Author Archives: Kevin John Coyne

What are You Listening to? – 2014 Edition

There have been a lot of new releases in the past few weeks.  What tracks are resonating with you the most?

Here are three of my current favorites, all of which have been recorded before:

Carlene Carter Carter Girl

Carlene Carter, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”  

from the album Carter Girl

Listen

“Me and the Wildwood Rose” was always one of my favorite Carlene Carter tracks.  Back when the original recording was released in 1990, it had a wistful nostalgia for the grandmother that she had lost.  In 2014, all of the other folks mentioned in the song, including her little sister “the Wildwood Rose”, have also passed on.  The new version is so heavy with grief, it is only Carter’s effervescent spirit that keeps it from being too heavy.

Rodney Crowell Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell, “God I’m Missing You”

from the album Tarpaper Sky

Listen

Speaking of grief, Rodney Crowell’s “God I’m Missing You” is a gut-wrencher.  Widows don’t often get the chance to speak in pure poetry:  “Time stretches to shape you right out of thin air. But it can’t hold the image. If I blink, you’re not there.  God I’m missing you.”  For me, it’s the highlight of an excellent album, with his best songwriting since The Outsider.  Lucinda Williams recorded it before him, and she does it well.

Dolly Parton Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton, “Banks of the Ohio”

from the album Blue Smoke

Listen

Parton’s latest set is a welcome return to form, and it features compelling covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi.  But the highlight for me is “Banks of the Ohio”, an oft-recorded standard that she breathes new life into by framing it with a narrative device that has her retelling the story being told to her.  This allows for Parton to speak in the male voice of the murderer, and still infuse the song with her trademark empathy.  (She’s never shied away from a suicide number, but homicide really isn’t her style.)

So we still have to wait from some country lady besides Olivia Newton-John to fully embrace the murderess within her, but until then, the stunning harmonies and heartfelt vocal of Parton has newly minted this treasured classic.

That’s what I’m listening to. What are you listening to?

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Single Review: Sheryl Crow, “Shotgun”

Sheryl Crow ShotgunOf all the rock artists who’ve parked themselves into the country genre to jump start their careers, Sheryl Crow is the most frustrating.

I love the return to her nineties sound, and “Shotgun” sounds like it could be an outtake from Sheryl Crow, the kind that would end up as a “Non-LP” track on the CD single for “If it Makes You Happy” or “Everyday is a Winding Road.”

But that highlights the two problems with Crow’s detour into country music.  For one, her sound hasn’t changed much.  It’s the boundaries of what’s considered country that have done all the moving.  And two, her songwriting is as tepid as ever, with a radio single from 2014 that wouldn’t have been good enough to make the actual album eighteen years ago.  Honestly, she hasn’t written a great song since The Globe Sessions.

Country radio would be better served by skipping this one and adding “Home” or “Members Only” instead.   They’d sound no less out of place than “Shotgun” and would be better than most of what’s currently on the dial anyway.

Written by Sheryl Crow, Chris DuBois, Kelley Lovelace, and John Shanks

Grade: C

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Single Review: Eric Church, “Cold One”

Eric Church Cold OneSneaky, clever guy, that Eric Church.

Way to totally upend expectations lyrically and musically.  The song is set up to be one of those “drinkin’ in the sun anthems,” with a paint-by-numbers kinda country production to boot.  Then a few lines in, the guy gets dumped by the cold one who left him “one beer short of  a 12-pack.”

Then the band lets loose, in an odd and refreshing way that is going to make purists frustrated.   But those of us who feel that if you’re going to integrate rock sounds, you might as well do it with a bit of innovation, we’re gonna enjoy every second of it.

Don’t look now, but Eric Church might be our strongest mainstream artist.  The kind that you can’t help wonder how he got in the mainstream in the first place.

Written by Eric Church, Luke Hutton, and Jeff Hyde

Grade: A

Listen:  Cold One

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Hall Worthy: 2014 Edition

halloffamelogoEight years ago, we posted our second edition of Hall Worthy, a list of significant country music figures who we felt were most deserving of being in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Since then, a lot has changed.  First and foremost, more than half of the list is now in the Hall of Fame (or, at least, headed there later this year.)  An additional entry, Wanda Jackson, is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A bigger change came in 2009, when new categories were introduced to ensure that two artist inductees would be represented from different eras:  The Modern Era (20-44 years of national prominence), and the Veterans Era (45+ years of national prominence.)  There are also three more categories that rotate, meaning one from each category gets in every third year:  Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician.

