Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (September 2022 Edition: Parker McCollum, Kenny Chesney & Old Dominion, Corey Kent, Matt Stell, Ryan Griffin)

And here I thought Labor Day was supposed to celebrate work by not working…

I mentioned back in July that “everyone and their cousin’s ex’s pet is trying to peddle their wares to radio,” and two months later very little has changed, especially as radio ramps up for their summer-to-fall transition. With a bunch of A-listers making their second-half moves, it doesn’t feel like a great time to be pushing a new single with an artist with a low Q score, but Nashville keeps shoveling out soundalike songs just the same, and my review list keeps growing as a result. In order to keep up with the more important stuff, it’s time for another rapid-fire round of reviews for songs that just aren’t worth the usual deep dive. Without further ado, that’s more than enough waffling—let’s dive right into things.

Parker McCollum, “Handle On You”

As much as I don’t like Parker McCollum, I’ll give him and his team a little credit on this one: The production does a decent job capturing that retro 90s/2000s feel, and there are a couple decent lines included in the writing (“I tell myself that I should quit but I don’t listen to drunks” is the highlight). Still, at the end of the day this is just another cry-in-your-beer track in a genre’s that’s already oversaturated with them, and it just doesn’t go far enough to rise above its competition. The mix has a guitar-and-drum foundation and doesn’t go beyond the usual steel guitar riffs and brief keyboard appearances to make it stand out, and the instrument tones are a bit too bright and have a bit too much energy for the writing (the narrator’s supposed to be in pain, but it sure doesn’t sure like it). McCollum cleans up his act and doesn’t come across as poorly as he did on “To Be Loved By You,” but I still wouldn’t call him a charismatic artist and his performance doesn’t make the song any more compelling to listen to. The story barely qualifies as one, as the narrator is just trying to drink themselves into a stupor after a failed relationship, and both the hook and the Merle Haggard references feel more than a little forced (especially the hook; I see what they were trying to do, but using “handle” as a alcohol measurement seems too esoteric for most listeners to pick up on). It’s a “meh” song, but it’s one of the better “meh” songs, and after Michael Ray followed up a similar song “Whiskey And Rain” with “Holy Water,” I wouldn’t mind seeing McCollum follow a similar path.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Kenny Chesney & Old Dominion, “Beer With My Friends”

Oh joy, another booze-soaked party song that sounds the exact same as the last hundred of these things we’ve heard. I am really tired of junk like this, so if you’re going to drop one on me, you’d better change up your formula to keep me interested. Unfortunately, they followed the usual recipe to a T here: A guitar-and drum mix headlined by some rough-edged electric axes driving the sound forward, the standard “work hard, drink hard” story that we’ve all heard a million times before, and a pair of acts (on a song that has no right being a duet) that not only show no sign of the stress and anxiety they claim they’re facing, but also seem to cancel each other out (when Old Dominion jumps in on the chorus, Chesney’s voice practically disappears). An angle like this on a song like this can work (think Justin Moore’s “Kinda Don’t Care”), but you’ve got to do something to catch the audience’s ear and make them connect with you song. Moore did it with a throwback sound and by injecting some actual world-weariness into his performance, but Chesney & company turn in a soundalike, cookie-cutter (and out-of-season) party anthem that doesn’t justify its existence next to the hundreds of such songs we’ve gotten lately. You’ve heard this before, and there’s no reason to hear it again.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t bother with this one.

