Many moons ago, when Big & Rich seemed like the most promising and interesting duo to hit the genre in eons, they put out a song called “Holy Water.”
It was a powerful song with empathetic feminism, the sort of solidarity with women that you usually don’t hear from men in cowboy hats. It cut through their cartoonish persona and showed that they could be incisively insightful. This was no small feat given it was the follow-up to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”, which had established that persona in the first place.
The best thing that I can say about “Cheat on You” is that it’s a startling reminder of that initial promise. The scenario is as believable as their empathy is palpable, and it lends a sincerity to the proceedings that’s gone all but missing in their post-Horse of a Different Color work.
Now, the second verse is a bit too predictable, and their harmonies rarely get out of first gear, so it’s hardly a perfect record. But it’s good enough to revisit for repeated listens, and what’s the last Big & Rich single that could be said about?
More importantly, it provides the boys a clear path, a way out of the larger-than-life, over-the-top caricatures that are as restrictive as they are annoying. But hey, Sawyer Brown triumphed over worse, and ended up making some of the best country music of the nineties. Maybe there’s hope yet for B&R to do the same.
Written by Kasey Buckley, John Rich, and Amanda Watkins
Seventeen-year-0ld Red Bow Records newcomer Rachel Farley is already making inroads at country radio with this recently released debut single, which was the #1 most added song on the Billboard and Mediabase charts for the week of its release.
The lyrics of “Ain’t Easy” don’t say a whole lot that hasn’t been said before. Lines such as “Fight like hell
and love like an angel, pray like a saint and run like a rebel
,” aren’t especially novel, though the rural rebel theme is one more often visited by male artists than females.
But the performance goes a long way toward lifting the song to a higher level. Farley sells the lyric with a vocal delivery of far more depth, fullness, and expressiveness than one would typically expect from an artist still in her teens, delivering the verses with a low simmering intensity and imbuing added punch to the chorus. Had I not known, I would never have guessed that Rachel Farley was only seventeen years old based on this performance.
The production is not particularly country, but it strikes a fitting balance of being forceful without being overpowering – a welcome trait for any country radio hit to have. That along with the confident vocal causes the single to feel like more than the sum of its parts.
“Ain’t Easy” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but what does get right makes me eager to hear more from the artist behind it. There aren’t many debut singles that elicit such a response in me these days.
like it was bumped from the space between “Trying to Matter” and “Half of My Mistakes” on Living Hard, his combination of technical and interpretive skill – the golden tone, the rasp that scratches just the right places, the way he bounces off some words and grips into others – feels so natural that you wonder why every other singer can’t achieve it.
Set that to some nice, punchy Jay Joyce drums, and even a little “meh” factor can’t derail the listening experience. It’s not the best he’s ever had…but it’s not so bad.
Written by Gary Allan, Odie Blackmon & Sarah Buxton
Jason Aldean’s new single “1994″ sounds like what you might get if you threw “Johnny Cash,” “She’s Country,” and “My Kinda Party” into a blender with a dash of Colt Ford, and added fourteen Joe Diffie namedrops. While the name of nineties country star Joe Diffie is rarely cited as often as the usual Cash, Haggard, Nelson, Jennings, or Jones, Aldean ostensibly seeks to balance things out by chanting “Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie” at the end of each chorus, while throwing in references to assorted Diffie hits such as “Pickup Man” and “Third Rock from the Sun.”
But just as “Johnny Cash” had nothing to do with its namesake except for the statement that “the Man In Black is gonna rock your ass again,” the references to Joe Diffie and to the year 1994 serve as little more than window dressing,
and are essentially the song’s only characteristics that do not feel completely expected. The lyrics comprise little more than a hodgepodge of radio-baiting backwoods clichés, with Aldean loudly declaring himself to be “just a country boy with a farmer’s tan” who’s “’bout to bust out my honky tonk attitude.” The lyrics are so haphazardly thrown together that’s it’s hard to tell what the song is even meant to be about. The aggressive rock overtones are nothing new for Aldean, while the cheesy “hick-hop”-style verses only affirm that Aldean’s rapping skills have not improved since “Dirt Road Anthem.”
It will be a huge hit because everything Aldean releases is a hit. But “1994″ doesn’t work as a tribute to Diffie, and doesn’t work as art appraised on its own merits, and ultimately takes up residence somewhere in the valley between “unlistenable” and “unintentionally hilarious.” Either way I’d rather listen to Diffie.
Written by Barry Dean, Luke Laird, and Thomas Rhett
From the moment Hunter Berry’s tearful-sounding fiddle plaintively whines the first four bars of Rhonda Vincent’s new single, we know we’re in for a sad country shuffle. In fact, the notes he strikes on the fiddle anticipate almost note-for-note Vincent’s emphatic, but mournful, tone in her first lines and the song’s chorus. Vincent’s soaring vocals, backed by those doleful fiddles and the pleading resophonic guitar of Brent Burke, deliver a sorrowful breakup song with a twist.
