Song Review: Morgan Wallen, “One Thing At A Time”

Rating: IDGAF/10. Give this guy a quarter and tell him to call someone who cares.

…You’re still here? Fine, I guess we can talk more about this.

At this point, you all know how I feel about Morgan Wallen: He’s a talentless hack grifting off of the Nashville beer/truck meta and the genre’s Ex-Boyfriend trend, a man with zero redeeming qualities and some serious baggage (in the two years since this happened, not only has he suffered no major repercussions for the incident, but his star seems to have risen because of it). Unfortunately, he’s also arguably the genre’s biggest star at the moment, with his recent singles not only topping the country charts, but routinely cracking the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100 as well. He’s returned to the radio now with “One Thing At A Time,” officially the fourth single from his One Thing At A Time album (“Last Night” peaked on #3 on the Hot 100, but didn’t crack the Top 40 on the country airplay chart), and honestly, when put next to tracks like “You Proof” and “Wasted On You,” the man is also turning into a serial whiner, and this retreaded blather might be the worst of his whimperings.

There are two things that attempt to distinguish this track from its predecessors, and the first of these is the slick 80s pop guitar that headlines an arrangement that is otherwise the same soundalike guitar-and-drum mix we get from everyone these days. The surprise addition (along with an atypical burst of tempo) certainly helps the song stand out on the airwaves, giving the song a weirdly retro vibe and an espresso shot of energy…but it establishes an atmosphere that’s the complete opposite of what the song wants, turning in into a sugar-rush dance track and sapping it of any actual emotion or feeling. Despite the regular minor chords, the overall tone here is bright and positive, which doesn’t exactly befit a man supposedly struggling with multiple addictions. It cheapens the whole message of the song, and actively encourages the audience to ignore it in favor of empty sonic calories, which just isn’t a good look for anyone. Frankly, there are far better uptempo tracks with actual synergy out there to listen to (“Sounds Like Something I’d Do,” anyone?), so why anyone would give this the time of day is beyond me.

As far as Wallen goes, he’s back to his old meatheaded dudebro self on this track, and he’s as unsympathetic and unlikable a character as ever. This isn’t a guy who’s broken up about a failed relationship—in fact, thanks to Wallen’s smug, self-satisfied delivery, the narrator actually sounds pleased with what has transpired, as if the breakup has given him an excuse to indulge in bad behavior. You don’t get the sense that he cares all that much about the other person, but he must at least kinda-sorta want to be with them, judging by the way he tries to leverage his vices to bring his partner back (“hey, if you really want me to clean up my act, then you’d better stick around”). The problem is that his performance sounds so sleazy and manipulative that he doesn’t come across as the least bit sincere or trustworthy, and you just know he’s going to keep right on behaving badly no matter who’s around him (which is probably why the relationship crumbled in the first place). It’s the sort of attitude that immediately turns the audience against him, and by the end you’re rooting for the other person to come back just so they can kick the speaker squarely in the groin. When the listener’s first thought upon hearing this drivel is “Man, even Dustin Lynch would do a better job on this track,” you know you’re in trouble.

Of course, part of the reason Wallen acts so badly here is because the writing gives him far too much leeway to do so. The second thing that tries to distinguish this track from all the other lost-love songs on the radio is how it lumps the relationship in with the narrator’s other addictions (drinking, smoking, etc.), and if someone wants them to clean up their act, too bad, because “I’m only quitting one thing at a time.” I often talk about how songs have something that an artist can latch on to to elevate it, but in this case the opposite is true: It leaves way too many openings for Wallen to drag the song down, and he obliges without a second thought. I really hate the second verse, where the narrator tries to exploit whatever feelings the other person still has by listing all the harder items he could lean into (chewing tobacco, amphetamine pills, etc.) and declaring that either the other person sticks around or the narrator falls deeper down the rabbit hole of uncontrolled substances, or as they put it in the first verse, “Weigh out all your options and take your pick.” (There’s an indication that the partner still has some sort of feelings for their ex, but given all the narrator’s whining about how it’s so hard to change their ways, I find it hard to believe there’s any love left between these two at all. If the love is truly real, you’ll find a way.) It’s a disgusting and manipulative strategy, and Wallen is all too happy to play the role to the hilt. Beyond that, all of my usual complaints apply: The level of detail’s a bit low, the hook is “meh” at best, and while we’re at least not bouncing around in a truck on a dirt road at midnight, when you lean into the devil-may-care, self-medicate-yourself-to-death angle this hard, I think I’d rather put up with the clichés. It’s as poorly-conceived an idea as you can imagine, and all four writers need to spend the next year in timeout so they can think about what they’ve done.

