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.
The Back to the Barroom album is best known for its raucous closing track, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” But the opening ballad sets the mood for the entire record, and sets the template for a whole bunch of George Strait hits to boot.
With as many cheating songs that there are in country music, there are at least just as many drinking songs. I love so many of them, but few more than Vern Gosdin’s “Set Em Up Joe”, to reach back a little. It’s even one of those prime examples of how to worthily drop a name.
I could choose from a couple dozen country favorites here. But they all come from an older perspective than mine. Ke$ha’s goofy trash-pop captures the experience of being twenty-one and living life tongue-in-cheek, trying to enjoy a last hurrah of irreverence and irresponsibility before proper adulthood.
“Homeboy” is an impassioned plea for a small town boy to reject the forces that are leading him down a path of no return, one where family is rejected, values are corrupted, and incarceration is likely the end of the road.
In small town America today, that force is crystal methamphetamine. In Eric Church’s “Homeboy”, that force is sagging pants and a “hip-hop hat.”
I don’t know if there’s ever been a stronger challenge to the myth of rural idyllicism than the proliferation of hometown, homemade drugs that are destroying the fabric of small towns across the country.
“Homeboy” miscasts the enemy as the other, instead of confronting the enemy within.
Our look back at the year’s best singles comes to a close, with unprecedented CU consensus at the top of the list. The top two singles of the year were ranked in that order by three of our four writers, and both appeared in the top ten of the fourth writer.
Here’s our ten best of 2010:
The Best Singles of 2010, Part 4: #10-#1
Draw Me a Map Dierks Bentley
Bentley is getting a lot of deserved attention for sonically diverging from the mainstream to create a bluegrass-inspired album. It’s an excellent album, but to his credit, “Draw Me A Map” isn’t so far removed from some of the unreleased songs on his first two mainstream projects; It’s just that he gets to shine a finer focus on it for this album, and therefore, this seemingly subversive song for radio gets to be released. The inspired blend of Bentley’s ragged voice with Alison Krauss’ angelic one takes the song to an even sweeter level. – Leeann Ward
Broken Chely Wright
Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked that “Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon a knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of circumstance and the frailty of human resolution.” He was talking, in context, about marriage. The truth is that no one enters a relationship completely free of burden, and only by submitting to the complications of that truth can we avoid being ruled by them. Wright, for her part, manages the task with simple, earnest grace, probably strengthening her relationship through mere acknowledgment of its weaknesses. – Dan Milliken
Drop On By Laura Bell Bundy
Unlike the year’s other booze-induced lover’s call, “Drop On By” isn’t rooted in emotional dependency; it’s fueled by Bundy’s earthy physical longing – and what a longing that is. Proving her masterful interpretative skills, Bundy churns out a slow-burning performance that’s both deftly controlled and achingly sensual, with just a tinge of playful warmth woven through. The song’s kicker, though, is the smoky throwback arrangement – a delicious mix of blues, jazz and country – that not only fits Bundy like a glove, but pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a great country record. – Tara Seetharam
Giddy On Up Laura Bell Bundy
The most interesting and surprising debut single that I can remember. So many creative and unexpected choices are made, but it is Bundy’s forceful personality that pulls it all together into something cohesive. In an era of country music that is little more than dull shades of gray, “Giddy On Up” is a Technicolor marvel. – Kevin Coyne
As She’s Walking Away Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson
A young man just about chickens out of approaching the radiant girl across the bar, panicking that “my heart won’t tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say.” Luckily, Wise Older Man At Bar can see exactly what’s going on and nudges Junior into action. A bit silly, but the single radiates such warmth that you gobble it up. And if there was a more motivational moment in 2010 than Alan Jackson’s spoken “Go on, son,” well, I didn’t hear it. – DM
Smoke a Little Smoke Eric Church
Church finally puts his music where his mouth is, delivering an unapologetic, roguish (for country radio, anyway) ode to escapism by intoxication. The erratic musical flow evokes the very physical sensations the song celebrates, and Church’s swagger makes bumming sound almost appealing. Turns out that if you stop talking about being a badass for long enough, you may just manage to kinda be one. – DM
If I Die Young The Band Perry
“If I Die Young” arrives like a gift from an alternate universe, one where the public’s embrace of Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, and O Brother was treated as a road map for the genre’s future, not just a passing interest that needn’t be cultivated. – KC
Stuck Like Glue Sugarland
Every once and awhile, a piece of ear candy comes along that defies the term “ear candy.” That’s what “Stuck Like Glue” is, to be sure: an infectious acoustic-pop morsel, invigorated by Nettles’ insanely joyful performance and a genre-busting breakdown. But there’s something about the song that puts it on another plane. Maybe it’s the organic energy, or maybe it’s the lack of artistic inhibition. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that “Stuck Like Glue” doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It just is. And as a result, it’s that rare breed of song that taps into your spirit – that demands you to stop thinking, start feeling and have a damn good time. – TS
Little White Church Little Big Town
It probably owes some theme to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” but Little Big Town’s swampy sleeper hit is the coolest-sounding country single of the year all on its own. From handclaps to snarling electric licks, creepy whispers to gospel-esque call-and-response choruses, “Little White Church” is a potent reminder of all the creativity still bubbling under in Music City. – DM
The House That Built Me Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert’s career defining song is also our song of the year. Not much can be said about this gorgeous ode to childhood memories that hasn’t already been said better by countless writers before me, including our very own Dan Milliken, which helps make the case for what’s inevitably the song of the year on many 2010 countdowns.
