Song Review: Clay Walker, “Catching Up With An Old Memory”

Something feels off about this song…but whether it’s a good or a bad thing is a larger question.

While lurking in the gaming sphere as I do, you run into the concept of “the meta” a lot—that is, there is some combination of characters/items/weapons/etc. that (in theory) gives you the best chance for succeeding in top-tier competition. In music, the meta manifests in the form of “trends” that we constantly complain about: An artist has to sound a certain way or sing about certain topics to give themselves the shot of finding traction on the radio.

How powerful is the Nashville meta right now? Consider the curious case of Clay Walker, a 52-year-old hat act whose peak was roughly twenty-five years ago and who pretty much disappeared from the genre in the 2010s. The man has reemerged in the last few years, however, with both “Need A Bar Sometimes” and now “Catching Up With An Old Memory” both sneaking onto the Mediabase charts (although the former didn’t go anywhere, and I don’t think this one will either). As someone who really enjoyed this artist back in the 1990s, I can’t listen to his latest single without getting a “not my Clay Walker” vibe, and it’s more than a feeling: This is a man changing with the times in an attempt to stay relevant, and while I wouldn’t call it necessarily bad, the current meta just doesn’t resonate with me, and thus this song doesn’t either.

Let’s start with the positives, which is that Walker still sounds pretty good despite his age. He seems to have found the presence and power that was missing on “Need A Bar Sometimes,” and holds up well when pit against his earlier work. He delivery can feel a bit rote and deliberate when going through the chorus, but generally he’s able to convey his emotions in a way that listeners can really feel, which is something a lot of newer artists seem to struggle with. The most interesting part of his performance is just how positive it is for what’s ostensibly a heartbreak song: Walker gives no indication of blame and regret, and instead gives us the impression that his occasional strolls down memory lane are actually enjoyable. I give artists grief all the time for dwelling on the past and trading on nostalgia, but for Walker this longing doesn’t come across as an all-encompassing thing (of course the writing gets an assist here; more on that later). Basically, Walker is the only reason you might tune in to a song like this, and it’s a shame that he doesn’t have a stronger supporting cast.

So about that supporting cast: From a production standpoint, Walker burst onto the scene back in the fiddle-and-steel, neotraditional 90s, and it’s the sound I associate with his best work. This arrangement, on the other hand, feels like a leftover from the Boyfriend country era, opening with some synth tones, Grady Smith’s favorite snap track, and a choppy instrument that I honestly can’t place by ear, all framed with echoey effects in an attempt to create a more spacious, arena-ready sound. A steel guitar eventually gets a few words in (and even gets a prolonged feature on the bridge solo), but otherwise this is the same slick sort of sound you might find one the many failed sex jams Nashville has tried to sell us recently. The mix’s generally-dark tones put it at odds with Walker’s attempt to put a positive spin on the predicament, and outside of the bridge solo there’s nothing here that you couldn’t find in ten other places on the airwaves right now. I get that artists have to update their sound with the times, but something just feels off about pairing Walker with this kind of mix, and conforming to the sort of bland background noise that’s apparently all the rage just doesn’t feel like the right move. You might as well move along, because there’s nothing to hear here.

The writing here is a bit of a mixed bag, as it tells the tale of a narrator who occasionally has to “catch up with an old memory” and reminisce about the good times with a former partner. On one hand, the writers go to great pains to set the boundaries of this behavior: It’s an occasional pastime that the narrator actually enjoys in partaking in, not an all-consuming force that driver to narrator to numb their feelings every night (“I ain’t hidin’ or lyin’ or tryin’ to drown any pain”). On the other hand, however, the writers don’t bother to share any details about the relationship besides it being “wild and on fire,” making it hard for the audience to know if the relationship is really worth remembering, and thus making it hard to them to justify staying tuned in. It’s also hard to tell if the narrator’s statements are truthful, because their behavior (sitting around drinking by themselves) is indistinguishable from someone who is trying not to catch up with an old memory. (The hook is also super clunky and seems to have to many syllables for the song’s meter.) There might have been some potential, but it feels like the song needs a few more drafts and a lot more detail to realize it—as it is, it’s all on Walker to sell the story by himself.

“Catching Up With An Old Memory” is just another unremarkable song whose only success is reminding people that Clay Walker still exists and is a pretty good vocalist. He’s not able to elevate the song thanks to its soundalike production and half-baked writing, but sadly said production and writing are a feature of the current Nashville meta rather than a bug, and this is the sort of game you have to play to get into the mainstream country conversation today. Every era has its house rules, but rather than label it good or bad, the word that comes to mind for me is uninspired, a minimal-necessary effort to check a few boxes, fit the provided template, and maybe throw a minor curveball in the mix to get your song on the right playlists. For my money, I’d rather catch up with Walker’s old discography instead.

Rating: 5/10. Nothing to see here, folks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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