I know it’s only March, but “One Thing At A Time” is already a strong contender for the worst song I’ll hear in 2023. The production sets the wrong mood and tries to make the song something it’s not, the writing is equal parts controlling, unrepentant, and just plain slimy, and while I didn’t need another reason to dislike Morgan Wallen, it seems I’ve got one after hearing his arrogant, infuriating performance that actively makes the song worse. At this point I have no idea if redemption is even possible for Wallen, but a good starting point would be to point at this song and tell everyone involved to do the exact opposite of what they did here next time around. At the very least, this joker needs to learn how to multitask.

The rating’s at the top of the page this time, but if you really need a number, here: 2/10. Now do me a solid and get this trash off my radio.

Retro Review: Martina McBride, “Love’s The Only House”

Why is this genre so afraid to say something these days?

Country music has a rich history of tough talking and plain speaking, highlighting the highs and lows of reality and demanding that we pay attention. Over the last decade or so, however, it seems that Nashville has reversed its mission, dumping song after song on us telling us to ignore and forget the world and all it problems, and only rarely deigning to even offer some food for thought (and even then it’s sometime just empty calories: “Buy Dirt,” anyone?). Rather than confront the issues facing us, Music City is simply content to provide a shovel for us to bury our heads in the sand.

Back in the day, however, artists were at least slightly more comfortable in presenting us uncomfortable truths for our consideration. One of the more-prominent voices in this lane during the 1990s and 2000s was Martina McBride, a small woman with a big voice (arguably the biggest of her generation), and someone who wasn’t afraid to talk about the problems facing the world (especially the problems faced by women). This brings us to the subject of today’s examination: “Love’s The Only House,” a turn-of-the-millennium single from her Emotion album that peaked at #3 in 2000. She may have used more of a velvet glove on this track than she did on, say, “Independence Day,” but the underlying message in clear: People are struggling and suffering in the world, and the only way anything would get better was if we started caring about them.

The production here is best described as an interesting mix using mostly uninteresting pieces. The primary instruments here are an understated electric guitar and a standard drum set, with some keyboards (both a classic piano and a Hammond organ) adding some atmosphere to the background (there are acoustic guitars here too, but they don’t add a ton to the sound). There’s not really a lot to this mix: The riffs are simple, the tempo is moderate at best, the volume level is low, and the instrument tones are generally positive but not significantly so. So what could possibly make this interesting? It’s the synergy of all these pieces, creating a folk-rock sort of sound with a relaxed vibe and a surprisingly-optimistic feel. (This feeling is enhanced by the sound’s one unexpected piece, a harmonica that opens, closes, and fills space within the track, giving it the feel of an Alanis Morissette track.) You wouldn’t think such an approach would work with a song that contains so much negativity, but not only does it avoid getting in the way of the message, but it tries to instill a sense of hope in the listener. Not only is love “the only house big enough for all the pain,” but it’s also possible to stuff all of that pain inside it, and conquer the problems that the track points out. All in all, it’s a pretty solid mix that supports and enhances the song’s impact, and transcends its run-of-the-mill ingredients to do something good.

The late 90s were something of a boom period for female artists in Nashville, but most of them were playing in the pop-country lane, and while McBride could channel her inner Shania or Faith when she needed to (by the numbers, the sickeningly-sweet single that preceded this “I Love You” was her most-successful song), she was probably the only person in Nashville at the time who could pulled off a song like this. Part of it was her post-“Independence Day” reputation, but she also had the charisma and vocal authority to deliver a serious line and get immediate buy-in from the audience. She absolutely owns the narrator role here, and when she dives into the heavy third verse, the audience doesn’t bat an eye and just nods along (although given that these same lines could be delivered just as credibly in 2023, she wasn’t able to move anyone to action). She doesn’t really break out her big voice here, but she effortlessly dials up her intensity on the back half of the song (especially the closing chorus) to drive her point home. She’s an earnest, believable presence on this track, and while she wasn’t able to drive much change with the song, she at least gets the audience to acknowledge the problem.

