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: Parker Denning, “To Be Loved By ABBY”

Okay, this is a trend we need to put an end to quickly before it spreads.

Country music has had a bit of an anger management problem over the last few years, and to be fair there is plenty of stuff to be angry about in the world: For example, Eric Church demanded that country music get back to telling the stories of the downtrodden, and Ashley McBryde wasn’t happy to find someone fooling around with her father. The problem, however, is there are a lot of things that are not worth getting angry about, such as when Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Robert Counts scream about not getting enough respect, or when Tucker Beathard whines about how his ex doesn’t miss him enough. It comes across as petty, immature, and just plain dumb, and that’s why when I first heard Travis Denning’s “ABBY” on satellite radio last year, my first thought was “Please tell me this piece of junk never never never gets pushed to conventional radio.” Unfortunately, the bad news dropped last month, and thus I’ve spent the last month putting off reviewing the track hoping that it failed to crack the Mediabase chart (so much so that I wrote a massive Tenta Brella how-to guide rather than acknowledge this drivel).

Unfortunately, it seems that Parker McCollum (who I’ve also spent the last three months avoiding) has now breached the Mediabase Top 50, which means I’m obligated to discuss and rate his latest single “To Be Loved By You” for my Pulse posts. After hearing the song, however, I realized that this and “ABBY” are pretty much the same track, as they both feature a guy throwing a tantrum over a woman who just won’t do what they want. While the two singers draw different conclusions (McCollum goes all in, Denning walks away), they both have the same insufferable attitude that repulses the listener and makes them actively root for the narrator to crash and burn. These songs, along with the entitled, thin-skinned frame of mind they showcase, need to be deposited in the nearest garbage can.

My contract states that I’m obligated to discuss the production on these tracks, so let’s get this out of the way quickly: Both tracks rely on the same tired guitar-and-drum formula that most of Nashville is using these days. Denning’s track opts for some slicker guitars and effected, synthetic-sounding percussion on the verses (the keyboard is also more organ-sounding, and is actually noticeable at times unlike on McCollum’s track), but the choruses sound like they were recorded in the exact same studio with the exact same band. The tempo and tone of both tracks are eerily similar, and both mixes are completely flavorless, devoid of punch, and completely dependent on volume for any energy they can muster. In other words, this sound is so stock that it should copyrighted by Getty Images—it’s an awkward-fitting default option that does little beyond fill the space between the vocals.

Vocally, Denning and McCollum are some of the latest creations to roll off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line, and neither acquits themselves well here at all. Denning remains a derivative of the Tyler Hubbard coaching tree, and while he actually puts some feeling behind the song this time (as opposed to the lifeless “Where That Beer’s Been”), that feeling is primarily contempt, and he winds up sounding completely obnoxious and unsympathetic as he tries to justify his breakup and ultimately makes the failed relationship sound like his fault. (If this song were a game of Among Us, he would have been voted out immediately for sounding so sus.) McCollum, on the other hand, is a Beathard clone who comes across as completely clueless as he complains about the other person rejecting his advances and swears that he’s all in on a relationship that just keeps falling apart, leaving the audience begging for him to take a freaking hint and leave the other person alone. There are no technical issues with either performance, but both artists showcase exactly zero charm or charisma, leading the listener to root for both of them to receive karmic justice and wind up completely miserable. In other words, these aren’t the sort of tracks you want to drop if you’re trying to expand your fanbase, because you’ll wind up doing the opposite.

But Kyle, I hear you say, you can’t claim these tracks are the same when the writing is so different! It’s true that the narrator in are very different positions: Denning is giving up on a relationship, while McCollum is trying to start one and keep it afloat. The problem is that both stories are underpinned by the same selfish, entitled way of thinking:

  • In the case of “To Be Loved By You,” the narrator has unilaterally decided that the relationship will work, and can’t seem to figure out why the other person reacts so poorly to his advances. Bruh, have you ever considered the fact that she’s just not that into you? If you’re wondering “Why do you sleep alone when I know you don’t like it?”, it’s probably because they think that sleeping with you would be worse! When you ask “Will it kill you to tell me the truth?”, my response is “Are you blind?” If they’re “always angry,” “always quiet,” and are “pissed off, hanging up the telephone,” that’s your answer right there: They’d like you to go away, and the sooner the better. It takes two to make a relationship work, and if one person isn’t interested, it doesn’t matter what you think. You need to stop acting like a creep and move on.
  • In the case of “ABBY,” my biggest issue is that Denning’s narrator never actually makes the case for his departure, and instead tried to pin all the blame on his ex. He’s as free to walk away as the woman in McCollum’s track is, but doing so by telling his ex they they suck and he’s going to find someone way better is incredibly off-putting and childish. The whole song just reeks of immaturity: The primary issue seems to be that the other person isn’t a fan of Denning’s Bro-Country-esque beer/truck/party lifestyle, and the narrator spends much of the song fantasizing about a imaginary waifu “Abby” (“anybody but you,” an acronym that isn’t nearly as clever as the writers think) who will love everything about him and never ever ask him to change or grow up. The narrator tries to turn the blame back onto the ex, but the charges simply don’t stick: The few mentions of “drama” are never elaborated on, and since when is driving a Honda grounds for a breakup? This guy needs to stop acting like a baby and just slink back into the shadows quietly.

