected, this piece of junk is an over-the-top exclusionary track along the lines of “Old School’s In” and “The Worst Country Of All Time,” and its horrible execution weighs it down so much that it may be one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.

The production is reminiscent of “God’s Country” in the worst possible way: It’s got an ominous, almost apocalyptic vibe dominated by growling guitars that take the mix to a very dark place. After an unsettling opening featuring a choppy string section, creepy synth tones, and a wolf howl (you know, the sort of thing you might start a Halloween movie with), we’re left with a mix filled with minor chords and defined by dark-toned electric guitars and a punchy drum set (there’s a steel guitar here that adds a few stabs here and there, and while it’s a nice touch, it’s tone is noticeably different and clashes a bit with the rest of the arrangement). That fire on the single cover turns out to suit the song’s mood rather well, because scorched earth and bleak, barren landscapes are exactly what this mix bring to mind (which isn’t exactly great marketing for the “country boy” lifestyle). There’s a deep, visceral anger to this sound that is neither justified nor necessary, and it makes the song come across as overly dramatic while also pushing the listener away rather than drawing them into the subject matter. A song like this could easily be set up as pleasant, reverent or even whimsical, but instead this mix snarls at the user and warns them to keep their distance, which I am more than happy to do.

Shelton is a talented, charismatic singer who is capable of great performances, so why why why does he insist on coming across as a grumpy old man telling people to get off of his lawn? While there aren’t any technical issues to speak of (and at least he’s not screaming at us this time like he was on “God’s Country”), there’s still an edge to his delivery that makes it feel needlessly aggressive towards the audience. We get it bruh, you’re all about that country lifestyle—why do you have to get up all in our faces about it? There’s simply no reason to sound this PO’d here, yet Shelton draws a hard line with his words that puts the listener on the defensive instead of inviting them to find common ground. This divisive attitude turns my stomach and turns the audience off, and I can’t fathom why Shelton chose to take such a bleak and angry approach to the subject when there were so many other options available. (Okay, actually I can; more on that later).

The lyrics here are best summed up as hot, flaming garbage, and they fail hard for three reasons:

  • At its core, this is just another “I’m so country!” song, with the narrator going as far as to proclaim that they would never want to live any other way. This means that we’re which means we’re getting slapped across the face with all the same tired tropes: The beer, the trucks, the dogs, the boots, the fishing, the hunting, the Hank Jr. reference…is this really all that “country” has to offer? (Also, that “money has trouble making” line is about as weak an attempt at wit as I’ve seen in a while.)
  • The narrator is the poster child for the exclusionary, “us vs. them” attitude that’s becoming increasing prevalent in this genre, to the extreme that they declare that they would rather be dead than be anything but “country.” (They even claim that they “don’t wanna be born into money,” which I do not believe for a second.) They’re basically declaring that anyone who doesn’t fit this narrow definition of “country” should be scorned and would be better off dead, and I absolutely hate this closed-minded line of thinking. Seriously, what is so bad about other ways of life? Should someone stick a gun in their mouth because they don’t like drinking or fishing? I don’t think so, and insinuating that “non-country” lives aren’t worth living is beyond infuriating.
  • So let’s say you can overlook the first two points and are curious about this whole “country” lifestyle. Here’s what the song offers you:

My back is always breaking, my dogs are always barking
My money has trouble making and my truck has trouble starting
I’m up before the sun, either hauling hay or hunting
My work ain’t ever done, but son, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing

That sounds like a terrible way to live! Personally, I prefer my trucks to be reliable, my back to remain in one piece, and my work to eventually finish while not forcing me to wake up at 4 AM every day. The writing paints country living as a endless cycle of pain and misfortune, which isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of fun. If you’re trying to convince people that “there ain’t no better life,” you’re doing it wrong.

In other words, the people responsible for this drivel (oh, HARDY was a co-writer? Quelle surprise!) need to have their pens taken away until they complete a few more English classes.

Let’s not mince words here: “Come Back As A Country Boy” is one of the worst songs I’ve ever had the misfortune of reviewing. The production is overly dark and ominous, Blake Shelton is unnecessarily angry and aggressive, and the writing torpedoes its own argument that the “country” lifestyle is superior to all others by making “country” sound as unappealing as possible. It all begs the question: Why on Earth would anyone let a song this bad get out into the marketplace?

Back when I reviewed “God’s Country,” I mentioned that “there’s no money in the middle anymore…so you might as well play to your base and project as much defiance and swagger as you can as you declare that your way of life is superior to all others.” That reality has only wedged deeper into our society since 2019, and it’s threatening to split us apart entirely. As dangerous as such an attitude is, pandering to it has proven to be good for business, and thus we have artists like Shelton taking a hard line and stoking the crowd in order to fatten their wallets.

If Shelton is looking make a statement, I think it’s time I made one of my own. Mr. Shelton, there’s someone I’d like you to meet. His name is Michael Ray.


Song Review: Frank Ray, “Country’d Look Good On You”

Dear country music: Just stop it already.

Frank Ray is a Texas native who spent a decade in law enforcement before switching careers, spending some time on the Lone Star music circuit, and eventually signing with BBR Music Group back in May. On the surface, this signing is an intriguing one: On top of his unorthodox road to Nashville, he cites a wide range of genres as his influences, including Latin music (country music really hasn’t seen much influence from south of the border since the days of Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez, outside of maybe Rick Trevino) that could being a unique perspective to his music. Instead, Nashville stuck him on the same assembly line they use for all their new male artists, and the result is “Country’d Look Good On You,” a formulaic sex jam wannabe cribbed straight from the Metropolitan playbook that the listener forgets thirty seconds after it stops playing. It’s a terrible choice for a debut single, and it’s worth exploring just how Nashville keeps getting stuff like this so wrong.