Its all-acoustic, understated arrangement underscores the story of a woman who tries to find solace in the memories buried in a structure that was more than a house. Its descriptive lyrics move us as they detail memories from turning blueprints into the family dream home to the heartbreak of losing the family dog.
As it is always is with the best songs, “The House that Built Me” does not hit us over the head with its emotional resonance. It’s strong, it’s palpable, but it’s all done with gentleness, which is the most effective way to tug at the heartstrings. – LW
Sometimes – most of the time – I fall behind on my planned CU work and wind up with a backlog of opinions. And it can be so mentally taxing carrying all that around, you know? Gotta clean out the file sometime. So if you happen to be feeling nostalgic for, oh, five months ago, please join me in considering a bunch of singles which came out around then and pretending like they’re brand-new.
Rodney Atkins, “Farmer’s Daughter”
A warm production, likable vocal by Atkins. I just can’t bring myself to care about the story. Nothing about it feels urgent or revelatory. Grade: C
How this has crept up to become his first Top 30 single in eight years is beyond me, since it’s about as exciting as a dreamless nap. A true “sleeper hit,” yuk yuk. Oh! And does it not totally sound like that “Ooohhh, but I feel it” song from the 90’s? Anyway, a pleasant enough listen if you’re in the mood for it. Grade: C+
It sounds like what would happen if Taylor Swift listened to one Caroline Herring track – just one – and decided to come up with her own version. I mean that in a good way, mostly. Kimberly Perry has written and performed a very pretty-sounding record here, gratuitous “uh oh”s aside, and and Republic Nashville should be commended for releasing something with such ambitious subject matter as a second single.
I just wish the song itself had undergone some more revision first. The pieces are set for a sweet, eloquent hypothetical about premature death, but then that third verse comes and it sounds like she’s actually anticipating her demise and has an agenda for it. It’s muddling.
So, not the home run it could have been. But still an admirable effort. Grade: B-
It looks like this single has already fallen off the radar, which is a big shame. Bundy’s controlled performance demonstrates why she’s among the most promising new acts out there, and the song is a sweet sip of lounge-y countrypolitan.
What’s missing is a great hook. “Drop on By” is a kind of a ho-hum central phrase, and it isn’t matched with a memorable enough melody here to make it really stick. Then again, the tracks on Bundy’s album that do have good hooks (“Cigarette”, “If You Want My Love”) won’t fit radio anyway because they’re too sharp and unique. The gal can’t win. Grade: B
For a number of reasons – the biggest of which was “Love Your Love the Most” dancing on my gag reflex, but there were others – I passed altogether on listening to his sophomore album, and ignored this single’s existence for a good while.
Now I’ve heard it, though, and damn it, I can’t go back. This ode to substance-fueled escapism may be the most daring country single of the year, even without the “stash” reference in the album version. The record actually sounds like a weird high, with snaky acoustic guitars, jarring electrics, and creepy-cool effects on the vocals, yet it never sacrifices accessibility in pursuit of its aesthetic. It ain’t a country sound (check those Collective Soul-aping “yeah”s), but it’s serving a very country theme, and for once, Church’s frat-boy cockiness actually works. Grade: A-
More lightweight, breezy Strait-gazing. The chorus has a bit of an awkward meter, but I’ll deal. In earlier days, this might have been a bit boring compared to its company at radio. Today, it’s just refreshing. Grade: B
Don’t care for this guy’s name – sounds like a rodeo emcee’s or something – but what a cool-sounding debut single. Mournful guitar licks, propulsive beat, appealingly gritty vocal. If only the melody were as confident throughout as it is in the second half of the chorus (“The heaven we had / The hell that I’m going through / Other than that / There ain’t much left of lovin’ you”). Still, not too shabby. Grade: B+
Justin Moore, “How I Got to Be This Way”
Strike three. Moore seems to have potential, and I don’t mean to pick on him or his writers, but his output since “Back That Thing Up” represents everything I don’t like about mainstream country today. This is loud, one-dimensional, and worst of all, uninteresting. Grade: D
I’ll say this for David Nail: he’s ambitious. Though his first two singles didn’t win me over, I found something bold to admire in each. “I’m About to Come Alive” cast him as a co-dependent loser – not exactly flattering – while “Red Light” aimed for psychological depth with its focus on the mundane nature of break-ups. Both were refreshingly moody for country radio, and both could have made great breakthrough hits were the songs themselves a bit more compelling.