The writing here can be a little unfocused at times, but it gets stronger as the song progresses. The narrator is a grocery store clerk who meets a couple of struggling individuals (the stressed-out mid-career professional, the expectant single mother without the money to purchase milk) and has had some struggles of their own in the past (a failed relationship that left some scars). The relationship verse honestly feels a bit out of place in the song, and together with the first verse (which is awfully light on details), it makes the vague “love’s the only house big enough for all the pain” feel a bit watered-down and not all that moving. It’s the straight talk on the third verse, however, that pulls the song together: It talks income inequality at a time when the term wasn’t yet mainstream, brings up the broken-down neighborhoods, disadvantaged youths, and severe challenges that said places and people faced decades before Eric Church would revisit the topic on “Put That In Your Country Song,” and calls out their own privileged state and declares their willingness to do something about it, whatever that may be. It’s a direct, no-nonsense callout of issues that are still a problem today, and it finally gives the song some needed direction, punch, and memorability (it’s that third verse that sticks with you long after the song ends). It also helps add weight to the expectant mother story that follows (which also allows the narrator to put their money where their mouth is, even if they’re only out the cost of a milk carton), and lets McBride build up for at least a kinda-sorta big finish at the end. It’s certainly not a perfect song, but it comes up clutch when it has too, and succeeds in making the listener at least face the problems that are raised.

Looking back, “Love’s The Only House” is a song that feels like it shouldn’t have worked as well as it did: The writing was a bit scattered, and the production tries to put a happy spin on some not-so-happy topics. There’s some good stuff buried in here, however, and when paired when the indominatable presence that is Martina McBride, it gained a sense of power, confronting the audience with what ailed the world, pledging to do some better, and asking those who heard the song to do the same. It didn’t change the world, but at least it made people pay attention, which seems to be the opposite of what country music tries to do today. I’d like to see more songs take this approach now: Ask people to put down their beers, open their eyes, and see the world for what it really is, hopefully moving some who hear it to take steps to alleviate the pain that others feel. A song like isn’t enough to bring about a better world, but it’s at least a good place to start.

Rating: 7/10. You should check this one out.

Sea Of Stars: Early Impressions

If we’re getting back to my roots in music this year, we might as well do it with gaming too.

While many of my gaming rants lately center around Splatoon, historically I haven’t really been a shooter player. Instead, my background mainly lies in platformers, sports titles, and especially role-playing games, and especially especially the old-school turn-based RPGs that headlined the genre in the 1990s (Final Fantsay VII, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and yes, even Pokémon). I haven’t played a ton on these kinds of games on the Switch thus far (basically it’s Octopath Traveler, Pokémon, and whatever Paper Mario: The Origami King counts as), and while my foray into tactical RPGs like Triangle Strategy has been a blast, I’ve been itching to return to my classic RPG roots for some time.

In the short term, Octopath Traveler II will fill this void when I finally get a copy of it, but a more-intriguing title recently appeared on my radar courtesy of Nintendo’s recent Direct: Sea Of Stars, a game that’s pretty heavily inspired by some of the great Super Nintendo RPGs of the past. A demo of the game dropped with the presentation, and after finally getting a chance to play through it, I can see where the buzz behind this game is coming from. It does a nice job being faithful to its inspiration while also putting its own twist on the genre, and I found it to be a pretty enjoyable experience.

My specific thoughts on the demo are as follows:

