In listening to American Idol winner Scotty McCreery’s debut album, it becomes all too clear that either McCreery is being carefully reared by the unabashedly commercial-minded execs of 19 Entertainment… or that he simply enjoys playing follow-the-leader. The former is most likely, but almost every track on Clear as Day sounds like an emulation of the style of one of country radio’s favorite hitmakers. We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Montgomery Gentry. We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Kenny Chesney. But there are precious few moments in which it sounds like Scotty McCreery is being Scotty McCreery.
“Water Tower Town” sounds like something lifted out of the Montgomery Gentry reject pile circa 2002. “Better Than That” carries a strong thematic resemblance to Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More,” with nothing about it’s story structure feeling at all urgent or revelatory. On another note, it comes as no surprise that “Walk In the Country” was co-written by Urban, as the track clearly has Urban written all over it. (Think “Where the Blacktop Ends”) Such style-mimicking demonstrates the fact that, as a whole, Clear as Day falls into the common trap in which commercialism overshadows an album’s artistic merits.
Somewhat oddly, it’s the two singles released thus far that represent the album at its absolute worst. “I Love You This Big” scans as a grammatically-awkward piece of schmaltz with an uninspired production and a dull, auto-tuned vocal. “The Trouble with Girls” merely sounds like a cute little basket of cliches, as if the writers were more concerned with struggling to find words that rhyme than connecting with a listener on more than a surface level. At the same time, the dramatic orchestral swells in the bridge make the song sound like it’s taking itself way too seriously. It’s all too obvious that the songs’ sole purpose of existence is to serve as inoffensive distractions between radio commercials. They are so carefully calculated so as to make no negative impression that they end up making hardly any impression at all.
In most cases, lyrics rarely scratch below surface level. High school hallways serve as a common stage setting – Little surprise, given McCreery’s age of 18 – with many of the tracks playing like gender-flipped versions of Taylor Swift songs, minus the authenticity and distinct perspective. The title tracks recalls a few mundane details of an encounter with a romantic flame, only to settle for a clumsy grasp at the heart strings by killing the girl off in the end. The songs that work are those that emphasize the melodies and Scotty’s performances above the generally mediocre lyrical content. “Write My Number On My Hand” finds McCreery turning in what is possibly his most engaged performance of the set, with a wink-wink country boy charm that effectively sells the silly lyrics. But that’s not to say that all of the songs are lyrical duds. With “Dirty Dishes,” McCreery taps into the universally acceptable country radio theme of faith, and offers a take that is actually interesting. The song (written by Neil Thrasher, Michael Delaney, and Tony Martin) portrays the narrator’s mother saying “the strangest prayer ever said,” in which she thanks God for dirty dishes, noisy children, slamming doors, et cetera, and then highlighting the positive aspects of common domestic annoyances. Less effectively, however, “That Old King James” scans as an inferior “Three Wooden Crosses”-wannabe. It tracks the life journey of a King James Bible as it is passed down through different family members, but it lacks a clear message to serve as a form of listener payoff.
At its best, Clear as Day continues to offer glimpses of the substantial well of talent McCreery possesses. But at the same time, that talent sounds like it’s a long way from being fully realized. He’s not Josh Turner. He’s not George Strait. He’s not John Michael Montgomery. But when it comes to portraying who Scotty McCreery is as an artist, Clear paints a picture that is disappointingly murky.
A preface for the Scottyfolk: I didn’t watch this season of American Idol, so this single is my first exposure to its winner – no backstory, no jilted favorite of mine he beat. The only metric I’m using is whether “I Love You This Big” sounds like something I’d want to hear on the radio between “Teenage Daughters” and “Amen.”
Here’s my verdict: No.
But it’s an understanding “No,” mostly because this is an American Idol victory single, and only two out of ten of those have been at all decent (Fantasia’s and David Cook’s; if you disagree, I Don’t-Care This Big). McCreery’s bid has all the trappings of its forerunners: generic production, obvious overdubs and Auto-Tune to create a synthetically “perfect” performance, awful Eureka!-moment key change, lyrics so cheesy Michael Bolton gagged (though Rascal Flatts still bobbed their heads along contentedly).
But the song isn’t a great deal worse than the 90′s schmaltz it models itself after, and at least it doesn’t end with the Jesus reference I was expecting from the title (which would have been a shameless rip-off of Jimmy Wayne’s sappy-sweet “I Love You This Much”). For his part, McCreery just sounds like Josh Turner’s young, starry-eyed demo singer who also sometimes rubs his signed copy of John Michael Montgomery’s Greatest Hits like a rabbit’s foot the morning of a big trig test. He’s got a few nice moments of tone and phrasing, and the rest just says, “I haven’t found my own voice yet.”
And that’s fine. I imagine he wasn’t challenged on the Turnerisms on Idol because no one there knew enough to do so – but country fans and radio will call him out. I’m sure the label’s already figuring out how to broach the subject once he’s in the studio. That’s not to say he won’t keep sounding like his heroes, but it should get better. We may find he’s an interesting singer in his own right after a spotty album or two. Hard to say.
