No, this isn’t Alan Jackson covering The Flatlanders, although that would have been phenomenal. Rather, this is Jackson performing right in his sweet spot: a simple enough song, yet with some clever lyrics, a generous dose of pedal steel and Jackson’s typical smooth, agreeable vocals. “Dallas” may not be Jackson at his most experimental (see “I’ll Go On Loving You”) or mainstream (“Chattahoochee”), but it’s a pleasant little gem in a very rich catalog of music.
Seriously though, what was the narrator thinking in trying to get a girl named “Dallas” to be happy outside of Texas? And in Nashville of all places, where country music is all fake and the radio stations don’t play at least one Willie Nelson song every hour. That’s just asking for heartbreak – though it does make for a good song.
Got a little boom in my big truck/Gonna open up the doors and turn it up. – “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)”
Girl you make my speakers go boom boom/Dancin’ on the tailgate in the full moon. – “Drunk on You”
Looking at those two lyrics from Luke Bryan’s new album, you can assume one of two things: Either Bryan was heavily influenced by hip-hop pioneers L’Trimm and their hit “Cars With the Boom,” or Tailgates & Tanlines falls victim to lazy songwriting. With all due respect to Tigra and Bunny, it looks like it’s the latter.
The country references are thrown about so fast and furiously here that duplicates inevitably pop up. There are multiple references to girls dancing on tailgates, squirrels and other assorted critters, moonshine, Dixie cups, dusty boots, old trucks, catfish and tractors. Sometimes the songs are about certain people or places, and sometimes they’re just about setting the RRPM (rural references per minute) record.
Occasionally, the country setting is put to good use. “Harvest Time,” for example, paints a vivid picture of a small town in the middle of its busiest season. “Tailgate Blues” takes many of the familiar references and turns them upside down, as even the usual comforts of quiet country hideaways can’t heal a broken heart.
All too often, though, the songs have no real meat underneath the catchphrases and references. They’re the same tired look at a vast hillbilly paradise – Val-holler, if you will – where the homemade wine is always flowing into Dixie cups, good ol’ boys are always ready to drive around in their trucks to find a good time after a hard day’s work on the farm, and the women are sexual props whose only purpose in life is to dance on tailgates on command.
When Alan Jackson sang “Chattahoochee,” there was so much detail that the listener felt certain that Jackson lived through all those experiences. Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water,” by comparison, has no such connection or personal attachment, even though there is a Muckalee Creek near Bryan’s hometown in south Georgia. That song, incidentally, references “a catfish line going bump bump bump,” so if you’re really into onomatopoeia, this is your album of the year.
The real shame is that those throw-away songs are a waste of some tremendous talent. Bryan has a strong voice that can make a good song sound even better. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Erin Enderlin and Shane McAnally, gives a sympathetic portrayal to someone trapped by addiction. Sure, it won’t get a concert audience cheering and shouting, but it’s a standout track and one of the better songs of the year. While he is partly responsible for some of the album’s weakest tracks, Bryan also co-wrote some of its best, including “Harvest Time” and “Faded Away” (with Rodney Clawson and Michael Carter, respectively).
“Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” is turning into one of the biggest hits of Bryan’s career, which is bound to influence his future song choices. Good-time party anthems aren’t necessarily bad things, but too many of them on one album overwhelms the rest of the songs. Still, Kenny Chesney had to go through the “She Think My Tractor’s Sexy” phase before he got to covering Guy Clark, so there’s hope for Bryan.
Just leave the “booms” and “bumps” to fight sequences in the old Batman TV show, where they belong.
On his new album, Eric Church sings that we need “Some longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves there standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all.”
Bear in mind that he’s singing these lines on an album loaded with distorted vocals and sound effects, guitar solos closer to Three Doors Down than Cash, and a song about Bruce Springsteen.
That’s not to say that Chief is a bad album, because there are a lot of keepers in its 11 tracks – some of them are even country songs. It just seems odd to be calling for Country Music Jesus when you’re acting like one of the money-changers in the temple.
Church’s willingness to incorporate different stylistic elements does keep things interesting. “Creepin’” kicks the album off with a swampy vibe and ends up being even catchier than “Smoke a Little Smoke.” “Homeboy” unexpectedly includes a harp flourish or two with the hard rock guitars, while “Springsteen” manages to capture that Springsteen sound without sounding like a ripoff of one of The Boss’ hits. On the flip side, “Keep On” attempts to blend the bravado from a Toby Keith song, a guitar lick possibly lifted from an episode of “CHIPs”, and some guy in the background repeating random words from the verses. It just doesn’t work on any level.
Fortunately, all the production tricks don’t often get in the way of a strong collection of songs. The two best ones, “Over When It’s Over” and “Hungover & Hard Up,” were written by Church and Luke Laird and tackle the aftermath of a failed relationship. In particular, “Over When It’s Over” nicely expresses the frustration of having a good thing fall apart.
“Homeboy,” written by Church and Casey Breathard, is the most interesting lyrically. In lesser hands, this could have been about a farmboy wooing his wayward brother back home with a list of wonderful things about country living (sweet tea, parties in the barn, etc. etc.). Instead, Church gives a much more realistic portrayal (“Ain’t a glamorous life but it’ll keep you out of jail”), and he and Breathard deserve credit for creating characters with depth and for avoiding a simplified happy ending.
Then there are the requisite drinking songs like “Drink In My Hand,” “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” and “Jack Daniels.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but they all have a retread feel about them and aren’t nearly as compelling as the other tracks. The lyrics have just enough of an edge to help bolster Church’s outlaw rep but not enough to be actually controversial. So expect to hear Church singing about shoving overtime up his boss’ can or how Jack Daniels kicked his ass on the radio soon.
If you’re looking for Country Music Jesus, Chief may not be the answer to your prayers. On the whole, though, Church has put together one of the most ambitious and interesting albums that mainstream country music has seen all year.