Corey Kent, “Wild As Her”

Okay, now I think Nashville is just trolling me. After hearing two lost-love songs featuring no trace of heartbreak, we get to the debut single of Kent (an Oklahoma native and former Voice contestant)…and it’s a dark, foreboding track full of minor chords and brooding hard-rock guitars. It’s a mix that might finally suit a lost-love song (even if it’s a little over-the-top)…except that the song is supposed to be celebrating an informal partnership between the narrator and a woman who’s “looking for somebody as wild as her.” Huh? The ominous tone might make sense if there was some actual danger in the relationship, but the pair isn’t doing anything risky (they’re just cruising down the road together like every other couple in a country song), and the narrator projects so much confidence that the not-actually-a-relationship will last that you don’t get the sense it will fail. As for Kent, he’s an off-brand Morgan Wallen vocally, and he delivers this song with an Aldean-esque intensity that feels way overdone and sucks all of the drama out of the story. I think the story has some real potential (characters that can’t be tied down are nothing new, but coming to a arrangement that only kinda-sorta ties them down is different), but I kind of wish it had dived into the other person’s motivations: What is it about commitment that concerns them? Have they been in bad relationships in the past? Instead, the writing barely scratches the surface, focusing on the less-interesting present and finding ways to work in some meta buzzwords to satisfy someone’s streaming algorithm. It’s just not something I’m interested in revisiting, and can be chalked up as another failed attempt by Music City to break in a new artist.

Rating: 5/10. Honestly, Tyler Joe Miller did it (slightly) better.

Matt Stell, “Man Made”

This song sits in the same awkward position as Cody Johnson’s “Human” for me: It seems like a song I should like, and yet I’m really not impressed by it. I think the issue starts with the writing: The narrator is trying to honor women by declaring that they are the real reason men ever accomplished anything (“If a man made anything, it’s ’cause a woman made that man”). It’s a topic that’s been done before, but the lyrics this time around don’t do a great job delivering the message: The opening verse is just a laundry list that got weaker every time I listened to it (many of these were invented at a time when anyone who wasn’t a white male never got a chance to make anything), and the line about man inventing the wheel to “drive a girl around and get stuck in some field” came across as both dumb and sleazy. The song just felt surprisingly reductionist to me, as if it were implying that women were only good for inspiration/moral support while pushing aside the real contributions they had made (for example, do we put “footprints on the moon” without the Black women who got John Glenn into orbit seven years earlier?) Stell remains a nondescript artist to me, and he didn’t have the charm or charisma to push me to focus on the positive side of his message. I’ll give the producer some credit for creating a lighter, reflective mix that invited listeners to ruminate on the writing (even if this is yet another guitar-and-drum mix whose only accenting instrument is the pedal steel). This one didn’t leave a huge impression on me in the end, and I doubt I’ll remember that it exists in another month or so.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Ryan Griffin, “Salt, Lime, & Tequila”

Another nihilistic drinking song? Gag me with a spoon. Griffin is a Florida native who’s already on his second record label and is currently working for Jay DeMarcus, and the closest comparison I can think of for his voice is Hunter Hayes, but this performance is utterly replacable (stick any other creation from Nashville’s young male assembly line behind the mic, and nothing changes). The producer deserves a little credit for giving the song a tropical vibe with the bright acoustic guitar, but the drum machine can feel a little awkward at times, and outside of a steel guitar floating around in the background, that’s basically all you get here. However, it’s the atrociously generic writing that really gets my goat: There is nothing to this song beyond “life sucks, so just drink yourself silly.” We’ve gotten this song a hundred thousand times over the last few years (sometimes multiple times from the same artist—I’m looking at you, Thomas Rhett), and there’s nothing even even remotely interesting or novel that would make you pick this song over any of its competitors, and the “grain of salt, lime, and tequila” hook is nowhere near as clever as the writers thought it was. I put this L more on Music City than Griffin: Could Nashville put the freaking bottle down for a moment and not use getting drunk as a solution to everything? Is the only way to get a new artist some airplay these days making them blend into the background? It seems counterproductive and silly to me, because making an artist’s first impression this unimpressionable only seems like a good way to not earn them a second chance.

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

Song Review: Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More”

Matt Stell may be a better version of himself, but he’s no more interesting of an artist than he ever was.

