You first move when you hear “Country On” should be to turn your radio off.
Back when I reviewed Luke Bryan’s previous single “Up,” I declared that “this is about as formulaic, unoriginal, and boring a song as you could possibly put together,” and for once the rest of the world agreed: The song crashed and burned at #21 on Billboard’s airplay chart, making it Bryan’s worst radio showing since his sophomore slump single “We Rode In Trucks” all the way back in 2008. You could make an argument that this means nothing because the song was a throwaway track from an album that Capitol had left out on the mound for an inning too long. However, you could also make the case that at almost 46 years old and after fifteen years on the radio, it could signal the beginning of the end for Bryan, as he’s being supplanted by a newer generation of stars and isn’t even the best Luke in the genre anymore.
It was long past time for some leadoff single buzz, and while my expectations weren’t terribly high for it to begin with (Bryan has been a certified trend-hopper for a long time), I didn’t expect his latest single “Country On” to be this bad. What is supposed to be a spiritual successor to songs like Alabama’s “Forty Hour Week (For A Livin’)” turns out to be one of the dumbest and most basic songs I’ve heard in a loooong time. It’s a complete failure at every level, and should be actively avoided at all costs.
Let’s start with the lifeless, leaden production, which offers no support to the lyrics whatsoever. There are only two instruments of significance here: A heavy, deep-voiced guitar that barely registers a pulse (even during what barely qualifies as a bridge solo) and a drum set winds up being the loudest piece in the arrangement, even though it does little more than keep time. Everything else here is barely present long enough for them to include it on their résumé: The acoustic guitar that opens the song disappears the moment Bryan starts singing and is never heard from again, while the fiddle gets a whole two riffs in during the song (and by the time it’s turned loose on the extended outro, the listener has already tuned out and doesn’t care). With its slower, deliberate tempo and the neutral-to-dark instrument tones that dominate the mix, the song is devoid of both energy and atmosphere, and instead of feeling reverential or thankful, we get this Seinfeldian null vibe that only exists to declare that no other vibe exists, and the audience is left feeling nothing at all. This is a placeholder sound at best, and whoever produced it needs to be demoted back to the mail room, because it does nothing for the song and leaves the other pieces of the track to fend for themselves.
To borrow another line from my “Up” review: “To borrow a line from my ‘Down To One’ review, ‘Bryan is…here, I guess?'” Except that I’m not even sure he qualifies as ‘present’ with this vocal performance; I’m pretty sure a plastic mannequin would have more presence behind the mic than Bryan does here. It appears that this song was a little too easy for Bryan, because he immediately switches onto autopilot and spends the entire track sounding distant and disinterested, delivering his lines with all the passion of an evening newscaster reading a laundry list (which is basically what Bryan’s doing, but we’ll get to that later). You just don’t get the sense that Bryan means what he’s saying as he drones his way through the song, and for someone who I’ve praised for their charm and charisma in the past, to get such a disingenuous and mailed-in feel from his delivery is nothing short of shocking, especially on what’s supposed to be a leadoff single! As bad as “Up” was, Capitol might have been better off propping it up for another few months, because Bryan just does not sound ready to record new material yet.
Then again, it’s hard to blame Bryan for his lack of excitement after you examine the predictable, paint-by-numbers writing he’s working with. In theory, the song is a shout-out to the unheralded souls doing tough-but-important work, but instead of feeling heartfelt and revelatory, it comes across as unfocused and cliché. You either know what the narrator is going to say the moment they open their mouth (of course we’re going to name-check farmers, first responders, and soldiers) or the targets make no sense beyond checking boxes on the current meta checklist (wait, why are we talking to hometowns again? And exactly who thought Nashville deserved praise for all the junk they’ve shoveled out lately?). Given all the visibility that frontline workers have gotten over the last few years, the song had a golden opportunity to spotlight their efforts and reaffirm their importance…and instead we get sections dedicated to “essential” personnel like bartenders. (At least Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer” included a shoutout to healthcare workers, even if it felt like it was bolted on after the fact.) In truth, it’s not like the ‘tributes’ would have meant much anyway: They’re short, shallow, and declare nothing more than ‘I see you’ and to keep doing what they’re doing, making an asinine attempt to turn “country” into a verb in the process (seriously, who thought that was a good idea?). The whole song feels like a cheap and lazy attempt to turn Nashville’s meta buzzword list into a bunch of token bromides with minimal gratitude behind them, and whoever put this drivel together (…wait, you’re telling me it took four people to write this?) needs to be put in timeout so they can think about what they’ve done.
Put it all together, and there’s simply nothing to recommend about “Country On.” The production is ill-fitting and unimaginative, the writing is cookie-cutter and superficial, and Luke Bryan doesn’t sound any happier to be there than I am to be here writing this review. This is easily the worst song I’ve reviewed in 2022 (although a worse one is coming next week…), and if you’re trying the celebrate the uncelebrated-but-essential, there are far better songs out there to do it with (“Forty Hour Week” is one, “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega” is another). Bryan claims he’s halfway through this upcoming album, but if this song is any indication of what’s coming, I’d advise him to hit pause, take a step back, and take whatever time he needs to refresh and clear his mind, because foisting junk like this on the populace is a recipe for disaster. Luke Bryan Inc. isn’t too big to fail anymore, and if he’s not careful, when people decide to put “country on,” they won’t be playing him.
Rating: 3/10. Steer clear of this one.