  • The graphics have the same pixelated look and feel of a game like Chrono Trigger, but it’s Sea Of Stars‘s movement options in the game that makes the maps so interesting. Your characters can climb small ledges, leap small gaps, drop off edges of nearly any height, and even swim through larger bodies of water. Not only do these tricks open up the map and let you explore even more, but it gave the map designers more freedom to be creative: Floating disconnected platforms, rough areas with lots of verticality, seaside towns with both rooftop and ocean secrets, etc. I really liked how limitless the maps felt, but it’s going to be a tall task to maintain this throughout the entire game: More places to explore means hiding more goodies for the player to find, or else they’ll start thinking it’s not worth the effort.
  • In general, I like the character design I’ve seen so far, especially in the NPCs (the pirate crew has some serious joie de vivre), but I do worry about the main characters thus far. Garl is an happy-go-lucky guy with a bubbly personality and a passion for food, but Zale and Valere are interchangeable as main characters, so they both suffer a bit from “the Mario effect”: They’re upstanding citizens, but don’t have a ton of quirks or passions (at least not in the demo) that would make them stand out or overly memorable. (Then again, Mario is still one of the most-recognizable characters in the world, so maybe this isn’t much of an issue.) I’m hoping to see a bit more character development from the protagonists in the full game.
  • The initial combat presentation here is ripped straight from Chrono Trigger: Encounters are on-screen rather than random, and the fight takes place directly on the map instead of a special battle screen. Once the fight begins, however, it transforms into something straight out of the Mario RPG series: There’s no overt time component to the fighting (you can take your time to select an attack), timed hits increase damage for attacks, timed blocks reduce damage on defense, and special attacks generally require some form of interaction (“Hold A for power!”). It’s the most active an RPG has been since the Mario & Luigi series fell by the wayside, with Valere’s Moonerang being the clear standout (there’s a good chance that if you keep getting the timing right, the attack could be “infinite” much like Mario’s Ultra Jump in Super Mario RPG). Chrono Trigger appears again in the form of combo attacks, where multiple characters can attack together if the “combo meter” has accumulated enough charge. There’s even a nod to Octopath Traveler‘s Break mechanic: For certain enemy attacks, a series of icons will appear above them, and you can weaken or cancel these attacks by hitting the enemy with actions that match the icons. Finally, there are some twists I haven’t seen in a game like this before: If two characters are ready to attack (I’m not 100% sure how this is determined), you can choose which one will take the current turn in order to optimize your battle strategy, and regular attacks may scatter “Live Mana” on the battlefield, which your characters can absorb to power up their actions. There’s a lot to mess around with here, and plenty of options for leading your team to victory.
  • I watched Ryukahr’s video on the demo and was a little concerned with the potential difficulty of the game (in particular the demo boss gave him a lot of trouble), but when I played through it myself it wasn’t too bad (though definitely on the harder side of RPGs I’ve played). It really depends on your defensive game: If you’re absorbing full-power hits, even the dungeon battles will add up over time, but if you’re blocking like Trent Williams, you can take a lot of shots and just keep rolling. Still, you’ll want to keep a decent cache of healing items with you, and make use of the “Camp” feature to keep your HP up. (MP will recharge a little during basic attacks, so keeping that up isn’t as difficult.) Zale and Garl also have healing spells you can use in a pinch, and at least in the demo KO’d allies bounced back up after a turn or two (probably because revive items weren’t available). There are some items that will increase or decrease the difficulty as well, so if you’d rather focus on the story, you’ve still got that option.
  • Speaking of story…there really wasn’t much revealed about it in the demo. Your party is traveling somewhere and needs to hitch a ride with some pirates to get there, but they ask you to retrieve a special item from a dungeon in return…and that’s all you get to see. There were some hints of a deeper story in the recent trailers, but we’ll have to wait and see what we get.
  • There was, however, an interesting fishing minigame that was pretty interesting: You had to reel in fish only when they were in a certain/moving corridor of light, and your line would break if you tried to reel them in outside of it. There was more depth to the contest than I expected, and given that you could obtain material that you could craft into healing items, I think players will enjoy getting sidetracked.
  • The game makes a big deal out of the music (there’s a guest composer from some classic series like Chrono Trigger), but at least in the demo, none of the tracks really stuck with me. We’ll see how this changes with more time.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with Sea of Stars, and I can’t wait to see more of the game when it releases in late August. I think it’s got potential to stand with the greats of the genre, and if you’re looking for a title to scratch that nostalgic itch, this might be the game for you.

If nothing else, “Sea Of Stars” is already a better hook for a song than “Stars Like Confetti”

Song Review: Dustin Lynch, “Stars Like Confetti”

“Stars Like Confetti”? More like “Song Like Garbage.”

