Few artists can make “weary” sound as engaging as Zoe Muth. Even though she rarely picks up the tempo past a casually swinging shuffle, Muth captivates with her artfully turned phrases and dry sense of humor. “Mama Needs a Margarita,” in which Muth adopts the persona of a young mother tired of being left home alone to eat “straight from the jar” alongside her infant, stands as one of 2014’s finest songs.
Rather than focusing on their unrivaled vocal skill, Little Big Town and producer Jay Joyce approach Pain Killer like a game of “Chicken”: Listening to the album, it appears that no idea that occurred to the band or to Joyce during their recording sessions was deemed too outlandish or too gauche.
Presley’s upbringing in the hollows of Eastern Kentucky provides her with an endless well of believable first-person details that she uses to create the quirky, cockeyed fictions on American Middle Class. Hers are the types of stories that bait autobiographical readings— always a critical dead-end, even when Taylor Swift insists on dropping hints as to who her songs are about— but what Presley does best is create a sustained mood.
Paisley’s last four albums have established a pattern of something slightly progressive or challenging (American Saturday Night, Wheelhouse) followed by a course-correction back toward baseline (This is Country Music, Moonshine in the Trunk).
Written by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Liz Rose
Beyond their lush four-part harmonies and their incorporation of Fleetwood Mac’s influence into the country idiom, perhaps Little Big Town’s greatest talent is choosing singles that completely sabotage their momentum at radio. They’ve followed up a top 10 hit with another top 10 exactly twice in thirteen years, and it’s almost unfathomable that “Girl Crush,” the second single from Pain Killer, will receive a warm reception in the current radio climate.
That’s a shame, really, since it’s one of the band’s strongest efforts.
The bizarre handling of the singles from Miranda Lambert’s Platinum continues unabated with the arrival of “Little Red Wagon.” After leading off with far-and-away the two worst tracks on the album—the aesthetically and politically regressive “Automatic” and the empty bombast of “Somethin’ Bad”—then tagging “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” an understated collaboration with Little Big Town, as the set’s next single before abruptly pulling the plug without explanation, Lambert’s team have declared “Little Red Wagon” as Lambert’s official third single. It’s been a long, strange ride thus far— one that smacks of the kind of nonsense typically reserved for veteran artists signed to Curb Records or to Sara Evans, rather than to an artist who is actively being pushed as one of the format’s superstars.
I more or less gave up on radio about fifteen years ago, after I purchased my first iPod. Like most right-minded people, I’d rather listen to the music I know I love than resort to enduring whatever songs have managed to squeeze onto Clear Channel’s narrow playlists in hopes of hearing something good. I’ve always been aggressive in seeking out new music on my own, so I’ve never been dependent upon radio for making new discoveries; when I listen to the radio now, I mostly tune into the local “classic country” station that plays only singles from the 70s through the early 00s.
Recently, however, I discovered that a radio station in my area had switched over to Cumulus Media’s much-ballyhooed new Nash ICON format, which is supposed to emphasize country artists from the 80s and 90s and to provide a platform for the new music by those artists who made that era such a rich period in the genre’s history. There are even rumblings that country radio, much like urban radio, is set to fracture into two formats: a “contemporary” format for today’s most popular acts and the ICON format that caters to a slightly older demographic.
It’s always fascinating to see how a recording artist responds once her days as a consistent hit-maker have passed: While some chase the latest trends in an effort to remain commercially relevant, others embrace their newfound creative freedom and challenge themselves to add something meaningful to both their own artistic legacy and to the country genre itself.
With “The Way I’m Livin’,” the title track to her first album in six years, it’s apparent that Lee Ann Womack has taken the latter route.
For the better part of twenty years, Womack has been one of country’s most distinctive vocal stylists, thanks to her languid sense of phrasing and deceptively sweet vocal tone. On “The Way I’m Livin’,” Womack uses her instrument in entirely new ways. Shortening her vowels and clipping individual phrases, she brings a worldly, damaged point-of-view to the song’s sordid tale of “lyin’ and a’sinnin’.” Not even her feisty readings of standout hits “Ashes by Now” and “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” hinted at her capacity for wallowing in vice the way she does here, and it’s downright revelatory.