Written by Larry Cordle and Lionel Delmore, and recorded by Josh Logan on his album Somebody Paints the Wall (1988), “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You” is the perfect “I-can’t-quit-you-baby” song. Hurting from a breakup, the woman calls her lover, knowing that he’s not alone. Still in love, she longs for some physical connection with him, so she’s compelled (“I had to phone”) to call her former lover just to hear his voice. Though her lover tells her she’s calling in vain, the “sound of [his] voice somehow eases the pain.” Rather than giving up all contact with her former lover—or
even enduring the painful silence of his presence when he’s nothing left to say to her—she craves the sound of his voice, hanging on to him by the thin thread of the telephone line, preferring to hear his declaration “I don’t love you” than a dial tone or to feel his absence.
Cleverly written, the song trades on a number of witty phrases that capture the longing for connection as well as the pain the woman is willing to endure just to stay connected. Not wanting to draw out the relationship or conversation, he’s “anxious to hang up,” but she’s “willing to stall,” since she’d “rather hear I don’t love you/than nothing at all.” He’d “like to hang up,” but she’s “just hangin’ on.” She guesses she should say goodbye “before she breaks down and bawls,” but she can’t bring herself to hang up since hearing “I don’t love you” is better than “hearing nothing at all.”
Vincent’s vocal delivery is perfect as she captures the rising tension of the conversation, wringing out the tears and the aching, throbbing heartbreak that comes from knowing what you have to do but being tortured by not being able to do it. The music starts out slowly, building to a crescendo of fiddles and resophonic guitar in the break, capturing the aches, pains, regrets, and even hopes of the lyrics. Vincent’s powerful and touching new single drives straight to the heart.
Credit where credit is due: After a run of two full albums’ worth of singles that were each exponentially more tepid than the last, Lady Antebellum realized the urgent need for a course correction. “Downtown,” the lead single for the trio’s fourth album, may not be a return to the roots-rock sound of their promising debut, but it’s a definite, deliberate shift in style from the somnolent lite-AC pap that had become their signature. Lady A needed to do something different, and “Downtown” certainly is.
But the simple fact that something is “different” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “good” on its own merits. To that end, “Downtown” has a handful of important things working in its favor, but it’s debatable whether or not Lady A have gotten enough right here to overcome some serious flaws.
What’s most effective about “Downtown” is the way Lady Antebellum and co-producer Paul Worley emphasize its rhythm track. The single has an actual pulse in a way that brings the dreariness of “Hello World” and “Just a Kiss” into sharp relief, and the clever use of syncopation gives the chorus a strut and a swagger that are well-matched to the idea of going out to be seen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off a little, a point that the fantastic Telecaster and steel guitar riffs in the song’s instrumental break really drive home. It’s a nifty and thoroughly unexpected flourish that highlights the lack of character in so much of the trio’s recent output and that makes the production on “Downtown” seem all the more purposeful and thoughtful.
It’s a shame, then, that the songwriting isn’t nearly so sharp. Lady A have often struggled to find a consistent artistic voice, so it doesn’t help their cause that the narrator in “Downtown” can’t stick to a coherent POV, reminiscing about never “dress[ing] to impress all the others” and the virtues of a “laid-back style” in the first verse before singing about her “platforms sitting in the corner” and “a dress that’ll show a little” just a few lines later.
The trio’s dire self-seriousness has also been a problem– has a group of twenty-somethings ever seemed like better potential AARP spokespeople?– so when a night on the town consists of “smok[ing] while we were jaywalking,” it isn’t frivolous or youthful so much as quaint. When the narrator asks, “I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,” and then sighs, “I just don’t get it,” at the end of the song, she may have already answered her own question several times over. And if there’s supposed to be some sort of double entendre to “going downtown,” it’s even more underwritten than the “motorboatin’” bit from Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.” At least the single’s vibrant cover art, which
An even greater problem with “Downtown” is Hillary Scott’s lead vocal performance. She isn’t noticeably off-pitch for what seems like the first time in ages, but her attempt at a coy delivery still falls entirely flat. To her credit, it’s a logical choice of interpretation for the song, but her clipped phrasing, constipated timbre, and nasal tone simply cause the execution to fail, so her performance comes across as a protracted whine. For all the grief Taylor Swift rightly gets about her vocal technique, Scott isn’t a bit better of a singer: A stronger vocalist could have compensated for the flaws in the songwriting on “Downtown,” but Scott just doesn’t have the chops to have done so.