Let’s start with the production, and you already know what’s coming: There are guitars (acoustic and electric), there’s percussion (real and synthetic), there’s a keyboard floating around in the background, and that’s pretty much it. (The video mentions a ‘slide guitar,’ but good luck finding it in this mix). The guitars are exactly the sort of slick-sounding axes that dominated the genre a few years ago, and the overall tone of the arrangement ranges from neutral to serious, a common tactic meant to convey the depth of the narrator’s feelings but usually winds up making them seem sleazy and creepy instead. Instead of feeling sensual or romantic, the song feels bland and cookie-cutter, mostly because you’ve heard the same darn tune a million times in the last few years, and it’s no more sexy now than it was then. The question I have when faced with a song like this is “Why?” Why, when faced with a sea of songs that all sound the same, does Nashville try to make artists blend in instead of stand out? Instead of bringing a fresh take to the radio to get people to stop and pay attention, it’s like they’re trying to slip the artists into the playlist and hope that no one notices. It just doesn’t seem like a winning strategy long-term (the artists never give people a reason to remember or care about them), and the result here, just like always, is a soundalike track that most people will never even realize they’re listening to.

The lyrics have the same problem: The narrator meets somebody at an upscale locale, proclaims that the “country” lifestyle would flatter them, and ultimately tries to get them out of their clothes and “in my shirt.” Once again, it’s the millionth time you’ve heard a song like this in the last half-decade, and because demonstrating your country street cred means using all the right buzzwords, we get the same old tired offer of nighttime drives down two-lane back roads, cowboy cosplay complete with faded jeans and boots, and truck-bed makeout sessions (which sounds super uncomfortable which you think about it; truck beds tend to have uneven textures and very little give). Toss in a little holier-than-thou hubris (why would hanging out by the county line automatically be better than a fancy establishment? I mean, at least there’s probably decent food in the fancy joint), follow the continuing trend towards no-strings-attached engagements (which always call the narrator’s motives into question), and voila, instant country single! I’ll give the writers credit for avoiding any mention of alcohol (that counts as progress these days), but otherwise it just feels like everybody in country music is assembling the same five-piece puzzle like a preschooler, erasing anything that might make the artist distinct or ear-catching. It makes the song far too easy to tune out and ignore, and it’s quickly forgotten when the next song starts playing.

So where does this leave Frank Ray as an artist? Honestly, he seems like a pretty talented guy: He shows off some serious range with his falsetto, he’s got enough flow to handle the rapid-fire sections of the lyrics with ease, and his maintains the tone and texture of his delivery throughout the entire song. It’s hard to gauge his vocal power from this track, but he seems to have the kind of voice that could really make listeners sit up and pay attention if he wanted to. Unfortunately, he’s trapped within the constraints of the song, and it fails him on two fronts:

  • The song doesn’t push him at all, and he mostly stays within a narrow vocal range that makes him indistinguishable from most of the artists in the genre today.
  • The song casts him as a sleazy, not-terribly likeable narrator, so he falls into the same trap that Jake Owen is forever falling into, where whatever charisma he demonstrates ends up working against him by making him more believable (and thus unlikeable) in the role.

Ray seems like the kind of artist who could lean on his vocal talent to strike out in a different direction (his “Streetlights” song was a half-step along this path), but the Nashville machine turns him into a mediocre finished product instead (put any number of current artists behind the mic, and the song sounds the exact same), and we’re left with a “meh” performance that’s better off forgotten.

“Country’d Look Good On You” is ultimately another bland product of a town that’s feeling very devoid of creative spark or variety right now, and I’m honestly having a hard time blaming Frank Ray for any of this. At the moment, this is the game an artist has to play to make a name for themselves, even as the song tries best to not make a name for itself through soundalike production and cookie-cutter writing. If Nashville’s going to fix what ails it, a good starting point would be this: Treat every artist as an individual, bring a bit more variety into the writing room and the producer’s booth, and ask a simple question: How do we make a song go from anyone’s song to a song that truly belongs to somebody? Until then, we’re stuck we’re a “same stuff, different day” scenario, and it’s not a fun place to be.

Rating: 5/10. Pass this one by, regardless of whether or not you’re passing through.

Song Review: Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”

Just when you think country music has run out of tricks…

Two days ago, I declared that “the chart’s descent into negative territory is now inevitable” “unless someone miraculously rides to the rescue,” and I specifically called out Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde’s new collaboration as a possible savior to the Pulse score. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the pairing, as neither one has found consistent chart success (Pearce has a single solo Top Ten to her name after “Next Girl” had its plug pulled at #15, but it’s one more Billboard Top Ten than McBryde has after “Martha Divine” crashed and burned at #59), and Pearce in particular has thrown some seriously mediocre singles at the radio over the last few years. What we got in the end was “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” a story of two people who find themselves caught up in an unwanted love triangle, and while it’s not quite on the level of Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’s “Does He Love You,” it’s a strong performance for both artists that does a nice job capturing the mixed emotions of the scenario, and might end up bailing out the Pulse as a result.

The production isn’t much to write home about, but it’s an understated, solemn effort that sets a suitably-serious mood for the song. We’re confronted once again with the usual guitars and drums, but the instrument tones are darker and a bit muted, keeping the focus squarely on the subject matter while also impressing the importance and significance of the issue upon the audience. The dobro is becoming a major part of Pearce’s sound, and it gets ample screen time here (including the lead role on the bridge solo) as a way of breaking up the guitar monotony and accenting the atmosphere that they create. (There’s a keyboard deep in the background as well, but it’s barely noticeable and doesn’t add a ton to the sound—in fact, it’s probably only here because you’re contractually obligated to put a keyboard of some sort in a “serious” country song.) It’s the sort of arrangement that favors simplicity and calm over overproduction and a high-octane sound, a wise move given that it wouldn’t take much to overwhelm both the vocalists and the story with volume and energy. The producer knows their role here, and they do just enough to provide support to the subject matter without becoming the center of attention. It may not be a terribly interesting sound, but it shouldn’t be, and given the pieces around, it doesn’t have to be.