Finally, since that list was published, our readership has grown tremendously and is incredibly well-versed on country music, past and present.  So in this new and now annual edition of Hall Worthy, we are going to run down the list of the most successful artists that are eligible but have yet to make it into the Hall of Fame, in the order of  “Hall Worthiness.”

The Modern Era:

alan-jackson

Alan Jackson

Scoring his first hit in 1990 with “Here in the Real World”, Alan Jackson is the most successful country artist that isn’t currently in the Hall of Fame.  His storied career has included 25 #1 hits and 49 visits to the top ten.  He’s won a slew of awards over the years, including many for his songwriting.  He is the most traditionalist of all of the nineties superstars, but has managed to stay relevant regardless of how pop the genre went over the past quarter century, selling more than forty million albums in the U.S. alone.   He should be the next inductee for the Modern Era.

Randy Travis

Randy Travis

The poster child for the new traditionalist movement was also the first true country music superstar to sell millions of records without any crossover airplay or rock press appeal.  Travis is the primary reason that Nashville turned away from pursuing pop airplay for more than a decade, realizing that there was more than enough money to be made by growing (and eventually saturating) the country market.  His debut album, Storms of Life, remains one of the greatest country albums of all-time, and songs like “Forever and Ever, Amen”, “On the Other Hand”, and “Three Wooden Crosses” were award-winning classics.

Judds02.jpg

The Judds

Put aside all of the tabloid drama and focus just on the music.  Those heavenly harmonies were reminiscent of the Carter Family, while Wynonna’s breathtaking vocals added a contemporary breadth and soulful twist to their pure country sound.  They were so commercially successful and critically acclaimed that the CMA had to change the rules of the Vocal Duo category so someone else could win Vocal Group.   Wynonna’s solo career following Naomi Judd’s retirement only further extended the legacy of this essential duo.

rickyskaggs

Ricky Skaggs

He’s often overlooked these days, as he’s made bluegrass his primary home.  But when he was a contemporary country star, he found a way to make bluegrass be contemporary country.  He was a central figure in making bluegrass music mainstream, making possible the future success of everyone from Alison Krauss & Union Station to the Dixie Chicks.   He’s managed to be both a pioneer of bluegrass music while also being a steadfast advocate for the bluegrass of old, and still scored eleven #1 country hits along the way and the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.  The Hall shouldn’t wait until he’s old enough for the Veterans Era.

patty_loveless

Patty Loveless

One of the few artists to successfully navigate both the eighties and the nineties on country radio, Patty Loveless is the most significant female artist of the Modern Era who is not yet inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Her acclaimed work for both MCA and Epic saw her develop from a singles artist with the good taste to cover Lucinda Williams, into an album artist that made critically acclaimed and surprisingly progressive traditional music.  Since fading from radio, she’s remained relevant with widely appreciated sets that delve deep into her mountain heritage, with her most recent set earning her a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam

Extraordinarily talented and unfailingly artistic, Dwight Yoakam remains one of the most significant country artists from the new traditionalist movement, though his traditionalism has always had a West Coast flair that was more Owens than Haggard.   Never that much of a radio favorite, Yoakam still managed to sell millions of records, being one of the few legitimate album artists of his time.   His most recent work, 3 Pears, made more year-end critics lists than any other country album in 2012.

trisha-yearwood1

Trisha Yearwood

The only artist on this list who could never be described as a traditionalist, Trisha Yearwood has earned her place in the Hall of Fame through making more consistently excellent music over a longer period of time than any of her contemporaries.   She’s sold a ton of records and had more than her fair share of radio hits and industry awards, but her ultimate legacy will be having the best set of pipes and the best taste in songs, a combination that many artists – female and male – have never managed to pull off nearly as well as Yearwood has over the years.  That’s what having the voice of a Ronstadt and the song sense of a Harris will do for you.

The Veterans Era:

Hank Williams Jr

Hank Williams, Jr.

By a wide margin, Hank Jr. is the most commercially successful artist of the Veterans Era who is not yet in the Hall of Fame.  His noxious public statements in recent years have reinforced a notion that he’s little more than a Southern rock caricature, but his legacy is greater than Monday Night Football and regional xenophobia. At his peak, he made some of the most significant country rock that’s ever been made, crafting himself a distinguished place in country music history that is wholly separate from his legendary father.  In fact, there’s a better chance right now that a bar in America is singing along with “Family Tradition” than anything from his daddy’s catalog.

