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
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
There are at least three things we can always count on: death, taxes, and the inevitable swamp of summer songs that overwhelm country radio annually beginning around this time of the year.
There’s nothing wrong with a good summer song, and one would think that a duo with as much natural charisma as Thompson Square would certainly be capable of delivering one of the better ones. As it turns out, “Testing the Water” is the type of song that lives or dies based on what the performer brings to it. The hook comes off as a weak attempt at clever wordplay and generally contributes nothing to the song as a whole. The lyrics that are consistently dull as a brick right down to the predictable rhyming of “water” with “hotter” – unmistakably identifying the song as the product of a three-head Nashville songwriting committee.
Equally unfortunate is the fact that the Thompsons’ efforts to sell the song are mired by tin-eared production and tastelessly processed vocals, offering little redemptive value for the disposable song material and contributing to an overall grating listening experience. Verdict: a definite station-changer.
Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Hillary Lindsey
“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
The conflict of whether or not to reconnect with an ex-lover can be the perfect fodder for a great country song. Just ask Lee Ann Womack.
Musgraves’ narrator faces such a choice on her stellar new single “Keep it to Yourself,” but in this instance she sticks with her better judgment. Should her ex find those old feelings returning, she offers the advice found in the song’s title: “Keep it to yourself.” The hook is simple and direct, yet disarmingly effective.
Much has already been written about Kacey Musgraves’ gifts as a lyricist, and while such are definitely evident on “Keep it to Yourself,” the song is particularly noteworthy as a display of her power over a melody. The low, somber notes convey a weary, angst-ridden feeling in the opening verse before rising to the gentle plea of the chorus.
Even more impressive is the way the melody and performance manage to convey the intangible, allowing the listener read between the lyrics. The pleading tone in Musgraves voice suggests that she is begging her ex not to call her perhaps because she’s afraid that she just might not be able to muster the strength to say no the next time.
“Keep it to Yourself” is fresh in its approach, yet classic in theme and delivery. It comes across as moving and sincere, but not cloying or contrived. The gentle arrangement and strains of steel guitar enhance the story without interrupting it, while Musgraves’ vocal conveys deep vulnerability without veering into melodrama.
“Keep it to Yourself” is top-notch country storytelling through and through – an understated gem of a performance that represents much of what we wish mainstream country music could still be in 2014.
Written by Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird
Currently ticking the “Summer Romance Nostalgia” box at country radio is this almost-Top 10 debut single by new duo Dan + Shay.
Good news – the first forty seconds are actually listenable! The melody has an organic quality to it, and duo members Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney deliver the opening verse with likable harmonies against the gentle pluck of mandolin strings.
Then the song ticks past the forty second mark, and all subtlety and restraint are abruptly thrown out the window. A storm of production noise rolls in. Dan + Shay’s vocals are smothered in gaudy reverb effects as they scream their way through the cacophonous chorus.
And just like that, the summery ballad devolves into one big hot mess.
Written by Dan Smyers, Shay Mooney, and Danny Orton
Trite 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.
I want to like Maggie Rose’s music more than I do. She has a good voice. She sings good songs. And her music actually sounds country. Should be a simple enough recipe, right?
But the problem I keep having is that I don’t quite feel her as a storyteller. “I Ain’t Your Mama” called for a little more bite in the performance, while “Better” could have used a little more lived-in angst to really hit home.
Her current single, “Looking Back Now,” is a striking story-song involving a female narrator who puts a couple of no-good men in the ground when they get a little too fresh. But in listening to Rose’s performance, I don’t get the feeling that I’m listening to a true story. It’s a little too obvious that she hasn’t lived it. And yet, when I hear the song performed by writer Lisa Carver, I’m with her every step of the way. I believe every word.
Rose will likely develop her interpretive abilities further over time, and I hope she does, because she could be a potentially cool artist. As it is, we’re left with records like this – records that are good and enjoyable enough, but that could have been even better.
Have we reached the point yet where a solid George Strait single should bring on waves of deep gratitude?
He’s been so good for so long that it’s easy to take him for granted. Maybe it’s radio’s sudden unwillingness to play him in heavy rotation, or the bittersweet sadness brought on by his farewell tour. But I’ve never been more aware that the music will eventually stop coming from him.
“I Got a Car” isn’t anything revolutionary or Single of the Year worthy. It’s just a good song elevated by a master storyteller who can make the most pedestrian conversation sound interesting. There’s so much back story in his voice, still strong but weathered by time, that adds layers of meaning here. This is a potential romance between two older people who are trying to start over again, and stumble upon a chance at real love and starting a family.
It wouldn’t sound like that if even the best of the new singers were singing it. Not because they aren’t good. They just haven’t lived enough yet. Maybe twenty years from now, somebody else will write about how much more interesting a song sounds because they’re singing it instead of whoever the new kid on the block is then.
I hope we’ll get a few more good ones from this guy before he’s gone.
“The Outsiders,” the title track and lead single from Eric Church’s new album, may have strayed too much into the realm of metal for its own good, but it served as a strong mission statement. Like him or not, Church is one of the few male country singers today who are willing to stray from the country-party-dude template, and even his songs that don’t quite hit the mark are more interesting than most singles currently on the radio.
His new song, “Give Me Back My Hometown,” is much more melodic than the first single, though it too stretches the boundaries of country in its own way. “Hometown” starts off simple enough, but it builds up steadily in both volume and drama in a way that’s reminiscent, if anything, of U2’s “With or WithoutYou.”
The song, written by Church and Luke Laird, is well-written and nuanced, as Church laments that the memories of a small town that have been tainted by the absence of a loved one. It also gives Church a chance to stretch his vocals to the top end of his range, and while that may not necessarily be one of his strong suits, it’s encouraging to hear someone acknowledge that small-town living isn’t for everyone.
With songs like “The Outsiders,” “Drink in My Hand” and that unfortunate collaboration with Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean that will not be named here, Church has carved out a reputation as a hell-raising outlaw. While he sings those anthems well enough, he really separates himself from the competition by his willingness to dive into mature, serious topics as well. It’s a nice change of pace to hear something other than a perpetually partying, small-town man-child every now and again.