The biggest contrast between “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” and “Does He Love You” is the vocalists that are involved: Frankly, neither Pearce nor McBryde are in McEntire’s or even Davis’s league in terms of sheer vocal power and presence (which translates into the sound as well: The producer on “Does He Love You” had the freedom to add a few more pieces and turn the song into a true power ballad, knowing that there’s no way in heck he could ever overwhelm the women behind the mic). However, that’s not to say that Pearce and McBryde drop the ball here: Instead of trying to make the song a super-emotional tearjerker, both artists use a more-plainspoken delivery to convey both their weariness and disbelief to the listener, as if they’re still trying to process the whole mess themselves. Much like the best of Tom T. Hall‘s discography, Pearce and McBryde approach the song as a story and they tell it like one, without excessive passion or judgment (except perhaps towards themselves). This sort of performance is second nature to McBryde, but we haven’t really heard something like this from Pearce since “Every Little Thing,” and I was pleasantly surprised (and even a little impressed) at how much vocal chemistry the duo demonstrated on the choruses (they’ve sung one song together and they’re already a better pair than Tyler Hubbard and Brian “Mr. Invisible” Kelley). In other words, I like Pearce and McBryde as a pair, and there’s a part of my brain that wonders whether a Brooks & Dunn-like pairing could reverse both artists’ lackluster chart results…

Unlike a lot of the team-up tracks on the radio these days, this song was actually written as a duet, with two distinct narrators who find out that they’ve been unknowingly romantically involved with the same person. I absolutely love how the song starts, as the “other woman” gives a detailed account of how they wound up in this predicament despite their best intentions (as they said, “they never wanted to be that girl”). The mentioning of the spouse’s family history in the second verse was a brilliant move as well, making their realization that they wound up in a situation they thought they were primed to recognize and avoid a real gut punch for themselves and the audience. Anger would have been the easy angle to play here (and it might have worked well in the story—remember what happened to Martha Divine?), but instead both narrators restrict judgement only to themselves, discussing how they feel on the bridge without ever discussing each other and making themselves seem more sympathetic in the process. (Their feelings towards the third person in this triangle are never explicitly mentioned, but it’s still pretty clear that they’re the bad guy. Also, when are cheating lovers in country songs going to wisen up and start buying burner cell phones?) It’s a really well-constructed piece that challenges your assumptions when it comes to who’s right and who’s wrong in a scenario like this, and it’s the sort of deep, thought-provoking track that I wish we had more of on the radio right now.

“Never Wanted to Be That Girl” isn’t quite “Does He Love You,” but it’s a strong offering from Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde in a year that’s had far too few quality singles reach the airwaves. With a great story, some solid vocal performances, and production that sets the mood and then wisely gets out of the way, this was an easy, enjoyable listen that demonstrates the direction I’d really like to see country music go in. This genre needs to look beyond the beer, trucks, and Friday nights and give us more songs rooted in stories and experience, imparting lessons learned and providing hard-earned, mature perspectives that make us think about the world and the people in it.

Is this song going to keep the Pulse from going negative? Probably not…but at least it might delay it for a while longer.

Rating: 7/10. This one is definitely worth your time.

Song Review: Caroline Jones, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)”

Sorry Caroline Jones, but…wait, is this a decent song for a change?

Mailboat Records has been pushing Jones to country for several years now, and up to this point they’ve had little to show for their efforts: Of the five singles Jones has released to the radio, none of them have even cracked the top fifty on Billboard’s airplay chart (and given how mediocre “Chasin’ Me” and “All Of The Boys” were, this wasn’t much of a surprise). This year, however, Jones took a page from the female empowerment anthems that have been slowly growing in number lately, and released “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable),” setting some strict relationship boundaries while being backed by a beat with some bounce. I wasn’t expecting much going into this review, but I’m actually kind of impressed by what I’ve found here: There have been quite a few songs singing the praises of strong women recently, but very few of them have been this much fun to listen to.

It all starts with the production, which stands as an example of how to take a typical guitar-and-drum mix and turn it into something exciting. The electric guitar (which Jones handles herself, including on a solid solo) has a bright, rollicking sound, and the percussion, while perhaps a bit too reliant on Grady Smith’s favorite clap track, gives the song a lively, back-porch feel. The pair teams up with a fiddle (which sounds great during its solo turn, but honestly should be have used a lot more, at the very least as a background space-filler) to create a barnburner of a mix with tons of momentum and energy to burn. While the song places an unfairly-heavy burden on the sound (more on that later), this arrangement is more than up to the task, as it mixes the song’s strong, confident message with a fun, positive vibe that can get everyone tapping or dancing along. I’ve given Jones’s production team a fair bit of grief for having too many empty sonic calories in her sound, but this time I think they got the balance just right.

I’m still not 100% sold on Jones as a vocalist, but at least this track seems to play to her strengths. There aren’t any real technical issues (although I feel like some of the lines try to cram too many syllables into a line), but Jones doesn’t have the power or presence in her delivery to sell a heavier, more-serious approach to this topic. Playing up the ‘fun’ angle of the song, however, allows her to bring some personality and attitude to the table, making the narrator feel more three-dimensional while earning the audience’s respect and empathy. Jones may not a big-voice balladeer like Carrie Underwood or Mickey Guyton, but her narrator is in total control of this situation, and when she declares that nothing is happening here without her approval, you believe her. After struggling with more sensual or emotional performances on previous singles, I think Jones may have found a niche as a Miranda Lambert-type artist who brings some serious confidence to the table, and while she lacks Lambert’s sharper edge in her delivery, she’s more than capable of getting her message across here.

As far as the lyrics go, I think the writers had the “write” idea (this is what you get when you start watching DashieXP videos while writing a review), but the song feels surprisingly unfinished to me. The narrator strikes a confident tone with the hook, declaring that they won’t be pushed around and that “I wouldn’t want to be you when I want you gone,” and the “park your truck facing out” line is a nice touch. (There’s also some unexpectedly rough and direct language here; I like how they use this to amplify the narrator’s attitude, but I’m kind of surprised to see a buttoned-down format like country radio let a line like “you ain’t getting in my pants” onto the airwaves.) The issue is that the lyrics get repetitive quickly: The opening “come in, but don’t make yourself comfortable” block used up getting used three times, the other verses only vary the wording slightly, we get what passes for a chorus repeated twice, and that’s all. The “whoa-oh” part is a complete waste of time, and the instrumental breaks run a bit longer than they ought to, making it feel like the writers gave up about halfway through the track and tossed in a bunch of filler to stretch the song to three minutes. The problem with loading up your song with attitude is that it puts the focus squarely on the writing, and when it’s this undercooked, it makes it seem like you really didn’t have that much to say. It’s a good thing that the other pieces of this song are so strong, because the writing left a lot to be desired despite its good intentions.

