Would I call this fun? I guess. Would I call it good? Not really.
The “official” story of the Hot Country Knights is that ex-adult-film-star Doug Douglason and his band of merry misfits have been making sporadic live appearances for the last few years, and only signed a major label deal with UMG Nashville a few short weeks ago. Unofficially, Dierks Bentley (who’s been known to pitch more-traditional styles of music to the masses in the past, most notably on his 2010 bluegrass disc Up On The Ridge) has been using this alter-ego to escape the constraints of modern country music for a while (the fact that Douglason showed up right around the time Bentley was recording Black doesn’t seem like a coincidence), and with a mini-revival of the 1990s neotraditonal style going on in the genre, he decided the iron was hot for the Knights to strike, pulling vaunted Class of ’89 member Travis Tritt out of mothballs for the group’s debut single “Pick Her Up.” As far as throwback tracks go, the group absolutely nailed the sound of the era, but they also whiffed badly on the writing, making the track feel like a Bro-Country retread and leaving the overall product merely okay as a result.
Let’s start with the production, which is definitely the star of this sideshow. The electric guitars come at you withe full force from the word go, and they not only recapture the tone and rollick that dominated the 1990s, but they don’t slow down or miss a beat from start to finish. All the other requisite pieces are here as well: The fiddle, the steel guitar, the piano, the full drum set, and especially the rowdy energy Tritt himself championed on tracks like “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.” The tempo is brisk, the various instruments each get a chance to shine, and the momentum is unstoppable, so much so that the musicians have to extend the outro for an extra minute just to burn off the excess fuel. (Unfortunately, where the extended ending of “Run Wild Horses” enhanced the mood, this one absolutely kills it, as the players ungracefully bang out the same repeated note over and over and over until your ears starts bleeding and the whole mess starts to sound like a skipping CD.) Still, the sound is perfect for the bottle rocket that it is, and serve as a nice vehicle for the fun, lightweight lyrics that helps distinguish it from the pack.
Something about Douglas…er, Bentley sounds a bit off to me during this performance. His tone is mostly okay and he’s enough flow to keep up with the rest of the track, but he doesn’t sound as comfortable in his lower range as I expected, and occasionally sounds a bit flat when he closes a line. Luckily, this isn’t Bentley’s first spin around an old-school approach (heck, I’ve been calling him an “outlaw” throwback for years), so he’s got the cachet and charisma to cover for any minute flaws in his delivery. In truth, Tritt’s in a similar spot: He’s lost a little off his fastball over the years (his tone and flow don’t quite measure up here), but as the poster-child for the rowdy side of 90s country, he’s basically required to be part of a song like this, and he’s got just enough of that old swagger to forge a connection with the audience. While I wouldn’t say the pair has great vocal chemistry (they don’t sound all that good harmonizing together, which is probably why they spend much of the song trading the lead instead of sharing it), the switches are seamless and the listener gets the full dosage no matter who is delivering it. In other words, the performers aren’t the problem here.
The problem, however, is the writing: The narrator spends the song dispensing advice about how to win the heart of a country girl, and…well, I’ll let them explain it:
Pick her up in a pickup truck
And take her out to a honky tonk
Turn an ice cold longneck up
Dance around to an old jukebox
If you really wanna rock the world
Of a pretty little country girl
Just know when you pick her up
Pick her up in a pickup truck
Fairly or not, this song is only a bonfire and a pair of cutoff jeans away from pretty much every Metro-Bro song we’ve heard over the last decade. The 1990s certainly had their share of songs in this vein (think Garth Brooks’s “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)”), and while they generally weren’t as ear-grating or misogynistic as what was coming, the truth is that songs like this have been done to death over the last ten years, and I’m really sick of writing that’s this shallow and predictable (that “pick her up in a pickup truck” is more groan-inducing than anything else). Once you get beyond the sugar rush of the sound, you realize that this is the same old drivel wrapped up in a different package, and adding some fiddle and steel to a song like this doesn’t make it any more interesting.
“Pick Her Up” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, using a wall of neotraditional noise to set off your nostalgia sensors before you realize that neither the Hot Country Knights nor Travis Tritt have anything interesting to say. However, I can at least say that they did a nice job wrapping this package: The neotraditional sound is executed perfectly, to the point where this really feels like it could have been a hit from the 1990s, and Dierks Bentley and Tritt have more than enough charisma between them to deliver the mail. The question now is this: Do the Knights have enough (better) material in their pockets to really make this sound stick, or is it all just window-dressing to sell the same old stuff? Personally, I’m not holding my breath.
Rating: 6/10. It’s a great imitation, but you’ll go back to the real thing after a few spins.