In the meantime, I’ll just anticipate the necessary change-of-station at the end of “Teenage Daughters,” breathe, and let the world turn as it will.
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.
Any song that starts with a guitar melody so eerily reminiscent of Rosanne Cash’s “Blue Moon With Heartache” is going to reel me in right away. Throw in an understated production that recalls early Alan Jackson, and the fact that Corbin is an actual country singer instead of just a country personality, and things get even better.
The song is beautiful. Really, really beautiful. Like so many great country ballads, someone who’s been left alone because a relationship failed can relate to it just as well as someone who has been left alone because they’re a widow. On the verses, Corbin sounds so good that he could’ve sent this to radio in 1992 and stood tall among the Mark Chesnutts and Collin Rayes of that time.
But there’s a big flaw, and that’s his over-singing in the choruses. Remember how John Michael Montgomery strained his voice when he wanted to show intense emotion? He’s doing that, with less impressive results. It’s not enough to sink the record, of course. There are so many strong elements that even a weak delivery in some parts can’t stop it from being a good record. But it does keep it from being truly great.
Written by Carson Chamberlain, Clinton Daniels, and Jeff Hyde
It’s the catchy fiddle riff that’s so memorable about John Michael Montgomery’s debut, number one, single. He is known for being a balladeer, but this one is an up-tempo motivational song. – Leeann Ward (more…)
As we reach the halfway point of the countdown, seventies stars like Tanya Tucker and Don Williams prove just as relevant to the decade as newbies like Terri Clark and and Clay Walker. But it’s eighties original George Strait that dominates this section with three additional entries.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #225-#201
Passionate Kisses Mary Chapin Carpenter
1992 | Peak: #4
A lightweight wish list/love ditty that somehow seems to tap into a deep well of truth. Credit Carpenter’s soulful vocal, which digs in and finds the cohesive character written between the song’s separate cute lines. – Dan Milliken
The electric guitar line sounds cribbed from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, but the sentiment couldn’t be much more different. Dalton is tense all over, as bad omens seem to stack on top of each other while she waits in anticipation of one big let-down. – DM (more…)
The list continues with appearances from artists who first surfaced in the eighties and continued to thrive into the nineties, like Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless, along with new stars from the nineties who would find greater success in the next decade, like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #300-#276
#300 Does He Love You Reba McEntire with Linda Davis
1993 | Peak: #1
This two-female duet was a gamble at the time of its release, but it offers such a brilliant fusion of perspectives that it’s hard to imagine why. The song fleshes out the range of emotions that the two women are experiencing –from pain to longing to self-doubt– and culminates in one shared question that they’ll never know the answer to: “does he love you like he’s been loving me?” – Tara Seetharam (more…)
When Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes released dueling versions of this song in 1997, it was apparently a wake up call to country listeners: “Hey, wait a minute. Trisha Yearwood is an amazing singer!” She elevates “How Do I Live” beyond its movie theme nature by adding layers of subtlety and nuance to the typical Diane Warren template. – Kevin Coyne
I don’t claim to have any real knowledge of what it’s like to spend a night at the liveliest of honky-tonks, but I’ll be darned if this song doesn’t make me feel like I do. Because “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” isn’t really about a specific place where people go, and it isn’t even about the boogie itself; it’s about the universal thrill of busting out of the work week, kicking back and dancing your troubles away. From start to finish, Brooks & Dunn’s performance is a twangy blast of exhilaration, and that’s a feeling we can all relate to – outlaws, in-laws, crooks and straights alike. - Tara Seetharam
Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got Tracy Byrd
1997 | Peak: #4
Just a damn catchy trad country sing-a-long. It was good fun when Johnny Paycheck had the original hit with it, and lost none of its steam when Tracy Byrd resurrected it for a new audience twenty-six years later. – Dan Milliken (more…)
The second segment of our countdown includes the first appearances by Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, two of the biggest-selling stars of the decade.
#375 How Do I Get There Deana Carter
1997 | Peak: #1
It’s always a gamble when friends decide to take their relationship to the next level. “How Do I Get There” explores the struggle of following one’s heart, even though it’s taking a big emotional risk to do so. – Leeann Ward
If I Could Make a Living Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #1
This song is either ridiculously cheesy or irresistibly cheesy depending on your taste, but there’s no denying Walker sells the heck out of it with charm and enthusiasm. – Tara Seetharam
It Sure is Monday Mark Chesnutt
1993 | Peak: #1
Mark Chesnutt is one of the best male vocalists of the nineties, but there were many times when he did not always rise to the challenge of conveying the energy to elevate a decent song to a good one. Case in point: “Friends in Low Places”, which was eventually properly energized by Garth Brooks. “It Sure Is Monday”, however, is a positive example of Chesnutt actually making a song his own by demonstrating the ability to breathe life into a decent song and make it really good. – LW (more…)
New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.
There were some variants of this approach. A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay. George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!
Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt. He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:
Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career. Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:
That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.” She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”
That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them. Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”
Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.
Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:
And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:
Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls. Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:
Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers. How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?
The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too. A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos. There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:
That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play. That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.
My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.
For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?