Despite its shortcomings, “Come In (But Don’t Make Yourself Comfortable)” turns out to be an enjoyable,and while its messaging is held back a bit by the incomplete writing, the solid efforts from both Caroline Jones and her producer more than make up for it. Listening to mainstream country music this year has been a bland and rarely-enjoyable exercise, so it was nice to hear a song that created a fun, upbeat atmosphere while avoiding the nihilistic, devil-may-care trap that got us stuck in the Cobronavirus era to begin with. Whether or not the radio will embrace this track is still to be determined, but much like Lainey Wilson did with “Things A Man Oughta Know,” this song gives Jones the chance to re-introduce herself to the world on better terms, and perhaps find a more-permanent home on the radio and in the genre.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a chance and see what you think.

Song Review: Sam Hunt, “23”

Would it kill Sam Hunt to release an interesting song for a change?

Sam Hunt made his name in the mid/late 2010s with his “unique” fusion of genres and mediocre talk-singing delivery, but lately he seems to have faded into the background as more artists adopt his sound, his output becomes more sporadic, and his songs become more and more uninteresting. Sure, tracks like “Hard To Forget” and “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” eventually made it to #1, but there was nothing that really stood out about them, and they were forgotten the moment they went recurrent. (Seriously, when the most interesting thing about your songs over the last eighteen months is Webb Pierce, you’ve got a problem.) Now, Hunt has closed the book on the Southside era barely a year after the album was released (that’s what happens when you wait four singles before dropping the LP), and has dropped “23” as the presumed leadoff single for his third album (it’ll be out just in time for the holiday season! …of 2023). Sadly, this is a bad-faith story from a resentful narrator that never answers the question “Why should we care about this?”, and the listener tunes it out before the second verse arrives.

The production here may be the usual guitar-and-drum mix everyone else used at its core, but it’s got some of the usual twists that you expect from a Sam Hunt record: The drums are mostly synthetic here, and the electric guitars are buried in so more reverb that it’s hard to tell exactly what they are (Electric? Pedal Steel?). The more-classical instrumentation Hunt was experimenting with on songs like “Hard To Forget” is mostly gone, but the one instrument that survived this purge is the dobro (it fact, given that is gets the bridge solo here, you could argue that it’s thriving), and it’s the one thing that helps the sound stand out a bit from the crowd. The major issue here is that the sound can’t seem to decide what mood it wants to set: The percussion is too busy to give the song a reflective or sad feel, but the instrument tones are a bit too neutral to make the song feel upbeat or positive. The sound is caught in an awkward position between a club banger and a solemn ballad, and it doesn’t provide any solid cues for how the listener should feel about the whole thing. In the end, this is a forgettable arrangement that passes through the listener’s mind without leaving a trace, and frankly it’s the least of this track’s issues.

Hunt himself sticks to a more-conventional delivery this time around, but I really don’t like his attitude on this track. The range and power demands here are minimal and he’s got plenty of practice with the faster portions of a song like this, but his voice lacks any tone and texture, and he sounds surprisingly detached from the story he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about. Unfortunately, the not-so-subtle digs present in the lyrics betray him, and he winds up looking like a fraud, failing to play it cool while underneath he still burns at being rejected by his ex all those years ago. His claim that he wishes happiness on his partner feels hollow and disingenuous, and it seems like the memories the pair shared together is something that Hunt feels he can lord over them all those years later, as if they’re proof that the other person can never truly move beyond their lowbrow roots. In other words, it’s not a good look for the narrator, and instead of feeling sorry for them, the audience is left wishing they would get over themselves and just move on.

The writing here is the time-honored tale of a narrator who’s been left behind by someone who’s chasing bigger and better things out in the world, a time-honored trope in this genre. Ostensibly this song is about a narrator reflecting on the time they spent with their ex, wishing them the best and declaring that no matter where they go, they’ll “never be 23 with anyone” but each other. It’s a nice (if not terribly engaging) sentiment, but if you scratch the surface a darker thread emerges: The narrator makes a lot of insinuations that their ex is inauthentic and not true to their roots, talking about how they’re probably marrying someone “that really impresses your father,”that they might “straighten out your accent in the city, like your folks ain’t from Mississippi,” and that they might now “drink some wine in California” and are “so sophisticated” with “those skirts you always hated.” The narrator also makes a point of rehashing the night their ex dumped them “telling me your mind is changed,” making it pretty obvious that a) the narrator is not over the breakup, and b) they’re really unhappy with the other person about it. It reminds me a lot of Lee Brice’s irritating “That Don’t Sound Like You,” where the narrator thinks that they know the other person’s “true” self, and that they’re betraying both themselves and the narrator by moving on and doing different things (and they’re absolutely certain that the other person thinks that way too, with lines like “when you drink too much, I bet you’re thinking ’bout back when.” News flash, bro: People are allowed to change their minds and try (and even like!) different things, and with your mention of things like finding “grown up friends” and getting caught “in-between real love and real life,” even you’re admitting that your ex is maturing and finding their place in the world (and by comparison, you’re not). The whole mess feels like pointless sour grapes to me, and the listener is left wishing that the narrator would take a hint from their departed partner and get a life.

“23” is nothing more than a whiny tale of woe that isn’t worth listening to, a wolf in nostalgic sheep’s clothing that fails to conceal its true nature as a bitter rant from someone who just needs to grow up and move on. Both the writing and Sam Hunt himself drive this thing into the gutter with their insufferable attitude, and the producer can’t seem to decide if they want to lean into the negativity or use a dance beat to persuade people to ignore it. The result isn’t quite as annoying as “Parker Denning,” but it’s not far off, and it stands as another example of the “entitled, thin-skinned frame of mind” I’m hearing from Nashville lately, and we need to put a stop to this right now.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

Song Review: Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now”

Songs like this are why mainstream country music frustrates me so much.

