This is depressing. Trucks! Two-lane roads! Country girls! Swimmin’ holes! County fairs! Grits! Gravy! Soldiers! Old Glory! “Raise your hands!” “Hell Yeah!” “Amen!” “Yee haw!” “Y’all come back again!”
“The pretty waitress calls you baby” and “fellow toppin’ off your tank knows your name” are new ones, but there’s still nothing in this song that’s interesting enough to overcome the grating, repetitive checklist structure that’s been so done to death that it’s not even funny anymore. Likewise, there’s no disguising the fact that this song amounts to nothing more than blatant, obvious pandering. Tim McGraw did this with “Southern Voice.” Justin Moore did this with “Small Town USA.” Scotty McCreery is doing this with “Water Tower Town.” And just as an aside, “Where there’s more trucks than cars” is a really stupid title hook.
I do not appreciate this, Craig Morgan. In fact, I can’t help but feel that you’re insulting my intelligence to suggest that all I want to hear from you are reminders that trucks and small towns do, in fact, exist. Besides that, you’re actually a pretty talented singer, so I’m somewhat puzzled as to why you seem so satisfied to make such a flat, one-dimensional caricature out of yourself.
Country music’s current identity crisis continues. This song is a sign that it’s not going to get better anytime soon, and it hurts my heart to realize that this song actually stands a good chance of becoming a hit.
Written by Craig Morgan, Phil O’Donnell, and Craig Wiseman
This new Little Big Town single sounds cool. Surprise? Nah – they always sounded cool with Wayne Kirkpatrick producing, and new helmsman Jay Joyce brings the same quirky groove-sense he's brought to Eric Church's stuff. It's a good sonic match.
The song, though. If you're going to write about an experience as (relatively) esoteric as pontoon-partying, gotta find something in it to appeal to the rest of us. Craig Morgan's “Redneck Yacht Club” had its playful melody and alliterations; “Pontoon”'s lyrics are so dull that, when paired with the weird reverb on Karen Fairchild's vocal, they start to sound like a diary of seasickness. No thanks!
It’s impossible to review an album titled It’s All Good without indulging in a few witty remarks. Such a title tends to beg the question of whether or not the album really is “all good.” The vocals are all good, to be sure. Joe Nichols has already proven himself to be one of mainstream country music’s best male vocalists, and on his newest effort, his performances do not disappoint. The production, likewise, is consistently solid. Producers Mark Wright and Buddy Cannon back Nichols with arrangements that sound easily accessible and radio-friendly, while laced with traditional country trimmings of fiddle and steel, and it certainly is enjoyable to hear country music that is sonically recognizable as such.
For all its positive traits, however, the album at times falls into a rut of predictability, leaning on safely inoffensive radio-ready themes that have grown stale from overuse. In that regard, lead single “Take It Off” turns out to be an accurate preview of the album it foreshadowed. The single was released in May, just early enough to capitalize on country radio’s annual summer song mania, albeit with limited success, as the song topped out at #25 on the charts. It’s a fun enough tune, but it’s too forgettable, not to mention interchangeable with any other summer song, to be worth coming back to all year round. Likewise, the country boy hokum of “This Ole Boy” plays like a rote run-of-the-mill Peach Pickers tune that wasn’t particularly interesting when Craig Morgan sang it either, while the Blake Shelton-esque “The More I Look” is nothing more than disposable radio fodder.
Though the quality of the song material is inconsistent, Nichols’ performances often elevate it to a point. While the imagery of “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is nothing to write home about, Nichols lifts the song to a higher level with his warm and expressive delivery, while a fiddle in the background lends an almost haunting quality to the track. With the title track, Nichols imbues his own distinct personality into a lyric about life’s simple pleasures, while the laid-back traditional country arrangement finishes things off nicely.
In spite of all its middling material, the album’s best moments simply shine. “Somebody’s Mama” offers a novel spin on the timeless theme of “the one that got away,” as the narrator is having a tattoo of his ex-lover’s name covered, and pondering over where she might have ended up in life, assuming that “She’s probably somebody’s mama by now.” The bittersweet lyric fully functions on par with the steel-laden arrangement as well as Nichols’ smooth vocal delivery. The title track “Never Gonna Get Enough” shows a loose and laid-back style along with lyrical imagery that recalls George Jones “Tennessee Whiskey,” while “She’s Just Like That” works well as a simple ode to a woman who is beautiful inside and out.