Rich_Charlie_002_c_MOA.jpg

Charlie Rich

An artist who was always years ahead of his time, he had a remarkable run of commercial success in the seventies, a period where the times finally caught up to him for a brief spell.  His bluesy style was embraced by the pop scene for a time, with his hit “The Most Beautiful Girl” being one of those rare country hits that also topped the Hot 100.   A veteran of the Sun Records label that produced Hall of Famers like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, Rich made the transition to Nashville while always keeping one foot grounded back in Memphis.

Jerry Reed

Jerry Reed

He was one of the most iconic stars of his time, thanks to his witty novelty records, stunning guitar prowess, and extensive appearances on film.  His songwriting success arrived earlier than his recording stardom, but once he got rolling, he was scoring million-selling hits that ran up the country and the pop charts.  He’s one of the few legends left that were truly unique and distinctive personalities who haven’t yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

tanya-tucker

Tanya Tucker

She’s still three years away from eligibility in this category, with 2017 being the first year she can claim 45 years on the scene.  But while the competition is fierce for those Modern Era slots, Tucker should be voted in the first year she’s eligible as a veteran.  Her haunting, gothic early records are still revelatory, and in the years that followed, her gravely voice brought grit and soul to a long string of country hits.  She was able to remain a force to be reckoned with in the first half of the nineties, a remarkable holdover from the early seventies in an era that had wiped away even the stars of the late eighties to make room for the next big things.

Jim Ed Brown

Jim Ed Brown

Another legend that remained relevant over many different eras of country music, Jim Ed Brown’s immortality on record had already been guaranteed in 1959, when his family group the Browns recorded “The Three Bells.”  That classic hit topped the country and pop charts for many weeks, and the Browns kept going through most of the sixties, joining the cast of the Grand Ole Opry a few years before disbanding.  Brown went on to a successful solo career with classics like “Pop a Top” and “Morning” reaching the top five.  Then he teamed with Helen Cornelius and had his biggest hits since his days with the Browns, most notably “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”  At age eighty, he remains a force on the Opry and as a radio host, making him one of the longest-running personalities that the genre has ever seen.

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2014 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees: Hank Cochran, Ronnie Milsap, and Mac Wiseman

Ronnie MilsapGood news for three legends of the genre, one of whom we lost to cancer only four years ago:

Ronnie Milsap, Mac Wiseman and the late Hank Cochran are the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Wiseman got his start in music after contracting polio as a child, which kept him out of the fields in his native Virginia. He was an original member of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, made his Grand Ole Opry debut with Bill Monroe, was an executive with the influential Nashville independent label Dot Records and a founding board member of the Country Music Association.Milsap, inducted in the modern era category, was an established talent by the time he arrived in Nashville in the 1970s. He’d played in J.J. Cale’s band in the early 1960s and moved to Memphis to work with Chips Moman at the hit-making American Studios, where he worked with Elvis Presley, among others, before accepting an invitation to go to Nashville to record for RCA Records.

It was something of an experiment for Milsap, known as an R&B and rock singer, but he made sure he had a regular gig before he hit town, playing nightly at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel.

He found country fans were open to his style, and he went on to win several Grammy Awards, the CMA’s entertainer of the year award in 1977 and four album of the year awards between 1975 and 1986.

Cochran, who is being inducted posthumously in the songwriter category, probably secured his place in country music history when he got Willie Nelson a songwriting job at Pamper Music by forgoing his own raise.

He wrote the Ray Price standard “Make the World Go Away” and Patsy Cline’s second most-memorable song, “I Fall to Pieces” (following Nelson’s own “Crazy”), among many others.

He died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer shortly after a touching bedside singalong that included friends Jamey Johnson, Buddy Cannon and Billy Ray Cyrus.

Source: Associated Press via CBS News

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Single Review: Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”

Tim McGraw Faith Hill Meanwhile Back at Mama's“Funny the things you thought you’d never miss,” Tim McGraw sings on his simple, nostalgic new single, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s.”

He’s talking about all the little details of family life that can seem irrelevant, or even irritating, like dad watching a game of the tube with a cigarette in one hand and whiskey in the other.  But I couldn’t help thinking of McGraw himself, an artist that I never thought I’d miss because I didn’t expect him to go away.

“Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” is an excellently written song, and McGraw delivers it in his straightforward way that doesn’t get in the way of the song.   We don’t get both of those much anymore from McGraw. Getting even one has been cause for celebration recently.

