Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Southbound”

Having Dierks Bentley sing an smooth AC sex jam is like using a shovel to eat cereal: Sure, you can do it, but the tool doesn’t really match the task.  —Kyle, 2016

The same principle applies to Carrie Underwood singing a Bro-copied summer jam.  —Kyle, 2019

Women are breaking through glass ceilings in many aspects of society today, but in Carrie Underwood’s case, the kingmakers of country radio seem to be lowering that ceiling on top of her. While Storyteller earned Underwood her first Billboard No. 1s since 2012, the Cry Pretty era has not looked quite as pretty: The title track ran into a stop sign at #9 (although its “hot country singles” peak was higher), while her coalition-building power ballad “Love Wins” ran out of gas at #11. With summer fast approaching, Underwood and her team decided to try a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, releasing “Southbound” as the third single from Cry Pretty. The track is basically a copy of every Bro-Country summer party track you’ve ever heard, and not only is it a poor fit for Underwood’s style, but she just does not bring anything unique or interesting to her performance to freshen up what is a fairly tired trope. It doesn’t come across as sleazy as, say, “Good Company,” but it’s a fair distance from being a good or memorable song.

From the above description of the track, you can probably already guess what the major components of the production are: Choppy electric guitars, a prominent percussion mix of real and synthetic elements (Clap tracks? You know they’re here), and an occasional token banjo tossed in for good measure. What you might not expect, however, is the mandolin that tosses some riffs in on the chorus, or the organ providing some post-chorus background swell, or that the guitars (okay, maybe just one) have some actual texture for a change. There are definitely some interesting pieces here if you look hard enough, but they’re only in supporting roles and let the usual suspects cover the leads and carry the melody. The tone here is also as bright and sunny as you would expect, supporting the writing by creating a energetic party atmosphere for the listener. Sure it’s fun, but it’s also the millionth lightweight party track I’ve heard in the last few years, and tweaking the sound around the edges isn’t enough to engage the listener and convince them to pay attention. It’s yet another helping of empty sonic calories, and I’m starting to think country music needs to go on a diet.

Vocally, Underwood is an unabashed power vocalist, and while that didn’t lead to much success on “Love Wins,” I’m not sure it justifies pulling her this far out of her wheelhouse. The song itself is the biggest problem here, as it forces her to use a fast, choppy delivery in a too-low key, robbing her of her usual tone and texture and just generally making her sound awkward. While she maintains enough poise and charisma to keep the song from going straight into the gutter (can you imagine how slimy this would sound with Florida Georgia Line singing about Katie “dancin’ on the dock and it’s only two o’clock”?), but you can only elevate a song so high when it starts this far down, and Underwood just isn’t believable in the role of a party-hearty narrator. After a decade-plus of big-voice ballads and unique/crazy story songs, this no-care narrator feels a little beneath her, and sticking her with a song this shallow was not a smart decision.

The lyrics are barely worth talking about here, but I’ve basically already covered them a hundred times before: The narrator is at your prototypical beach party, trading their pickup truck for a pontoon boats and otherwise covering the usual bases: Drinking, dancing, suntans, rope swings, cheap sunglasses, etc. There’s a line about old fishermen leaving because the party is scaring away all the fish, but it comes and goes so quickly that it feels like a throwaway line, switching from Fireball and Crown to “redneck margaritas” is a lateral move at best, and for a song whose hook is to “get a little southbound,” the scene feels awfully generic and could be on a beach anywhere in the world. (The production tries to add a little “southern” flair to the atmosphere with its bluegrass instruments, but that’s about it.) I know it’s a song that aims to move people physically instead of emotionally and that lyrical quality doesn’t matter as long as the beat is pumping, but with so many similar options out there, even Carrie Underwood needs a way to stand out from the crowd, and the sound and writing offer no help whatsoever.

“Southbound” is yet another dance party track is a genre that’s already overflowing with them, and doesn’t do anything to justify claiming that this track is superior to all the others. The writing is paint-by-numbers basic, the sound offers some changes but not enough to make the track different, and Carrie Underwood gets stuck in the awkward position of trying to pull together something that she should have never gotten involved with in the first place. (It’s a lot like me trying to play Splat Zones in Splatoon 2.) Underwood and Capitol Nashville seem to be hoping to blend in with the rest of the genre and watch the song gets carried upstream to the promised land, and while the alternative of actually putting out quality material hasn’t gotten them very far either, this sort of give-up philosophy doesn’t bode well for Underwood’s future in the genre.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve already heard this somewhere before. There’s no need to revisit it.