I’m starting to get the feeling that Dustin Lynch isn’t even trying anymore. He spent much of 2022 clogging up the airwaves with “Party Mode,” a lifeless, repetitive song that flamed out at #17 on Billboard’s airplay chart (and when your album leadoff track gets smacked down, that’s not a good sign), and he’s back now with “Stars Like Confetti,” a song so derivative in every facet that it could have been written and produced by an AI tool (but not performed; an AI tool would have more personality than Lynch does). I don’t feel like wasting any more time than I have to with this drivel, so let’s get this over with.

Remember how I thought the one place on “Party Mode” where “progress seems to be happening is in the production”? Yeah, they went right back to square one here: This is a bland, plodding guitar-and-drum mix that actively works against its subject matter with its tenor and tempo, and it does so unnecessarily. All the pieces that could have potentially spice up the mix are still here (pedal steel, dobro), but they’re buried so deep in the mix that you barely notice them, and the result is an undercurrent of slurry noise on the chorus that adds nothing to the sound. (Heck, the pedal steel mirrors the guitar lead on the bridge solo, but it’s impact is blunted by the electric axe it has to share with.) If that wasn’t enough, the arrangement also “pulls an Aldean” by using minor chords and leaning on neutral-to-negative instrument tones that create a bizarrely-ominous atmosphere that’s neither fun nor reflective nor nostalgic, and its leaden pace and beat cause the song to bog down and collapse under its own weight. This is about as mailed-in a mix as I’ve heard in a long time, an attempt at inoffensiveness that winds up being the sound’s most offensive trait.

As far as Lynch goes, could somebody check this man for a pulse? The man has all the charm and charisma of a hat stand, and he struggles to inject any sort of feeling or emotion into his lines. He seems to have trouble getting through the uneven lyrics (more on that later), and he’s only able to muster up a slight volume increase when he tries to ramp up the intensity on the chorus. He’s supposed to be looking back fondly on a long-forgotten rendezvous, but his delivery is a little too nonchalant (and honestly a bit sleazy too), and he falls far short of passing his nonexistent feelings to the listener. (I think the sound works against him a lot as well, but a better vocalist could overcome this, and “better” has never been a word to describe Lynch.) There’s just not a lot to say here: Lynch fails to earn the narrator’s sympathies or make the song interesting, which means he did exactly what we expected.

It’s the writing here that really gives me ChatGPT vibes: Not only is the story a cookie-cutter nostalgia trip that trots out all the usual buzzwords (we got the beer, we got the truck, we got the dirt road, we got the nighttime cuddle session, and so on), but it’s about as badly-written a song as I’ve heard in a long time. A surprising number of lines try to cram in too many syllables unnecessarily (and then the “see-forever sky” line is inexplicably left short), and the “God was throwing stars like confetti” hook is more awkward than it should be (stars falling kind of makes sense, but stars being thrown does not). The whole mess feels like exactly what you’d get if you ran the last two years of mainstream country music through a machine-learning algorithm, and you’ve heard everything here at least a hundred times before. It just feels like a lazy effort on the part of the writers (did it really take three writers to cobble this junk together?), and when you combine something everyone has already heard with an artist no one wants to hear at all, the results are not pleasant.

“Stars Like Confetti” is an amalgamation of everything I can’t stand about modern country music. The sound is ill-conceived and ill-fitting, the writing is haphazard, paint-by-numbers, and borders on plagiarism, and if personality were dynamite, Dustin Lynch wouldn’t have enough to blow his hat off. At some point, even Nashville has to realize this guy has jumped the shark, and after a decade of letting him foist his mediocre material onto the public, it’s long past time to toss him out and give his roster spot to someone with some actual talent. I’m sick of wasting my time on this joker, and with any luck I’ll never have to do so again.

Rating: 3/10. NEXT!

Retro Review: Lonestar, “Mr. Mom”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Ken Mellons?

Image from Ken Mellons’s Official Site

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t work out. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

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

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

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

The Gateway Drug

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingpin

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

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

My fellow Kyle over at Saving Country Music has compiled a list of Curb’s biggest blunders and pettiest moves, but the TL;DR version is that Curb does whatever he wants whenever he wants to whoever he wants, no matter how badly it makes him or the artist look in the process. He messed with LeAnn Rimes, he messed with Jo Dee Messina, he messed with Hank Williams III, he messed with Clay Walker, and he’s made a complete mess of Tim McGraw’s discography (9 compilations of McGraw’s hits? Really?). The bottom line is that this really doesn’t seem like a guy you wanted to go into business with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Angels”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened To Brellas In Splatoon 3?