Despite the sloppy songwriting and poor lead vocal, it’s hard to consider “Downtown” as anything less than an encouraging sign for Lady Antebellum, who could very easily have continued to churn out the same lifeless, banal music ad infinitum. Still, that a single this uneven counts as a step in the right direction only shows how far off-the-map they’d gone.
Written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally
If a song has nothing to say beyond what’s said in its title phrase, what’s the point of writing the song in the first place?
Jake Owen’s new single “Anywhere with You” takes a concept many times used before, and does nothing with it. We’ve all heard the country song about the starry-eyed narrator willing to live or travel absolutely anywhere
Owen offers a take that never aspires to be anything more than perfunctory. With a dull-as-a-brick title hook of “I’ll go anywhere with you,” the song lets listeners know what it’s about, and asks them to accept it without scrutiny. The chorus’ listing of random U.S. states in particular feels like an obvious crutch. The thick, un-country, radio-chasing production similarly earns no points for originality.
In light of Owen’s recent successes at radio, “Anywhere with You” will likely be a sizable hit. But it still fails to offer any answer to the fundamental question of “Why does this need to exist?”
Written by Ben Hayslip, David Lee Murphy, and Jimmy Yeary
No matter that Old Crow Medicine Show’s original track isn’t even ten years old yet. Thanks to the proliferating powers of the modern age, “Wagon Wheel” has already become a chestnut – so much so that any new recording of it is bound to feel a little stale, even a long-overdue FM bid like this one.
It doesn’t help that the talented Rucker turns in an unusually bloodless vocal. And it almost kills it that labelmates Lady Antebellum join in on the chorus. For all their skill with pop harmony, the trio sounds lost trying to navigate this rootsier ‘grass-folk territory, with poor Hillary Scott winding up particularly sour in the final mix.
But Frank Rogers’ production retains many of the original’s simple charms, and ultimately the song itself still shines through. And it’s a classic song: simple, vivid, instantly singable, lovingly stitched together from a Bob Dylan bootleg ditty. If nothing else, it sets a good example for country music in 2013, and
This finely crafted gem of a country song was co-written by Country Universe staff favorite Ashley Monroe, and was released as a single in 2005 by Australian country artist Catherine Britt, whose own version is well worth seeking out. The song was also a highlight of the charming Edens Edge self-titled debut album released last summer, and now looks like it might be one of the most enjoyable singles with a prayer of radio airplay in 2013.
The central metaphor strikes a perfect balance of simple accessibility and dead-on effectiveness. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more fitting way to illustrate a noncommittal relationship in which a man walks in and out of a woman’s life as he pleases.
Moreover, the single could hardly be a more apt showcase of the force of musical talent that is Edens Edge, with the dobro- and banjo-picking of Dean Berner and Cherrill Green featuring prominently throughout the song. Lead vocalist Hannah Blaylock gives a subdued reading of the opening verse, and tackles the high notes in the chorus with clarity and style, even giving a bit of a growl as the song crescendos to a finish, but doing so without breaking character – demonstrating dynamic interpretive skills not commonly found in younger, newer artists.
Now two Top 30 hits into their career, only time will tell if Edens Edge is to enter the automatic add club at radio. But if the country music industry were a meritocracy, “Swingin’ Door” would be a surefire hit – well-written, beautifully sung, tastefully produced, and actually country.
Written by Terry Clayton, Brett James, and Ashley Monroe
If you’re going to go for pure contemporary country escapist fun, I say this is the way to do it.
Just to be clear, I’m aware that the excuse of the narrator’s girl loving up on him would not get a guy out of a ticket if he were pulled over for erratic driving in real life. But the thought sure does make for an enjoyable song.
“All Over the Road” soars with an airy, infectious melody, and a delightful fiddle and steel-friendly arrangement recalling the country music of the nineties. Corbin’s warm, inviting vocal delivery coasts along on the catchy melody with the same breezy abandon that made “Roll with It” so lovable. The song hits all the right stops to create the perfect feel-good jam, with the cheeky-sounding guitar licks and the “Little bit o’ left, little bit o’ right” hook almost seeming to mimic the movements of the swerving vehicle.
Ultimately, the song’s success boils down to its capturing of that certain intangible spark that makes a great ditty connect. So many artists attempt to capture it, and so many fail, but with “All Over the Road,” all the right ingredients combine in just the right way. The chemistry ignites, and it creates something special.
Of course, what makes great ear candy is very subjective, and there’s no one flavor that’s going to hit everyone’s sweet spot. But for me, the bottom line is this: “All Over the Road” is a song that makes me want to turn up the volume, sing along, maybe even do a little dance if no one else is around, and then replay it over and over again, and on today’s country radio, there are precious few songs for which I can say that.
Written by Carson Chamberlain, Ashley Gorley, and Wade Kirby