Beyond the stellar vocal turn, though, what makes “The Way I’m Livin’” one of Womack’s finest singles is the complexity of the song itself. The imagery of the opening stanza, wherein Womack sings of meeting the Devil on the roadside and succumbing to temptation, may be familiar, but songwriter Adam Wright ensures that those images are fraught with implication. Whatever was in that “bottle of something sweet” the Devil may have offered, it was stronger than any Schnapps or other candied liqueur, and it set Womack’s protagonist on a wayward path.
Plenty of contemporary country songs, though, find women donning bad-girl drag. “The Way I’m Livin’” isn’t so one-dimensional. Too aware of both earthly and eternal forms of damnation to make for a braggart’s confession, the song is also too unapologetic to scan as a proper cautionary tale. The best Wright allows Womack to do is tell her mama not to worry, since she neither wants to nor can be saved. As the blues riffs and thundering percussion build behind her, Womack insists that, “If I ever get to Heaven, it’s a doggone shame.” She’s a woman in full control of her decisions, and she’ll be damned if she’ll hate herself in the morning.
He may have been the runner-up on one of the weakest seasons of Survivor (finishing second to this strategic powerhouse), but Chase Rice has beaten tough competition from the likes of Jason Aldean’s “1994,” Parmalee’s “Carolina,” Ashton Shepherd’s “This is America,” Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here,” Krystal Keith’s “Daddy Dance with Me,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” for the title of 2013’s worst country single.
For all of the countless complaints about the rise of “bro country” during the past year, what much of the criticism of this trend has ignored is its fundamental anonymity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion of songs that champion tailgate parties or casual weekend hookups, as the kinds of experiences characterized in songs like Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” or “Ready Set Roll” are familiar to an audience that is not insignificant in size or purchasing power.
The problem, then, with this glut of frat-boys in their Ed Hardy gear and pick-ups– and what Rice and “Ready Set Roll” epitomize– is their interchangeability. Rice and his co-writers (usual suspects Rhett Akins and Chris Destefano) write almost entirely in clichés (“Yeah, we can run this town / I can rock your world / We can roll ‘em down, fog ‘em up / Cruise around and get stuck”), such that none of the experiences they’ve written about here are the least bit distinctive. But for a deeply gross line that goes farther in the objectification of women than do most songs of this ilk (“Get ya fine little ass on the step / Shimmy up inside / And slide girl, by my side girl”), there isn’t a single line in “Ready Set Roll” that couldn’t be exchanged word-for-word with lines from “Cruise” or Jake Owen’s “Days of Gold” or Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It” or Eric Paslay’s “Friday Night” without changing those songs in any meaningful or even noticeable way.
Setting aside the shallowness of the subject matter and Rice’s struggles with even basic syntax, it’s that lack of any discernible point-of-view that makes “Ready Set Roll” such appalling poor songwriting, the nadir of a trend that has quite rightly drawn the ire of those who value country music for its history of distinctive narratives, personal insight, and pure escapism that is still respectful of both craft and its audience.
And, thanks to a dated, cheap-sounding production job and Rice’s limited vocal ability, “Ready Set Roll” doesn’t even work as a throwaway, escapist single. The use of a digitized text-reader voice to bookend the single is jarring and adds nothing of value to the track. The most pedestrian of hip-hop beats drowns out the requisite handful of rote country signifiers, and the mixing sounds like it was made on a circa-2004 version of Winamp.
As he sort-of-raps his way through the track, Rice affects a throaty growl that unfavorably recalls Brantley Gilbert, and he dutifully emphasizes every syllable on the 2 and 4 counts without regard for whether or not native speakers of American English would emphasize those syllables. As co-writer for “Cruise,” Rice proved that he might be capable of writing a memorable hook, but there’s not one thing he and his alliance of bros do well on “Ready Set Roll.”
Written by Chase Rice, Rhett Akins, and Chris Destephano