I consider Tenille Arts to be the better of the two Tenilles on country radio, and I was really on the first two singles of hers that I reviewed, “Call You Names” and “Somebody Like That.” Unfortunately, country radio didn’t share my enthusiasm: “Call You Names” never ended up charting, and “Somebody Like That” took fifteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1. (Yes, there were some behind-the-scenes issues regarding who was promoting the song, but your song is on the chart so long that you end putting two songs in the Top 15 on the Canadian charts in the meantime, the song didn’t have the impact you wanted.) The message came through loud and clear that Arts’s work had to stick closer to the script to have a chance of gaining airplay traction, so that’s exactly what they did: Love, Heartbreak, & Everything In Between was set aside, and “Back Then, Right Now” was released as the U.S. market’s leadoff single for Arts’s upcoming Girl To Girl album. In two words, the song is painfully formulaic, relying on generic buzzwords and a confusing nostalgic wish to ingratiate itself with the American audience, and it’s a significant step down from her earlier work.

It’s sad to see that after Arts’s last producer Alex Kline became the first solo female producer to get a country #1, this time the reins were handed to industry veteran Dave Pittenger instead, and the change doesn’t seem to be for the better. The production here takes the basic guitar-and-drum formula and swaps in a mandolin to lighten the sound, and while it certainly provides a more-positive vibe for the track, it feels a little bit over-the-top in the end (especially when combined with the random synth notes the fill the gaps between the lyrics), The steel guitar is used just enough to satisfy Billboard’s ‘country’ algorithms and doesn’t add much to the song overall, and what sounds like an electrified dobro add a single riff and then heads for the exit. The bright, overly-sweet feel of the mix is an awkward fit for the lyrics: The narrator wishes for a return to a simpler, more-fun time, but there’s no hint of this longing in the sound; instead, it seems like everything’s just fine “right now,” so what’s the point of bringing back “back then”? (The lyrics have an even bigger problem in this regard, but we’ll talk about that a bit later.) In other words, this is a saccharine summer mix on a song that isn’t a good fit for it, and it leaves the listener confused as to what the point of the track actually is.

Arts is a capable vocalist, but she runs into the same problem as the production—in fact, I’d say she’s more responsible for the song’s ill-fitting vibe than the mandolin is. There are no technical issues with the performance, as Arts’s clear, effortless delivery lets her breeze through the track’s moderate range and flow demands without breaking a sweat. The problem, however, is that her tone and demeanor is so positive and upbeat that it makes her call to return to another era ring hollow. Honestly, she’s in a no-win position here: She could bring a bit more seriousness to the table and draw a sharper contrast between the present and the past, but then she’s stuck in the same spot that Blake Shelton was on “I Lived It,” forcefully encouraging a return to the past that isn’t the nirvana they think it is. (Additionally, as a relatively-unknown artist who’s under 30, she doesn’t really have the experience or gravitas to make a case like this, and it makes the listener question if she really knows what she’s asking for.) Arts is simply the wrong singer for this kind of song, and despite the talent and charisma she’s displayed in the past, she just can’t sell this sort of story.

The lyrics, in which the narrator advocates for bringing back the good old days and reveling in the things they enjoyed when they were younger, are where this track completely falls apart. Longtime readers will recall that I personally can’t stand tracks like this, but I’ve got some particular bones to pick with this drivel:

  • The song spends all its time hyping up the past, but it doesn’t talk about the present at all, relying on the listener to fill in the gaps and compare it to their personal situation. If you don’t already think the past is superior to the present, this song won’t sway you with its non-existent argument.
  • The language here relies primarily on overused country clichés (you’ve got your “tailgate sippin’,” “Friday night lights,” “slow ridin’ down a throwback road,” and even jams together random buzzwords like “cold can full moon” and “map-dot hallelujah”), and is mostly just a laundry list of these phrases. Despite a brand-name drops (DQ, Kodak), the scenes themselves are so stock that they probably violate Getty Image copyrights, and they do nothing to hold the audience’s interest.
  • My biggest issue with this song is this: The song uses all the same scenes and turns of phrase that everyone else uses presently, but they use them to describe the past, so the past sounds the exact same as the present…so what’s the point of the song again? Why are we calling for a return to a different time when there’s no apparent difference between then and now? Substitute “Chevrolet” for “Pontiac” and “smartphone cameras” for “Kodak,” and you’ve pretty much got 2021 (or at least pre-pandemic 2020). In other words, this song has absolutely no point and thus fails to even justify its existence.

“Back Then, Right Now” is a poor attempt to salvage a weak attempt at a nostalgia trip and turn it into a lightweight summery track that’s already missed its seasonal window (although after “Somebody Like That,” maybe 19th & Grand is targeting next summer as its peak). Tenille Arts and the producer try a little too hard to sell a vibe that the song doesn’t really justify, and the lyrics are just a grab bag of “country” phrases whose only value is that they might win someone a Buzzword Bingo game. The whole mess feels like a calculated-but-lame effort to crack the commercial algorithm that is country radio and finally get Arts some radio momentum, and that’s probably what irritates me the most about this track. I’m still high on Arts as a performer, but this is another example of a lesser-known artists having to bend to Nashville’s will and play the same old game, and we’re all worse off for it.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Morgan Wallen, “Sand In My Boots”

So we’re really going here, are we? Fine, let’s get this over with.

Back in February, Morgan Wallen was caught on video shouting “profanities and [a] racial epithet” outside his home in Nashville. Such behavior is inexcusable no matter when it happens, but in the wake of a year in which high-profile murders of Black individuals such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had heightened the nation’s awareness of the racial inequity that persists in American society, the incident felt especially galling. At the time the reaction was swift: Wallen’s recording contract was suspended, he was booted off the radio, and he was declared ineligible for the ACM and CMA awards for that year (however, the CMAs let him remain eligible in some categories “so as not to limit opportunity for other credited collaborators.” The incident sparked a broader conversation about country music’s troubled history with artists of color, and for a moment it seemed like the incident would serve as a catalyst for long-overdue change within the industry.

