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.