There’s a country radio station in NYC proper for the first time in nearly twenty years. The last one went off the air before I was old enough to drive, so when I found out it existed, I immediately checked it out.
Then I immediately checked out. It’s not listenable to me. It’s playing all of today’s hits and those from the past couple of years, and sometimes a song that I like will come on, but it’s always sandwiched between filler that hurts my ears.
The thing about filler is it’s always been around, even in any of the handful of golden eras the genre has seen. My favorite era had “Independence Day” and “Gone Country” on the air at the same time, but you were gonna hear “Wink” and “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too)” in between.
Today’s hits aren’t all that great to begin with, but the filler is plum terrible, and it’s so jarringly loud that it won’t allow you to let it fade into the background. I’ve heard Justin Moore’s “Point at You” twice while getting into the car this week, and if I hadn’t switched to my iPod before switching from park to drive, my road rage would be notable even by New York City standards.
I say all this because American Young’s new single, “Love is War”, is the kind of filler that would keep me tuned into the country station, waiting to hear what was played next. It sounds good from a distance. Awesome arrangement, great instrumentation, twangy in a Civil Wars on their game/Band Perry on their meds kind of way.
It’s a really bland song though, with generic lyrics that don’t really say anything new or anything interesting about a topic that requires that you have new and interesting things to say if you’re going to write about it at all. Love is war, it’s a battle, it’s a battlefield, yada, yada, yada. George Jones and Pat Benatar noticed that, too.
But I would totally be on board with more of country radio sounding like this, even if it’s just the filler.
A song about a narrator whose woman completes him is a worthwhile concept, so long as one avoids pouring on the syrup. But in this case, the execution falls very flat.
“If you wanna see my sweet side, my soft side, my best side, I just point at you,” Moore sings in the chorus. The hook doesn’t have much heft, and is not particularly clever or interesting, but the bigger eye roll is that the song spends most of the time indulging in the tired backwoods rebel shtick on which too much of Moore’s career has already been wasted.
He’s got “a rough side, a wild side at least a country mile wide,” but so, it seems, does virtually every other twenty or thirty-something male artist on country radio. The one-dimensional lyrics make Moore seem like a caricature, and when you add a brash, over-the-top country-rock production, the single seems to exemplify all of Moore’s most irritating tendencies as a recording artist.
It’s not as obnoxious as, say, “Bait a Hook,” but it’s also devoid of the earnestness of “‘Til My Last Day.” ”Point at You” is just overly loud and entirely uninteresting.
Written by Rhett Akins, Ross Copperman, and Ben Hayslip
An ode to being a chains-free, red wine-drinking hot mess could be tacky and unnecessarily snarky. In Armiger’s hands, it’s tasteful, swampy and empowering. Grade: B+
Brett Eldredge, “Don’t Ya”
It’s been awhile since we’ve heard a voice as soulful as Eldredge’s massage a melody as enticing as this one. “Just Got Started Loving You” this song is not, but with its sly lyrics and irresistible chorus, it comes close. Grade: B+
Justin Moore, “Til My Last Day”
Written by Brian Dean Maher, Justin Moore & Jeremy Stover
Written by Lindsay Chapman, Natalie Hemby & Blu Sanders
You can’t blend two of the greatest voices of our generation without a decent result. Unfortunately, that’s all this is – a pleasant, sweetly sung sleeper that doesn’t do much to elevate either of these enormous talents. Grade: B-
Miss Willie Brown, “You’re All That Matters to Me”
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange
A manic, over-the-top love letter that’s simply not wacky enough to be the self-parody that its music video suggests. Grade: C
Jason Aldean ft. Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”
Written by Ben Hayslip and David Lee Murphy
Three of the fastest-rising male artists in country music are also three of the most distinct male artists in country music, each having built his fanbase on a unique persona and brand of swagger. Oddly, this collaboration seems to meld their personalities together into one that’s less interesting than all three.
But that’s not the bigger issue at hand. The song sinks because of its empty lyrics, its jarring theme of “humble pride” against a needlessly aggressive arrangement, and its subtle implication that a work ethic cut from a different cloth than the narrators’ is a lesser one.
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
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+
What can you say when the song title tells you upfront how generic the song itself is going to be? I mean, the thing practically reviews itself, doesn’t it?
Seriously, though, the problem here isn’t that the song is about why living in a small town is (as you might guess) awesome. The problem is that it doesn’t really give anyone who doesn’t feel the same way any reason to feel otherwise. It was clearly written solely to appeal to a demographic of people who also live in small towns and can relate to surface-level ideas like “everybody knows me and I know them” and “give me a Sunday morning that’s full of grace” (or in Moore’s case, “grA-a-A-a-A-ace”) without any further development of those ideas.
But that’s the thing: without further development, the ideas just sound really, really clichéd. Simply pointing out that you enjoy a “six-pack of Lite” doesn’t really tell me much about you, because guess what? Lots of people from lots of different living environments like lite beer. You have to give your ideas a little context for them to mean anything to anyone but you.
The problem reminds me of “Redneck Woman,” which also glorified a particular rural lifestyle but felt a lot more accessible in how it did so. I think what made the difference was that Gretchen Wilson explained why she liked being a redneck instead of just saying, “hey, I like being a redneck.” For instance, when she mentioned that she liked to drink beer, she set it up as a contrast to being a “Barbie Doll-type” who “swig[s] that sweet champagne,” so that even if we couldn’t relate to that particular preference ourselves, we could see where she was coming from and apply the greater principle in play to ourselves. If her life was a party, she let us in on it.
Moore, on the other hand, is like that guy who calls you from inside the party to let you know how awesome it is without actually explaining what’s going on. It’s not that you don’t believe him; it’s just that he never explains why you should happen to care.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that this isn't a countrified version of the Juvenile hit. Alas, it's just a hillbilly rave-up that finds a country boy trying to get a city girl used to farm life, using backing up a truck as an awkward sexual metaphor (“Throw it in reverse and let Daddy load it up.” Seriously.)
it, Moore throws himself fully into the lyric like he's Joe Diffie singing a mid-nineties novelty number. I'd like to hear him use that personality on more interesting material, and leave songs like this to Rodney Carrington, who is the master of the dirty country song.