The album’s finest tracks offer a glimpse of what could have been had the overall caliber of song material been a few degree higher. In the end, we’re left with an album that sounds good, but that could have been better. Of course, the spot-on vocals and solid traditional-leaning arrangements make for an album that is sonically pleasant throughout, with not a single moment that sounds fingernails-on-chalkboard awful. While there are still plenty of listeners who will find such an effort wholly satisfactory, those who prefer country music with a little extra meat to it would likely prefer to cherry-pick it instead. As a whole, It’s All Good plays like a musical piece of candy – mostly enjoyable, but largely insubstantial. Good it is, but great it isn’t.
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the antiseptic depictions of faith that have dominated contemporary Christian music began to seep in to country music.
This perception created records both good (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and bad (“The Little Girl”), but most of them were bland, adding going to church on Sunday or praying as just one of the token traits of southern life, no more or less significant than the fried chicken or football game that followed the morning services.
In one of the genre’s great ironies, Randy Travis had crossed over to contemporary Christian music, having had little luck on the radio since the late nineties. He brought country music’s love of fallen angels along with him, and with “Three Wooden Crosses”, he managed to found his way back to the top of the country charts without even trying.
It starts off like an off-color joke that shouldn’t be told in polite company, let alone on the radio dial next to Martina McBride’s “Blessed” and Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday”: “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher, ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.” The story that unfolds reveals that one of these four travelers will be instrumental in spreading the Good News for a long time to come.
But because it manages to humanize all four of them along the way, revealing how each of them helped make the world a better place, its ultimate message is that our lives are best defined by what we do when we’re at our best, not by the labels that may be assigned to us through occupation or personal choices.
How to put it? I would listen to this man sing about IBS. I would listen to him sing a long-form denunciation of my value as a human being – possibly my mother’s and little sister’s, too. Young’s baritone is like the aural incarnation of warm fuzzies, and most everything it touches/fuzzes goes down easy – even those lame, creaky-hinged Music Row assembly songs scattered across his first two albums.
So, granted: This single was probably going to sound all sexy-cool no matter what. But we can all enjoy with a little less cognitive dissonance this time, because “Tomorrow” makes a serious play at substance. Young is finally a radio star, and he’s using his powers to inject some actual psychological complication back into the format.
Synopsis: Tomorrow, he’s leaving his lover for good. Tomorrow, he’s going to sew himself up and let the healing begin. The two want each other so bad, but their relationship is never as strong as their attraction to it. So tomorrow, he’s out. But tonight, he’s going to indulge like there’s no – heyyy, I see what you did there!
It’s probably as fresh of a twist as you could wring out of such a stale idiom, and the song’s premise is standby country. I love that there’s room for doubt as to whether this will really be the last time, too. Unlike “Voices” or even “The Man I Want to Be,” this song feels fully attuned to the complexities and ambiguities of the human experience. You trust it not to judge you for yours.
Where “Tomorrow” comes up short, as those predecessors also did, is in its chorus melody – which barely exists. The whole section is basically a boring two-note progression repeated over and over while lyrics are spewed out at double-time. It’s listenable because the production wills it to be (and, of course, because of Young’s fuzz factor), but imagine it performed acoustically and the song collapses. It’s the kind of tossed-off stuff you might expect from an especially dull Trace Adkins or Craig Morgan release, but here, it’s a dead weight pulling a potentially great single down from the heights of its theme and performance.
My fear is that we’re going to be hearing more and more of these tune-challenged songs as writers collectively sort out what mainstream country will sound like moving forward. Unhummable afflictions like “This” and “Crazy Town” and “Love Like Crazy” – heck, even the clumsy moments in otherwise-pleasant singles like “Mary Was the Marrying Kind” and “Amen” – give me the impression that we’ve lost touch with what made the classic songs work structurally, that maybe our basic sense of aesthetics needs sharpening.
But that’s a bit of a tangent. Here’s the point: Yes, Chris Young, I’m going to buy your new album, Neon, and yes, I will try to sing along to “Tomorrow” when it comes on in my car. And if you musically ask me to, I will delete this whole review and replace it with a cute YouTube video of your choosing. But until then, please go listen to some more Gretchen Peters and Alan Jackson (or, heck, Neil Sedaka and Carole King). And study up.