Fridays are usually my day for retro song reviews, but the recent reveal of the Fresh Season bugged me enough that I had to talk about it.

In typical Nintendo fashion, the company decided not to mention anything about the latest season of Splatoon 3 in their recent Direct, and instead resorted to drip-feeding us all information via their Twitter feed instead. The new season appears to be leaning heavily in a retro direction, with two new old specials (the Kraken Royale’s lineage is obvious, and the Super Chump just looks like a reworked Suction Bomb Rush to me), a collection of returning/remixed weapons (no new types like the Big Swing Roller or Splattershot Nova last time), and the return of the Manta Maria map from Splatoon 2. (Given the presence of the jukebox on the promotional image, you’ll likely be able to pick from a selection of old and new songs to play in the lobby.)

There’s a fair bit of content here, and is should shake up the current meta at least a little bit (especially the new specials). However, there’s a fair bit that isn’t here as well, particularly in the area of weapon classes. Duelies, Brushes and Splatlings are shut out this time around after getting at least a little something last season, and the Splatana and Stringer classes haven’t seen anything new since they were introduced. Still, at least these classes were in a (mostly) workable state when the game started (even if brushes were broken later).

And then *sigh* we have the Brella class.

In all honesty, I haven’t been on the receiving end of all the Brella glitches that have plagued the weapons class, and while there are lots of reports of Brella players getting shot through their shields due to network latency, as an Undercover Brella player I never see this because its shield opens so fast that the window to hit someone is incredibly small. (On the other hand, Tenta Brella players, who could drink an entire cup of coffee while waiting for their shield to open, are victimized by this glitch more often.) Nevertheless, this weapon class has been a buggy mess since the game released, and it feels like it has been abandoned not only by the Splatoon player base, but by the developers as well. As someone who really enjoys using Brellas, it’s an incredibly frustrating feeling.

So what went wrong? I think there are three factors at play:

  • Splatoon’s netcode wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and Brellas serve as the canary in the coal mine. I made this point back when I was discussing problems with Splatoon 3 in general, but I think network problems hit Brellas especially hard because they carry their cover with them, and thus have the expectation that they’re going to be protected. For a weapon like the Splattershot, a charger might shoot you through a wall now and again, but in general you’re going to be out in the open and unprotected, and if an opponent’s got their crosshairs on you, you’re probably toast. If the final shot is a few frames too fast or too slow in reaching you, it’s not that noticeable—it’s only going to register as suspicious in the player’s mind if it’s egregiously out of sync (for example, if the opponent doesn’t appear to be firing in your direction, or the fight has long since ended). Brellas, however, go into battle with the assumption that if their shield is up, they are protected, which means that even small discrepancies are going to be more noticeable because the shield appears to be deployed. The networking setup for Splatoon 3 has been a noticeable downgrade from Splatoon 2 thus far, and a shielding class like Brellas is going to be the first to notice any problems.
  • Having so many Brella bugs early was not a good look for the game. Network issues may have been a problem, but you can’t blame all of the weird Brella glitches on the Internet. As a weapon class in Splatoon 2, Brellas may not have always been meta, but they were dependable weapons that generally functioned the way people expected them to. To have them go from generally reliable in S2 to completely unreliable in S3 was pretty jarring, and it raised a lot of uncomfortable questions:
    • How on earth could a weapon decay this badly between games? What could the developers have possibly done between S2 and S3 to break these things?
    • How could this class have been released in such a miserable state? Didn’t they bother to test any of this stuff before it went live?
    • If the launch was botched this badly, is Nintendo going to be able to fix it? Do they even know how, and if they do, are they even capable of doing it?
  • Splatoon’s slower update schedule is causing a disconnect between the developers and the audience. A quote I often cite (despite not being able to find an actual citation for it) goes something like this: “People tend to assume the worst if you don’t tell them you really care.” In Splatoon 2 (and also Splatoon), the constant drip of new content and relative frequency of patches made it feel like the development team was more engaged and responsive, and that any problems that arose would be quickly addressed and taken care of. There was also little advance warning as to what was coming, which gave players a sense that anything was possible: If your preferred weapon didn’t appear this week, maybe it might show up next week! In Splatoon 3, however, Nintendo publicly committed to a slower, more deliberate schedule for post-release content, organizing drops into three-month “seasons” and laying all their cards (catalogs?) on the table in advance. Whether or not this change was for the better or not can be debated until the squids come home, but the move had two major side-effects
    • It weakened the connection between the developers and the community, and made it seem like Nintendo was less interested or invested in the game, even if the update schedule thus far hasn’t been that far off of the schedule for the first two games.
    • It meant that if a weapon class was left out of a seasonal update, it would be three months before they got another chance to get into the action. If you miss two updates like the Brellas now have…well, you start to assume the worst.