Six months later, the disheartening truth is that nothing has actually changed within country music. The genre remains as exclusionary as it’s ever been: Female artists still struggle to find radio traction, Kane Brown remains the only artist of color who can find consistent airplay (Jimmie Allen‘s track record is mixed at best, and Darius Rucker appears to be getting cycled off the airwaves), and Brothers Osborne has had zero momentum ever since TJ Osborne publicly announced that he was gay. Wallen, on the other hand, saw a sustained surge in the sales of his Dangerous album, so much so that the album is currently the best-selling album of the year across all genres by a massive margin. In the end, Wallen’s airplay ban didn’t even last a full album cycle, as “Sand In My Boots” was officially shipped to radio last week as the third single from Dangerous.

It’s impossible to look inside someone’s heart and know if they’ve truly changed their ways and become a better person, but personally I think it’s too soon for Wallen to be back on mainstream radio. He didn’t exactly come across as a changed man in his GMA interview with Michael Strahan, and he’s yet to follow through on some of his earlier promises, such as an agreement to meet with the NAACP (which still hasn’t happened as of August 21st). It seems like he’s trying to return to an old normal instead of helping to create a new one, and just wants listeners to forget about his transgressions. For me, however, Wallen is still the guy who felt comfortable dropping a racial slur at full volume on a Nashville street and admitted five months later that “I haven’t really sat and thought about that,” when asked if country music had a race problem, and much like Lady A’s name controversy when talking about “Like A Lady,” it’s impossible to look past that.

So where does that leave us with “Sand In My Boots”? The song is a lament from the narrator about a romance that could have been but never was, and to the producer’s credit, the production does it job by setting the mood and emphasizing the melacholy hindsight of the whole ordeal. The song is primarily driven by a piano (serious song alert!), supported by some minimal guitar and organ work and light-touch production, and absolutely marinated in reverb effects to give the mix a more-spacious feel. While the song has few minor chords and the instrument tones are mostly neutral, the prominence of the piano and the general simplicity of the riffs give the track some real weight and emphasize the significance of the moment in the narrator’s mind. For the most part, the volume levels are kept low to keep the focus on the story rather than the sound, which helps get the narrator’s point across. It’s a solid effort that does its best to keep the song on message, and it’s a bit of a shame that everything else around it drags it down.

I’m a bit ambivalent on the writing here, as it seems to contradict itself when talking about the narrator’s night with their prospective partner. While it’s essentially the story of a failed attempt to pick someone up, I like the fact that it’s framed as an actual story, walking us through the various scenes from the initial meeting through the narrator’s ride home alone the following day. What I don’t like, however, is the way the other person is portrayed in the most unflattering way possible, as they come across as ignorant and insensitive when they “tried talkin’ with my accent” (don’t ever do that to someone you just met; it makes you sound like a jerk) and “said ‘Don’t cowboys drink whiskey?'” (they might as well have asked where the narrator’s horse was). In all honesty, the narrator doesn’t come off sounding great either: They give off this pretentious, holier-than-thou vibe when they say they come from “somewhere you never been to” and declaring that “you’ve never seen stars like the ones back home.” The song really tries to frame the narrator as a sympathetic/tragic figure, and lines like these leave a bad taste in the listener’s mouth regarding both parties. It’s also worth noting that whatever chemistry is present is only in the narrator’s mind, as the other person rejects their offer to meet the next day (you can’t be stood up if the other person never agreed to the meeting in the first place). In the end, the story fails to convince the listener that it’s worth paying attention to, so no one cares if the pair leaves the scene together or not.

Finally we have Wallen himself, and frankly it’s just not time for him to return to the radio just yet. I was never a fan of him as a vocalist to begin with, and while the song doesn’t test him technically (there are no range or flow issues to speak of), I simply can’t hear him without thinking about his antics last winter. This leads to some serious negative synergy with the lyrics: I just said the other person sounded “ignorant and insensitive,” but Wallen’s behavior makes the narrator come across as more than a little hypocritical in their judgment. Wallen does a decent job infusing the song with the required sadness and disappointment, but when you think about how little consequence he’s suffered for his actions this year, you can’t help but think he deserves to feel some pain and disappointment, even if it’s only in a fictional story. At this point, Wallen remains a toxic presence, and the song (which certainly has a few of its own flaws) gets dragged down through no fault of its own.

I don’t know where Morgan Wallen goes from here, but I know where country music should go from here: Rather than give airtime to “Sand In My Boots” and letting an artist get away with carelessly tossing around damaging words with little consequence, this genre needs to look in the mirror and declare “We can do better.” We can carve out room for outstanding artists that don’t come from Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line, and give some more spotlight (and spins) to acts like Chapel Hart (whose new album just came out) and Mickey Guyton (whose album is finally coming out next month). There’s a path to a brighter, more inclusive future in country music, and it starts by broadening our horizons and bringing in people of all genders, races, and identities to tell their story. There’s a place for Wallen in this future too, but he’s going to have to do a lot more to earn it.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (August 2021 Edition)

The alternative title: “How Many 5/10 scores can Kyle give out at one time?”

My limited weekly posting schedule means that keeping up with new singles on the radio can be a struggle, and while I was hoping that my last lightning round post would help me keep pace, the rate of new singles (especially those from bigger-name artists that aren’t announced in Country Aircheck ahead of time and use the radio’s express lane to rack up big first-week numbers) has mitigated whatever advantage I thought I had. (The blog’s split focus on music and gaming puts me further behind too, but gosh darn it sometimes you have to talk about the latest Pokémon news or rant about Nintendo’s will-they-or-won’t-they DLC support strategy.)

The good news is that we aren’t dealing with the garbage that we ran into last round, but the bad news is there’s a lot of mediocrity being pushed on the airwaves right now. I’m not always keen to waste 800+ words on a song that could be summed up with a single “Meh,” so let’s see if we can knock these out quickly, shall we?