The 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll has just been published by Nashville Scene. It covers the 2010 year of country music. The participants of the poll consists of country music critics who spend their time listening to and analyzing stacks of music throughout the year in order to knowledgeably write about it for the purpose of either promoting excellent music or warning against the not so good stuff. Kevin, Dan and Tara are among these prestigious critics.
Each year, invited critics submit their ballots with their favorite music and artists in the appropriate categories. The poll includes the best albums, singles, male and female artists, reissues, live acts, duos and groups, songwriters, new acts, and the over all artists of the year. While the results include the usual suspects, they are mixed with some surprises or names that aren’t commonly associated with mainstream country.
Some of my favorite results include Raul Malo tied at #8 with Gary Allan for top males and Elizabeth Cook at #2 for top females, not to mention Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” landing at the #3 spot for singles. The most amusing result, however, is Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift in the top two spots for songwriters.
What’s most fascinating about this process is that the critics have the opportunity to include comments with their ballots. These comments serve to clarify choices and pontificate on the state of country music and its various aspects. There are some insightful comments from both Dan and Tara, along with other critics that you might recognize from our blog roll.
Here are some of the cream of the crop comments that display a satisfyingly diverse array of perspectives:
“Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he’s been “takin’ dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills” than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift’s music may not scan as “country” to the extent that Johnson’s does, but that isn’t because she’s any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they’re “Playing the Part,” and they both do so awfully well.” —Jonathan Keefe, Slant Magazine
“Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM’s slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won’t touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” and Chely Wright’s “Notes to the Coroner.” The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy.” —Dan Milliken, Country Universe
“In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he’s now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown’s “As She’s Walking Away”). Of course, country radio won’t fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma’s side of things.” —Blake Boldt, The 9513
“Despite their two weak singles this year, “Our Kind of Love” and “Hello World,” I remain in Lady Antebellum’s corner. What hooks me is the way they’re able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.” —Tara Seetharam, Country Universe
“So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I’ve long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won’t be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I’d be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if “Draw Me a Map” or “Will I Always Be This Way” was next on the playlist.” —Sam Gazdziak, The 9513
“In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year,” thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song “The Weary Kind,” a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he’s embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the “shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars.” Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, “The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country.” It’s a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term “country music” has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly.” —Jim Malec, American Twang
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 5: #120-#101
#120 “Tonight I Wanna Cry”
A chillingly frank portrait of loneliness, awkward reference to “All By Myself” notwithstanding. Few mainstream vocalists today could pull off something this intense. – Dan Milliken
#119 “Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn with Jack White
Peak: Did not chart
If you can take a healthy dose of dirty rock ‘n’ roll in your country, this is one of the coolest-sounding records of the decade, a classic one-night-stand duet. That it’s a very cross-generational pairing singing it would be creepy if not for the goofy smiles shining through Lynn’s and White’s performances. – DM (more…)
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 4: #140-#121
#140 “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”
Bon Jovi featuring Jennifer Nettles
Packed as country music has been lately with rocked-up little singalongs, perhaps it was only natural that one of the leading bands in rocked-up little singalongs should cross over for a bit to show everybody how it’s done. It was newcomer Nettles, though, who stole this show, driving Bon Jovi’s ditty home with an infectiously joyful performance. – Dan Milliken
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”
Peak: Did not chart
The arrangement is cool enough, but it’s Cash’s stoic, slicing vocal performance that makes his version of this song so memorable. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
It’s hard to fault Craig Morgan for recording yet another “we’re a bunch of rednecks having a good time” anthem. Such songs have been his bread and butter.
But it’s quite easy to fault him for taking a page from the Jason Aldean playbook and screaming the whole song. Morgan is not a country-rocker, and can’t even pull off being a wannabe country-rocker. His charm has always been his too-country twang, a vocal style that you can usually only hear on the bluegrassiest of bluegrass records. When he sings a song like “A Little Bit of Life” or “Redneck Yacht Club”, you can actually hear his big goofy grin.
That singer never shows up here, so there’s nothing left to give cover to the fact that “Bonfire” is a disposable and lifeless party anthem.
Written by Tom Botkin, Kevin Denney, Craig Morgan and Mike Rogers