With Morgan Wallen booted off of country radio (personally I hope he’s gone for good, but I have a bad feeling that he’ll be back to haunt us eventually), the title of “Popular Artist Whose Popularity I Just Don’t Understand” now falls to Stell. Neither his voice, his charm, or his storytelling ability seem all that impressive, and yet he’s coming off back to back #1 singles (“Prayed For You” and “Everywhere But On”) to start his career. His latest single “That Ain’t Me No More” is more of the same: A boring love-lost lament that fails in its attempt to exhibit maturity and instead comes across whiny and shallow, contradicting its own thesis. It’s the latest example of mediocrity coming from Nashville’s faceless young male assembly line.

The production is the same old guitar-and-drum mix everyone leans on these days, but even these basic components don’t seem to mesh well together: The rougher electric guitar tones seem to clash with the crisper tones of the drum machine (the real drums that eventually appear on the first chorus help combat this a little). Beyond that, we get some simple steel guitar notes that add nothing to the mix (seriously, they could have left them out and gotten essentially the same sound for less money), and that’s pretty much it. The darker tones and slower tempo convey a sense of seriousness that matches the reality of the lyrics (the other person isn’t person no matter what the narrator does), but they also subtract more energy from the track than they add, and it ends up feeling like overkill when the lyrics dive into petty grievances. In the end, it’s a basic, lifeless sound that just kind of exists, and it doesn’t convince to pay any more attention than they have to.

Just as I proclaimed in my “Everywhere But On,” review, “Stell remains the same nondescript, uninteresting artist that he was the last time we heard him, and if you stuck any of the other faceless male singers coming out of Nashville behind the mic, the song wouldn’t sound any different.” His range and flow aren’t tested here, but there’s nothing distinctive or unique about his performance, nothing that would make you say “that’s a Matt Stell song.” Moreover, whatever charisma he showed on his prior singles completely deserts him here, and the narrator comes across as unnecessarily dour and completely unsympathetic. Instead of celebrating the other person’s happiness like Riley Green’s “In Love By Now” or his own accomplishments like Collin Raye’s “Little Rock,” he just grumbles about all the ways he’s hurt by not being in his ex’s life. While the lyrics certainly don’t help matters, a better artist would try to find the silver lining in the clouds and use their performance to acknowledge both the pain and happiness in the situation. Instead, we get a generic guy whimpering about what could’ve been, and the audience simply ignores them and moves on.

The lyrics here tell the story of a narrator who’s finally dropped many of the bad habits of their youth, but haven’t gotten over the loss of the partner who left them over those old habits. (The hook is that both the old narrator and the ex’s current partner “ain’t me no more,” but you could say the narrator has moved “everyone but on” too.) The double meaning of the hook is only moderately clever, and I get a real “Whiskey Glasses” vibe from the writing, as the narrator not only whines about the personal impact on himself more than anything else, but he also seems to get hung up on sexual considerations (the ex isn’t wearing his shirt after a night of lovemaking, the narrator isn’t getting to see “that knock-you-dead dress hit the floor”). It reflects a lack of maturity that the narrator is claiming to have gotten past, making them sound shallow and makes the listener root against them instead of commiserating with them. It’s a song that’s in desperate need of a refocus, because the narrator really gets on your nerves by the time it’s over.

Unfortunately, “That Ain’t Me No More” is exactly what Matt Stell is right now: Just another song from just another singer, featuring the same old sound and subpar writing. It’s a slight step down from “Everywhere But On,” and honestly makes me question Stell’s long-term viability in the genre. After a pair of major-label EPs, he and his team can’t seem to release anything but boring, mediocre material, and there are a million artists competing for room in this lane right now. If he doesn’t come up with something big and fast, he’ll soon be saying “that ain’t me no more” when people ask if he was a country artist.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Song Review: Matt Stell, “Everywhere But On”

Well…At least Matt Stell’s moving in the right direction?

Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but Stell’s “Prayed For You” stood out from the crowd thanks to the sheer momentum the song built up and carried throughout its run. Although I found the song to be forgettable and mediocre, it struck a chord with enough people to not only top the country charts, but to also crack the Top 40 on the Hot 100. However, it’s the sophomore slump that catches a lot of artists flatfooted, and Stell is about to take his turn in the hot seat with the follow-up single “Everywhere But On.” Adhering to the ageless wisdom of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Stell offers pretty much the same experience here than he did on “Prayed For You,” albeit with a bit more melancholy than optimism this time around. That may work for some people, but although I’d call this a slight improvement over his debut, I don’t find this song to be any more compelling this his last one.

That “slight improvement” is decidedly not reflected in the production for this track. The overall sound suggests that the same cast of characters from the debut hit returned for the sequel, but every change seems like it was for the worst: The percussion sounds more-obviously synthetic than before, the keyboard has been scrapped entirely is was not replaced, and the usual acoustic/electric guitar combo is left to carry the melody as boringly as possible. The good news is that at least the tone feels a bit more suitable for the subject matter: The darker instrument tones, minor chords, and moderate-to-slow tempo return, but they feel more at home on a long-distance lost-love story than the actually-happy song that was “Prayed For You.” Sadly, the complete lack of energy returns as well, as the song plods a bit too much for the listener to get lost in the story and feel for the narrator’s plight. I called “Prayed For You” “a drug-free alternative to Unisom,” and this sound is even more forgettable and sleep-inducing than that.

Stell’s vocal performance on this song is a mixed bag as well. On the plus side, the song lets him stay deep within his comfort zone by not testing his range or flow, and he at least sound moderately more invested in the story this time around (although I’d still like to hear more power and punch in his delivery). The problem is that Stell remains the same nondescript, uninteresting artist that he was the last time we heard him, and if you stuck any of the other faceless male singers coming out of Nashville behind the mic, the song wouldn’t sound any different. The audience feels for the dude’s plight a little bit, but ultimately it’s not enough to invest any real emotional capital in the track. Stell comes across as just another guy trying to outrun a lost love, and my response is more “yeah, we all got problems pal” than anything else. I know “Prayed For You” performed well, but I really don’t know what people see in this guy.

So where’s this “slight improvement” I hinted at three paragraphs ago? Mostly it’s in the writing, which is essentially a copy of Tim McGraw’s “Everywhere”: Narrator breaks up with their partner, hits the road looking to find a new life, and yet still hallucinates about their ex everywhere they go. The “I’ve moved everywhere but on” hook is at least moderately clever, and while this one’s a bit lighter on details compared to McGraw’s song (for example, we get no indication of why the couple parted ways, and the locations they mention are beyond generic), the ones we get are surprisingly novel. For example, we learn more about the narrator’s occupations this time (“loading trucks, pouring coffee, pouring concrete”), and I really like the “mail’s still going to mama’s house” line because it emphasizes how temporary and fragile the narrator’s home life is and how lost they are in the world. This is basically the guy from Jason Aldean’s “Rearview Town” a few months after leaving, suddenly realizing that both the world and their ex’s memory are bigger than they originally thought. It’s the sort of story that builds a bond of sympathy between the artist and the listener, and it’s a shame that everything else here stretches that bond to its breaking point.

Overall, “Everywhere But On” is just “Prayed For You” with a sadder story, and that’s not enough to keep my interest. The writing is definitely a step up from before, but the bland sameness of the production and Matt Stell’s vocals leaves me just as unimpressed as I was the last time I heard him. The road to the top is a lot rougher and steeper the second time around, and I doubt that this track brings enough novelty and flavor to the table to make it back to the summit.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve got better things to do with your time.

Song Review: Matt Stell, “Prayed For You”

It’s safe to say that no one was praying for this song to arrive.