“To Be Loved By You” and “ABBY” are just plain bad, and if I had to choose to hear one over the other, I’d pick Door #3 and just stick a power drill in my ear. Both tracks feature the same bland, unengaging sound, the same annoying vocal performance, and above all the same ignorant belief that the world revolves around them and that everyone else should just bend to their will and be happy about it. The world doesn’t work that way, however, and if Parker McCollum and Travis Denning want to be more than ankle-biters in a Nashville pond that’s already overflowing with artists like them, they need to take a hard look in the mirror, resolve to better themselves, and then strive to do so at every opportunity. If they instead choose to keep shoveling out junk like these tracks…well, I’d rather listen to the freaking Chug Jug song.

Rating: 3/10 for both of them. Get that garbage outta here!

Song Review: Parker McCollum, “Pretty Heart”

Sorry Parker McCollum, but this song doesn’t say a whole lot about you either as a person or an artist.

McCollum is a Texas native who’s been kicking around the local music scene for a while now, but only recently jumped onto the national stage when he signed with UMG Nashville last year. His first release “Pretty Heart” didn’t make much of an impression nationwide and only made it to #38 on Billboard’s airplay chart, so McCollum and UMG are going back now with his new release…wait, why are we getting “Pretty Heart” again? Was this thing not officially released the first time, or does the label think it’s got another “On The Other Hand” on its hands? I hate to break it to them, but Parker McCollum is no Randy Travis, and this song is the poorest excuse for a mea culpa that I’ve heard in a while. As heated as the chart competition has gotten, I don’t see this doing any better in 2020 than in did in 2019.

The production is the same sort of moody guitar-and-drum mix that half of Nashville’s been leaning on lately, and only partially fits the tone of the writing. That’s a lot to this arrangement, but it doesn’t feature much variety: The expected slick electric guitar is backed by at least two acoustic ones (one’s a bit higher-pitched, and I would have called it a mandolin if the video’s instrument listing had included one), with a drum set ending up as the loudest thing in the booth before the chorus. (A keyboard floats around in the background, but it’s barely noticeable until the final chorus.) The feel of this mix is…awkward, to say the least: I wouldn’t call it bright, but I wouldn’t really call it dark and somber either, and the whole thing is just fast, loud, and spacious enough to make the track feel more like an arena sing-along than a sad song. Something just doesn’t mesh with the subject matter here, and it makes the message feel superficial and disingenuous as a result.

Vocally, McCollum brings to mind a deeper-voiced Tucker Beathard (not a great comparison to begin with), and frankly, I hold him mostly responsible for the failure of this song. His technical skills are decent and mostly untested here, but his performance is utterly devoid of charisma or charm. The lyrics beat you over the head with the fact that the narrator is the bad guy in this story and is doing some serious soul-searching as a result, but I don’t get any sense that McCollum actually believes that line. Instead, he delivers his lines with all the warmth and charm of an evening newscaster, and the listener gets absolutely no sense of remorse from him about the situationin fact, he doesn’t sound sad at all! It’s a surprisingly wooden performance that makes it painfully clear that McCollum is just the guy telling the story, and he doesn’t own the narrator’s role and sell the sob story like he needs to. In the end, the audience is unmoved by McCollum, and moves on in search of an artist with an actual personality.

Then we get to the lyrics, which really should gone through a few more drafts before it reached this point. (If you can’t come up with anything better than “I stood there like a fence post” and especially “I’ve been drinking like a drunkard,” you need to put the pen down and find some real songwriters to craft your material.) Also, we got the message the first time you said you were the reason the relationship failedyou don’t need to beat that drum over and over for the rest of the song, especially with that repetitive, awkwardly-timed “what does that say about me?” question (and yet somehow you still managed to bungle the delivery). Everything else here feels paint-by-numbers simple: The narrator dropped the ball, they’re drowning their sorrow in cigarettes and beer, they wish they could go back, yada yada yada, repeat ad infinitum. The one thing that’s missing, however, is the road to redemption: Self-flagellation is one thing, but there should also be a resolve to better oneself and a proclamation that that they will never make this mistake again (see: Old Dominion’s “Some People Do”). This track is just someone halfheartedly blaming themselves while taking no effort to change the result the next time around, a lazy attitude that doesn’t curry any favor with the audience.

“Pretty Heart” is actually pretty awful, and doesn’t give me any confidence in Parker McCollum’s future as a member of the genre. The writing is repetitive and overbearing, the production is generic and forgettable, and McCollum doesn’t demonstrate the charm and personality to succeed at the next level. He seems like someone who could use a bit more seasoning on the Texas circuit to find his voice and hone his songwriting, because this song and this performance don’t even qualify as radio filler, and are lacking even by Nashville’s questionable standards.

“What does that say about me?” It says you’re not ready for the big time just yet.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t bother with this one.