Harmonizing with Faith Hill, they still sound like a married couple.  But a much older one, not newly in love like they were on their starry-eyed early collaborations.  They sound so natural together, and the production makes it sound like the entire song was surreptitiously recorded during a back porch guitar pull.

For the first time, the both of them seem like they’re less interested in regaining the throne of mainstream country music and are choosing instead to embrace being elder statesmen of country music.  That’s what we really need from them.  I hope this is their new way forward.

Written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, and Jeffrey Steele

Grade: A

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WoCoWiC: Trisha Yearwood

Trisha YearwoodWomen of Country on Women in Country: Trisha Yearwood

On the nineties:

“What I loved about being a woman in country music was there was something for everybody. There were a handful of us, probably 10 of us that were doing really, really well, but we were all a little bit different and I always thought it was easier.

People always said it’s so hard for a woman, but it’s easier because if you were a guy back in the 90’s you had two choices: You either wore the hat or you didn’t. So it was hard to distinguish yourself. As a woman it was easy because your image could be so completely whatever you wanted it to be. It was an awesome time to be a woman in the business.”

Source: Billboard

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In Memoriam: Kevin Sharp, 1970-2014

Kevin SharpNineties country star Kevin Sharp has passed away at the age of 43 from complications relating to cancer.

Sharp had major success with his debut album, Measure of a Man, which spawned three big hits: “Nobody Knows”, a Tony Rich Project cover that spent four weeks at #1, and two additional top five follow-up singles, “If You Love Somebody” and “She’s Sure Taking it Well.”

Sharp’s inspirational biography made his early success especially impressive. He suffered from a rare form of bone cancer that was so dire that he received a Make-a-Wish grant that introduced him to record producer David Foster.  After Sharp’s cancer went into remission, they remained in contact and Foster helped Sharp secure a contract with Asylum Records.

Sharp’s success came during a transitional time in country music, before one-hit wonders became far more common but while one-album wonders were becoming prominent.  Like Lari White, Paul Brandt, Michael Peterson, Deana Carter, and Ricochet, Sharp seemed to have garnered a foothold at radio, scoring several hits off a breakthrough album.

But like those other artists, radio completely ignored the follow-up project, Love is, in 1998.   Despite his first set going gold, he parted ways with his label after the second collection wasn’t a success.  A few years earlier, and radio would’ve probably played more of his second album. A few years later, and the burgeoning independent label scene and digital distribution methods might have made it easier for his career to maintain momentum.

Still, he found great success on the road in the new century, this time as an inspirational speaker, and he released an independent album in 2005, appropriately titled, Make a Wish.   By this time, he was a spokesperson for the organization that once introduced him to Foster.  His 2004 memoir’s title, Tragedy is a Gift, speaks to the positivity that defined Sharp’s work and made him such a wonderful addition to the country music scene in the latter half of the nineties.

 

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ACM Awards 2014: Final Thoughts

George StraitThis year’s ACM Awards were mediocre and broverwhemingly male-centric, despite women winning most of the major awards.  As with last fall’s CMA show, the best moment was the final one, when George Strait won Entertainer of the Year.

Here’s a rundown of all the major winners:

Entertainer of the Year

  • Luke Bryan

  • Miranda Lambert

  • Blake Shelton

  • George Strait

  • Taylor Swift

George Strait winning at the ACMs this year was even more surprising than at the CMAs last year, given how the fan-voted element of this award has favored stars with young fanbases in previous years.  King George, indeed. – KJC

While it’s disheartening to see Strait’s mainstream support dwindling, it’s great to see the fans come through for King George. – BF

Even if Strait did unintentionally but hilariously leave Miranda Lambert hanging on her attempted hi-five, it was nice to see the genuine support for Strait’s win among the other artists in attendance. Too bad radio seems to have turned their back on him.  - JK

jason-aldeanMale Vocalist of the Year

  • Jason Aldean

  • Lee Brice

  • Luke Bryan

  • Blake Shelton

  • Keith Urban

A repeat win for Jason Aldean helped both hosts go home empty handed, despite the big years both Bryan and Shelton had. – KJC

Miranda Lambert Over YouFemale Vocalist of the Year

  • Sheryl Crow

  • Miranda Lambert

  • Kacey Musgraves

  • Taylor Swift

  • Carrie Underwood

Has there ever been a female vocalist that the ACMs loved more?  Lambert’s fifth consecutive victory snaps Reba McEntire’s four in a row from 1985-1988, though she’d return to the winner’s circle three more times in the nineties.  But even McEntire didn’t dominate the other categories the way Lambert’s been doing. – KJC