From a compositional standpoint, “Turning Home” isn’t actually as risky or complex as those forerunners; in fact, it’s very much your typical nostalgic Kenny Chesney co-write. But it’s crisp and coherent enough to give Nail some interpretive room, and he reaches for the stars, delivering an emotional, octave-sweeping performance that goes a long way toward breathing new life into the well-trod themes.
He unfortunately has to do battle with a screechy electric guitar that surfaces in the instrumental break, and there’s no denying that this single owes much more to Elton John or Gavin DeGraw-type artists than it does to anyone in the realm of traditional country. Nevertheless, Nail’s ambition was well-spent here. Grade: A-
His “Beer on the Table” was enjoyable, if a bit derivative-sounding, but I’ll pass on this one. It’s pretty much a less friendly, slightly wittier version of “Small Town U.S.A.”, of which I was never a fan in the first place. Grade: D+
Radio has never been my primary way of receiving country music. Growing up in NYC, we had a decent country station in 103.5 WYNY. But 24-hour CMT was better, back in the days when it played everything from the hot new artists to the legends to Canadian imports in roughly equal rotation. By the time that the station folded, I was heading to Nashville and attending college. By the time I was back to NYC, the internet had replaced the video outlets as my preferred method of discovering new music.
But radio is the way most country fans have discovered new music for generations now. So why not give it another try? Normally, I wouldn’t, but as we began an overnight drive up the east coast, I was growing weary of the easy listening station that was on. Air Supply will do that to you. So I went up to the next station, and the radio displayed that it was a country station.
The sound, however, was virtually identical to the seventies and eighties light rock I’d been listening to already. By the chorus, I was able to discern that what I mistook for a lesser Gordon Lightfoot was actually Zac Brown Band. “Highway 20 Ride” was the song. Not bad, but kind of faceless and generic in that Seventies Gold way.
Things went downhill quickly. The next record was that Steve Holy hit “Brand New Girlfriend”, which sounds just as clever now as it did back then. Interpret that as you will. Then Eric Church sang about a girl who was “Hell on the Heart”, and Lee Brice screamed about some people who chose to “Love Like Crazy.”
Finally, an artist that I liked came on. Tim McGraw. Singing “One two three, like a bird I sing,” the start of his worst post-Everywhere single, “Last Dollar (Fly Away).” Suddenly, a feature that had begun as “An Hour With Country Radio” became “one more bad song and I’m plugging in the iPod.”
Then I heard the gentle intro to Alan Jackson’s “Remember When.” I actually do like country music, I’m reminded. And I can hear this song and more on my iPod. Cutting my losses before Taylor Swift or Danny Gokey surfaced, I said a quiet thank you to Steve Jobs and switched from FM to AUX.
What do you know? Coming off of their invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry, Montgomery Gentry release their most country-sounding single in some time. The sound is a nice blend of Alabama, Hank Jr., and 70’s folk-rock, with a chorus ready-made for barroom singalongs and a colorful set of dobro fills.
It’s a credit to the songwriting that it manages to breathe life into a fairly tired theme. This whole “I’m proud of my broken family, gosh darn it” shtick has been done a good deal in recent years, and it’s been done well, with tracks like LeAnn Rimes’ “Family” and Eric Church’s “Sinners Like Me” providing some of the most memorable moments in those artists’ catalogs.
As with those examples, what elevates Montgomery Gentry’s take on the idea is its candor. Rather than try to falsely glamorize the relatives’ imperfections, as so many would-be Redneck Anthems would do, this song just throws them all out on the table, acknowledging them as they really are – not necessarily desirable, yet inescapable. Granted, the family does sound a little bit sensationalized, but the details are at least interesting enough to warrant a momentary suspension of disbelief.
I think a lot of people – particularly in the South – can relate to the social stigma of having so-called “bad stock” in their family, and I suspect they’ll really latch onto the humorous, “so what?” style of self-acceptance “Long Line of Losers” extols. I have to say that I’d like it a little more if the narrator gave a concrete example of what makes him such a loser – no fair spilling all his family’s beans and none of his own – but all in all, this is a good example of the Montgomery Gentry formula done right.
The second single from Eric Church’s forthcoming sophomore set, Carolina, picks up exactly where previous releases “How ‘Bout You” and “Guys Like Me” left off, with Church once again taking some time to show us what a good ol’ boy he is by running us through a pointless list of completely unrelated things he likes or believes in (good barbecue, NASCAR, and smallmouth bass all score shout-outs).
This time, though, the list is set up to show his woman that he appreciates her more than even the finest in material pleasures, even if (presumably) he’s not always so good at showing it. Housewife demographic: consider yourself pandered to.
Tom T. Hall once made this exact approach work in his #1 hit “I Love,” but that one sounded knowingly silly; Church actually tries to make a serious point with his take on it, and the result falls so very flat.
Meanwhile, where’s the guy who helped write “Two Pink Lines” and “Livin’ Part of Life”? I know radio’s being hard on you, dude, but come on – you can do so much better than this.