The latest young male superstar wannabe to roll off Nashville’s assembly line is Arkansas native Matt Stell, and while his backstory may be a little different than your typical new artist (high-level NCAA basketball is one thing, but a graduate degree and medical missions in Haiti? I didn’t see that coming), his musical stylings don’t do much to differentiate him from all the other guys kicking around Music City right now. Case in point: His latest single “Prayed For You,” a “viral, hit song” that was released last year, but wasn’t officially sent to country radio until this week. It’s yet another generic, lightweight love song with a heaping side order of religious imagery (c’mon man, that’s so 2016), a song whose only standout quality is how much is doesn’t stand out.

My first reaction upon hearing the production was “Wait, didn’t I just review this song?” It was no accident: The track features the same electric guitar, sanitary drum line, moody keyboard, and generally-dark tone that Dylan Schneider’s “How Does It Sound” had. I called Schneider’s sound “the same mix you’ve heard a million times before,” and nothing’s changed in the last week. Stell’s arrangement may add a acoustic guitar to help carry the melody, and the electric axes might not be as clean as Schneider’s, but overall the mix all but screams “Just another song!” The slower tempo keeps the track from generating much energy, the minor-chord-heavy structure signals the seriousness of the song with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and for lyrics that traffic this hard in religion, there’s nothing spiritual or uplifting about this mix. Brighten up the tone, dump the minor chords, and bring in an organ or other stereotypical church instruments (heck, why not add a choir?) and maybe this track becomes a little more interesting, but as it is, it’s just a drug-free alternative to Unisom.

Stell’s voice falls somewhere in between Jake Owen and Granger Smith (which isn’t a great place to start), and he’s no more interesting than his soundalike counterparts. To his credit, the vocals are about the only thing injecting any brightness into the track, and while he isn’t challenged on a technical level (his range is pushed slightly, his flow is not pushed at all), his range and flow are enough to capably cover the song (although he gets a little raspy even on the lower parts here). Unfortunately, he doesn’t sound terribly invested in the track (even in the more-intense moments, he sounds more restrained than I expected, and I don’t feel much emotion in the delivery). Whatever love and passion the narrator feels just doesn’t come through to the listener, and the resulting reaction is more “meh” than “aww.” The sad truth is that in the hands of anyone else off that Nashville assembly line I mentioned, this song would sound the exact same, and for a new artist looking for their big break, that bland sameness is their worst-case scenario.

The writing tells the story of a narrator who kept his faith and persevered through a life of heartbreak and pain until the day his soulmate arrived, declaring to them that “I prayed for you.” We’ve been here before a lot (remember Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y,” Jerrod Niemann’s “God Made A Woman,” or Dierks Bentley’s “Woman, Amen”?), and in comparison, I’m struck at just how little the religious imagery adds to this track. Take out the King James reference and the mentions of scripture and church, and you’d still have pretty much the same song as before. I’m also confused by the opening two lines of the song:

I’ve never been one to ask for help
If I need a mountain moved, I move it myself

That’s great, but it’s completely disconnected from the rest of the track, as the writing immediately moves to the singer’s (lack of formal) faith, and never goes back to that “I’m a self-reliant loner” point. Instead, it goes through a PG description of the narrator’s dream partner (smile, heart, touch…see, I’m not one of those shallow bros, honest!) and a run-of-the-mill description of the dark path they walked to get to this point (“heartbreak trail”? “highway to hell”? Seriously, could you people be any less creative with this stuff?). It’s boring, it’s unoriginal, and if there’s some supreme being watching over the world, I doubt it’s on their playlist.

In the end, “Prayed For You” is yet another song by yet another indistinguishable singer. From its sleep-inducing sound to its surface-level spirituality, there is nothing here that makes the track interesting or memorable, and the audience will forget that both it and Matt Stell exist the moment the next song starts playing. For as many times as I complain about up-and-coming artists making terrible choices for “debut” singles, Nashville doesn’t seem to be learning its lesson. In truth, however, the Music City suits don’t care: If Stell fails, they can always grab another fresh face from their assembly line to take his place.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.