If you’re going to keep revisiting the same themes, you might as well take some risks with your delivery.
Kenny Chesney’s new single sounds fresher and more engaging than anything he’s done in a very long time. It’s easy to miss that he’s singing about what he always sings about: nostalgia for growing up in the country with American rock as the soundtrack.
What makes “American Kids” work more than a lot his attempts with this theme is that sounds like he learned something listening to those Mellencamp and Springsteen records. This record oozes charm and mature authority, like he’s finally lived long enough to look back and say, “Hey. We were kinda crazy back then. But we all turned out alright in the end.”
Written by Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally
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.
Miranda Lambert’s tempting fate with her titles, calling her upcoming album Platinum and her high-profile collaboration with Carrie Underwood, “Somethin’ Bad.”
No word for a while yet on whether the album will sell a million copies, but as far as the single goes, it lives up to the promise of the two singers more than it does to its title.
It does so by trying not to be as ambitious as the caliber of the collaborators would make you expect it to be. This was a trap both ladies fell into when collaborating with other A-listers, making Lambert’s duet with Keith Urban and Underwood’s with Brad Paisley not as successful as they could’ve been.
This is just a plain ol’ good girls on their baddest behavior ditty. Well, not their baddest behavior. Underwood doesn’t key up anyone’s car and Lambert doesn’t kill anybody. But it’s all in good fun, and both ladies can perform the thing solo just fine when the other isn’t around.
And kudos to the production, I feel I should mention. There were a few moments I thought it was gonna go all eighties glam rock, but the record pulls back before it goes over the edge, and we get just the ladies and a rhythm track, which actually supports the lyric better. Somethin’ bad’s gonna happen, but….not yet. Good stuff.
Written by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea
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