Lambert officially owns this category for a half-decade. Can we please get a shake-up in the Female Vocalist race next year? – BF

As I said on twitter: If she’s in the building, Trisha Yearwood is the Best Female Vocalist (unless Connie Smith is also in the building, in which case Trisha would be runner-up). End of discussion. – JK

2013 CMA Music Festival - Day 3Vocal Duo of the Year

  • Big & Rich

  • Dan + Shay

  • Florida Georgia Line

  • Love and Theft

  • Thompson Square

Florida Georgia Line had the biggest year – actually, the only big year – of all the nominees, making their victory the least surprising win of the night. – KJC

Congratulations to Florida Georgia Line on their win for (Only Significantly Successful) Vocal Duo of the Year. – BF

The Band PerryVocal Group of the Year

  • Eli Young Band

  • Lady Antebellum

  • Little Big Town

  • The Band Perry

  • Zac Brown Band

The Band Perry won their first Vocal Group award, with all the votes in before a confetti backlash was able to sway the tally. – KJC

Justin MooreNew Artist of the Year

  • Brett Eldredge

  • Justin Moore

  • Kip Moore

Two Moores and a Brett walk into an ACM ceremony… – KJC

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different ParkAlbum of the Year

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…

  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party

  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times

  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park

  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

With the Grammys picking Musgraves and the CMAs picking Shelton, the ACMs broke the tie, picking the best album over the biggest.  Good call. – KJC

Musgraves’ well-deserved victory restores some ACM credibility, though it is ironic that she was the only nominee whom the producers did not grant a performance slot. – BF

She won for Album of the Year and co-wrote the winner of Single of the Year, so we can’t necessarily blame the ACM voters for Musgraves’ lack of a performance: Clearly, the producers of the show had adopted an ethos of “Bros Before Women Who Make Good Music.” – JK

Mama's Broken HeartSingle Record of the Year

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”

  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”

  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”

  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

True, a Song of the Year victory would’ve been sweeter.  But Lambert’s single was still the best of the five, and gave her a third win in this category in four years.  That feat was last accomplished by Willie Nelson, who picked up three in four years back in the eighties, for “Always on My Mind”, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”, and “The Highwayman.” – KJC

The “Cruise” phenomenon promised to be hard to beat, but fortunately the voters chose to honor the best record over the biggest. – BF

I really wouldn’t have any reservations at all with Miranda having won this category three times for “Kerosene,” “Gunpowder and Lead,” and “The House That Built Me.” Hers was easily the best nominee of this line-up, though. – JK

IDriveYourTruck_lee_briceSong of the Year

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren

  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary

  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves

  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan

  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor

With Grammy winner “Merry Go ‘Round” not in the running, the ACM chose to honor last fall’s CMA winner, “I Drive Your Truck.” – KJC

Props to Lee Brice for letting the songwriters have the spotlight for this win. Considering the Song of the Year award purports to honor the year’s best songwriting, it’s been disconcerting that recent years have seen the ACMs shifting the focus from the songwriters to the artists. – BF

Of note: Women won for Album of the Year, Single of the Year, and were two of the three co-writers of the Song of the Year. Yet the genre’s regressive gender politics are as problematic right now as at any point in recent memory. When will we reach a true tipping point with this? – JK

220px-TMG_-_Highway_Dont_Care_coverVideo of the Year

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”

  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”

  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”

  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”

  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs”

The high-octane collaboration between these three superstars earned several nominations, but their only win came in this category. – KJC

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 06:  Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban perform onstage during the 47th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 6, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)Vocal Event of the Year

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”

  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)

  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us”

Betting against Miranda Lambert at the ACM Awards is starting to look like a fool’s wager.  This is her first win in this category, and with the other awards she won last night, her total ACM count is now at fifteen. – KJC

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Single Review: Luke Bryan, “Play it Again”

Luke Bryan Play it AgainTrite an uninspired, “Play it Again” is a Luke Bryan record without any of the  aw-shucks earnestness that can make even his mediocre songs somewhat enjoyable.

Not much more to say than that, other than “songs about songs” are one of my favorite categories of songs, but this isn’t one of the better ones.  There are a lot of great ones, but that’s another post.

Written by Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley.

Grade: C-

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