So imagine that you’re a Brella player. Your beloved weapon arrives in Splatoon 3 as a glitchy mess. You’ve seen a bunch of bugfixes for your weapon, which is simultaneously uplifting and disheartening (it’s great to see the problems getting fixed, but why were there so many problems in the first place if the weapon was fully functional in Splatoon 2?). You’ve borne the brunt of Splatoon 3‘s network issues, and given the company’s poor track record with online play and mediocre efforts to address the problem so far, you don’t have much hope that things will get better. You haven’t gotten anything from the game’s balance changes or content updates yet, and unlike Splatanas and Stringers you’re not one of the shiny new weapons classes that have been at the forefront of the game’s marketing campaign. You’re stuck waiting until June for any alternate kits to shake up the game, and if nothing shows up then, your next chance will be in September. You appreciate all the love and focus being given to Splatoon, but given that your weapon didn’t show up until Splatoon 2, all that love and focus isn’t going to help you either.

Given all this, you could forgive a Brella player for wondering if they’ve been forgotten.

Now, my caveat to all this is that personally, I still find what we’ve got now to be viable in online matches. Granted, I mostly use the Undercover Brella and I’m not involved in any high-tier competitive play, but for the basic modes that I’ve been playing for years, these weapons work about as well as they always have. (I also think the maps, whose design has been rightly panned since the game debuted, actually work in a Brella’s favor: If the maps are chokepoint-filled hallways, that’s a plus for a Brella that can fill that space and wall off opponents.) I’d still like a bit more sub/special variety within the weapon class itself (I’m an experimenter at heart, i.e. the guy who puts Luke Maile in right field just to see what happens), but if this is all we get, I figure I can find a way to make it work. I’ll still be disappointed, however, because the Brella’s combination of offense and defense enables playstyles that no other weapon can match, and to see it seemingly get shoved into a corner and neglected just breaks my heart.

So what can be done to fix this problem? “Fix the Brellas” is the obvious answer, but I think the first step is communication: Tell us why Brellas appear to be on the back burner. I’ve discussed the difficulty of balancing a weapon like this in the past, but it would be nice to hear this directly from the Splatoon team. We need some way of the folks behind the game to the story behind the game: Why were Brella in such rough shape at the start of the game? What difficulties has the team run into while fixing them? Why are the maps shaped like Tetris pieces? Where do certain weapon buffs and nerfs originate from (seriously, that random .52 Gal special point drop still feels awfully sus to me)? Starting that sort of dialogue, even if it’s over a curated one-way channel, would go a long way towards helping players understand the state of the game, and while not everyone would agree with the provided rationale, at least we’d know where the developers were coming from.

In the end, everyone wants the same thing: A fun, reliable game that delivers years of enjoyment for players and prints money for Nintendo. Giving each weapon class an equal amount of attention and care would go a long way in a game that’s showing serious signs of “shooter privilege,” and if that isn’t possible, at least the community should know why that was the case. Otherwise, we’re left with nothing but speculation and suspicion to fill the void, and that never turns out well.

So what happened to Brellas? A series of unfortunate technical issues, policy choices, and unexplained decisions left players in the dark and Brellas out in the cold. Nintendo can’t fix all of this in a day, but they could at least let us know that they’re trying, and I’d settle for that for now. That, and a new .96 Gal kit. (I wasn’t that much of a Kraken user back in the day, but I’m willing to give it a shot!)

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Carlton Anderson?

Image from Sounds Like Nashville

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

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

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

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

What Went Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Where Is He Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Review: Jackson Dean, “Fearless”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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