(Editor’s Note: There’s one notable omission from this list, but we’re going to need a full review to talk about Morgan Wallen…)

Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love”

You know that old line about putting lipstick on a pig? The ukelele and organ may give the production a slight island vibe, but at the end of the day this is yet another cheesy Boyfriend country ballad from a duo that only seems to release these sorts of songs (seriously, it feels like I’ve reviewed this drivel five times already over the last few years). Some of the more over-the-top declarations in the writing (like getting a tattoo of the other person’s name) make the song feel slightly creepy, and the “steal my love” framing of the track seems weirdly awkward to me (when contrasted with falling skies and unraveling worlds, artists usually say their love will never falter rather than never be stolen). Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney are no more interesting or romantic than they’ve ever been, and after re-plowing this ground so often, the listener is left wondering “is that really all you’ve got?” Basically, this song is a pandering-to-the-base move that won’t change anyone’s opinion of the duo: If you like them, you’ll like this one; if they bore you as much as they bore me, you’ll forget it exists in a month.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO”

I’d seen and heard a lot of hype for this song, so I was surprised to discover just how much it didn’t move me when I finally heard it. Part of it is the poor production choices, resulting in a song that too sounds too slick (that synthesized guitar on the bridge solo gives the song a strangely psychedelic vibe that doesn’t complement the story at all) and not moody enough for the subject matter—check out Montgomery Gentry’s “Speed” and note just how dark that song sounds in comparison. (Adding the fiddle sample from McGraw’s “Where The Green Grass Grows,” was an interesting idea, but its limited use means it clashes with the rest of the arrangement and feels tacked on and out of place.) The writing falls flat as well, as it relies too heavily on generic country tropes (yep, we’re back to aimless cruising and making out on tailgates) and spends way too long giving us pointless details about the truck that add nothing to the song. (Even the accident vignette doesn’t land like it did in Brad Paisley’s “Little Moments,” mostly because it’s quickly glossed over and doesn’t give us a glimpse of the other person’s personality.) McGraw doesn’t show much personality either; his delivery is awfully clinical and matter-of-fact for a guy who misses their partner so much that they have to sell their truck to forget them. I think there might have a been a good song in here somewhere, but poor execution from everyone involved dooms this track to irrelevance.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth its listing price.

Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts”

A more appropriate title for this one would have been “Tame Hearts.” Despite ostensibly being an ode to “the wild cards and all of the wild hearts just like mine,” there’s nothing terribly wild (or interesting) about Urban’s latest release. The production acts like it’s trying to build up to something on the first verse, but it just settles into a standard midtempo, mid-volume routine on the chorus, squandering whatever momentum it had generated. The second verse is just a mess: Whoever decided to cram a million extra syllables into it and make Urban talk-sing his way through it need to be sent back to English class (seriously, who decided to use “tail-of-a-dragon” as a adjective? What does that even mean?). That whole thing could have been trimmed down and sung normally to much greater effect instead of breaking up the flow of the song trying to fit it a few pointless extra words. For his part, Urban doesn’t do a great job selling the narrator’s role despite the unorthodox swings he’s taken on the production side lately (admittedly this would be hard for any mainstream performer; you really need an outsider/”outlaw” persona à la Eric Church to pull it off), and he doesn’t bring enough feeling in his delivery to stick the landing. In the end, the song winds up being an underwhelming celebration of bold dreamers, and just kind of exists.

Rating: 5/10. Whether you’re dreaming big or not, you have better ways to spend your time.

Kane Brown, “One Mississippi”

This is a track that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. The lyrics try to tell the story of a pair of exes that can’t seem to let each other go, but the primary focus seems to be the constant rendezvous and the sentiment that this isn’t actually what the couple wants only gets a few lines of lip service. The production leans on plentiful minor chords and darker instruments tones to indicate that the relationship is not ideal, but the quicker tempo and busy, spacious choruses (and especially the lively guitar on the bridge solo) over-infuse the song with energy and push the focus away from the conflict and towards the lovemaking (it reminds me more of Thomas Rhett & Maren Morris’s “Craving You” than something like Cole Swindell’s “Stay Downtown,” despite the latter being closer thematically). Brown himself seems to be just along for the ride: His narrator clearly prefers that the relationship be on rather than off, but he seems to consider himself completely powerless in the matter and subject to the whims of the alcohol and the other person.(which simply isn’t true; he can always cut things off completely or at least broach the subject of getting back together more permanently). I’m not sure what to make of this song, but it’s certainly caught my attention and given me something to think about, which is more than I can say for the most of these other tracks.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth a few spins to see how it strikes you.

Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty”

Chalk this one up as yet another unimpressive debut single from an artist that just rolled off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line. The production is mostly the standard guitar-and-drum mix everyone relies on (there’s a steel guitar here, but it’s relegated to background support for the entire song), and while it sets a suitably reverent tone to support the writing, the general vibe isn’t all that romantic, and it doesn’t do enough to catch the listener’s ear and draw them into the story. It’s just as well, however, because you’ve already heard this story a hundred times: The narrator’s partner doesn’t believe that they’re pretty, and the narrator spends the entire song insisting that they are. It’s cut from the same Boyfriend country cloth that “Steal My Love” is, and it’s actually less interesting than Dan + Shay’s single because it tries to hard to blend in instead of stand out. For Barnes’s part, his voice reminds me a little bit of Neal McCoy, but his delivery lacks the emotion and charisma to really connect with the audience and let them share in his feelings. This thing was barely on the Mediabase chart long enough to say so, and it’s not hard to see why.

Rating: 5/10. Better luck next time, I guess.

Dylan Scott, “New Truck”

Can someone tell me why we’re still trying to make Dylan Scott a thing? I mean, did “Nobody” take the hint after “Nobody” took sixteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1? To add insult to injury, this is the exact same song as “7500 OBO,” and given Tim McGraw’s long track record and serious radio clout, this thing is pretty much dead on arrival now. The irony is that while neither song is any good, I think I like Scott’s take on the memory-haunted truck idea better: The details are a bit more novel (finding lost hair ties and chapstick), and the production doesn’t feel quite as slick (the drum machine isn’t as prominent here). Unforutnately, the improvements are relative but not substantial, and the song still relies on the same old generic memories to haunt Scott’s narrator (and Scott’s performance is nothing special either). I’d buy this truck over McGraw’s, but I’m not really in the market for either of them.

Rating: 5/10. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left”

Oh joy, another attempted sex jam from a genre that should know better by now. To its credit, the production at least attempts to change up the formula by leaning on spacious electric guitars that match the starry night sky of the cover art and give the song a psychedelic vibe (unlike McGraw’s tune, it kind of suits the mood here), but it doesn’t capture the depth or the recklessness of the sentiment within the writing. Said writing is little more than a bunch of intercourse euphemisms, and there’s nothing here that differentiates this encounter from a garden-variety hookup (there’s passion, but no substance, and I wish there a bit more explanation behind the feelings involved). For her part, Cam does a decent job infusing the some with emotion, but I still wouldn’t call this track terribly sensual or romantic—you can hear the passion in her delivery, but she isn’t quite able to transmit that feeling to the audience. All in all, this is probably the closest that country music has come to a sex jam in a while, but they’ve still got a long way to go.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two—maybe you’ll get more out of it than I did.

Song Review: Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do”

We’ll see how long this lasts on YouTube…

It seems a little awkward to put this track on an album called Fun, but as a wise man once said, “life ain’t always beautiful.”

With millions of albums sold and several shelves full of awards, Garth Brooks seems to be challenging his last unconquered opponent: Time itself (aka Eddy Arnold). Despite being on the backside of fifty and in his fifth decade on the mainstream country scene, Brooks continues to pack stadiums and release singles that are at least semi-viable commercially (his latest, a cover of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born that featured Brooks’s wife Trisha Yearwood, reached the low twenties on Billboard’s airplay chart, and probably could have gotten farther if it hadn’t gotten a quick hook). Despite being known for rock-infused sounds and high-flying theatrics, Brooks could always sing the heck out of a more-traditional country tune when he needed to, and that’s what we get on his latest release “That’s What Cowboys Do,” a song that does a really nice job capturing the highs, lows, and ultimately melancholy existence of a drifting wanderer. Despite being an old man in a young man’s town, Brooks shows here that he’s still got a thing or two he could teach some of Nashville’s newer acts.

The production here is probably the closest we’ve come to a 90s-era neotraditionalist mix since Dierks Bentley’s parody band, and it does a nice job providing proper support for the subject matter. Much like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, everyone is here: The fiddle, the steel guitar, the guitars, the real drums, the classic piano (there’s no banjo or harmonica, but let’s not get greedy here). Each of these pieces gets plenty of screen time, and despite the many moving parts, each one maintains their individual texture and sounds disinct (i.e., they don’t run together and create an indistinguishable wall of noise). From an atmospheric perspective, the instrument tones feel strangely contradictory: They’re bright, but there’s a mournful twinge to them as well, and the frequent minor chords only add to the mix’s sense of unease. However, this looming darkness fits the song well: The narrator finds their cowboy duties forever coming into conflict with their heart’s desire, and the sound really drives home the image of a burdened wanderer unhappily setting their feelings aside when duty calls. (This arrangement also passes the context test: If you’re going to sing about being a cowboy, you’d better have some classical instruments in your wagon.) Overall, this is a well-executed mix that helps the song make the point that being a cowboy isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.

It might be hard to picture Garth Brooks as an old-school cowboy after watching some of his concert theatrics back in the day, but he’s actually got a lot going for him in this regard: His age, tenure, and penchant for Chris LeDoux give him a cover of experience and perspective (very few current artists could fill this role credibly), and most importantly, he’s Garth freaking Brooks—the man was Thanos before Thanos, and he oozes populist charm out of every pore. I’m actually more impressed by his technical performance than his charisma: Even in his mid-fifties, the man still has solid range, a smooth flow, and some incredible vocal tone (seriously, put this back-to-back with “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” and he sound almost the exact same). Much like the production, Brooks uses a measured delivery to signal the narrator’s true feelings: Despite the late-night rendevous and the exciting rodeo ride, his performance is matter-of-fact and muted: He’s seen and done all this a million times before, and it’s not worth getting worked up over because the cowboy rides away every time. Basically, Brooks lets the audience share in his utter lack of feelings, and uses the resulting paradox to make the point that unlike the stereotypical image, the cowboy’s life is a grind and they are more of a tragic figure than anything else. It’s the sort of understated performance that harder to pull off than it sounds, and the fact that Brooks makes it look easy speaks volumes about his skill as an artist.

Cowboy songs have been such a staple of country music that they’re sometimes given their own subcategory (country and western), but they’ve become increasingly rare over the last few decades, so it’s nice to get a throwback song like this one once in a while. However, novelty alone doesn’t make a song good; it’s the execution that matters, and this one is a great example of a story song done right. Each of the verses bring the listener along for the ride, providing the sort of detail and vivid imagery to let them both picture the scene and see the narrator’s train of thought throughout them both. The double whammy of the narrator’s decision to not follow their heart and the realization of how cold and monotonous the cowboy life is give the song an extra dose of meaning and sadness, and it makes the narrator a sympathetic and even pitiable character. (I have to highlight a great example of the lack of detail as well: The song mentions that “Whenever you’re in Texas, the cowboy’s gonna always win,” but it never actually tells us if the narrator succeeds or fails in their rodeo ride. The implication is that it doesn’t matter if they win or lose; the empty feeling of leaving is the same regardless.) The writing does a great job pulling back the curtain and giving folks a taste of the isolation and sorrow inherent in the drifting cowboy’s way of life, and provide plenty of hooks for the singer and sound to bring the story to life.

“That’s What Cowboys Do” is…well, in a sense it’s exactly what a cowboy would do in this situation. They’d gather up some traditional instrumentation, they’d tell the truth even when it hurts, and they’d put enough feeling behind it so that the audience could ride alongside them on their journey. Garth Brooks isn’t an old-school cowboy by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a genre-defining artist back in the day and can still throw down a darn good song when he wants to, especially when his material and production are strong enough to support him. No matter what the radio ends up doing with the track (they’re on board so far, but that could change in an instant), Brooks will continue to do things his way and persevere in the face of time and trends. After all, “that’s what cowboys do,” and the airwaves are better for it.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.