Highlights from this roundup include a nineties neon twanger and a soaring Miley Cyrus cover.
Written by Carson Chamberlain, Joshua Hedley, and Wyatt McCubbin
JK: Something striking in Kevin’s “Every #1 Single of the 90s” series is how the decade started with absolute classic tracks week-over-week before the bottom fell out, with classics bumping into the merely okay and the occasional “My Love.” So to say that a single is a 90s throwback demands a bit more clarity. To be clear, Joshua Hedley’s “Neon Blue” is a throwback to the first few years of the 90s. Alan Jackson’s mastery of reimagined genre tropes, Brooks & Dunn’s modern honky-tonk aesthetic, a little of Wynonna’s R&B inflection: They’re all here, and they’re all glorious. What elevates the single is that Hedley’s choices aren’t simple exercises in mimicry or pastiche. From the conviction in his lovelorn performance to the prominent twang in the arrangement, everything is in-service to brilliantly written song. As country radio takes at least a few steps in a more traditional direction, “Neon Blue” wouldn’t even sound terribly out of place, but for its superior quality to the likes of Rhett and Aldean. A.
ZK: Like Jonathan says, if we’re going to call this a ’90s country throwback, we have to be specific in pinpointing its origins. “Neon Blue” is a raucous barn-burner that feels like a long-lost Garth Brooks or Joe Diffie song, and for a heartbreak tune, it offers a surprisingly good time and fun listen. I think for me, it’s Joshua Hedley himself that holds this back. He doesn’t quite possess the same smooth rollick or natural charisma as either aforementioned artist, and I can’t say this outdoes its source material in other ways, either. Good, but not quite great. B.
KJC: Right now I’m fully immersed in two projects for Country Universe: the ongoing nineties No. 1 country singles feature noted above, and a Pam Tillis catalog ranking that’s deep in the planning stages. So both the virtues and limitations of how nineties country records were structured are very prevalent in my mind.
“Neon Blue” sounds great in a contemporary context, but held up against the era it’s referencing, it feels derivative to me. I don’t think that the lyrical framework is strong enough to carry the record. It reminds me of the material that hat acts had access to starting out, and not necessarily the ones who broke through. What makes it edge forward a bit more for me is Hedley’s performance, which isn’t pitch perfect but has that emotional commitment that I prefer over pitch perfect anyway.
It would be a major upgrade for country radio in 2022, and that’s for sure. B
Written by Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Decilveo, and Caitlyn Smith
ZK: I did not know this was a Miley Cyrus cover when I nominated it for this feature, but whether it’s just a fun one-off moment or the lead single to Caitlyn Smith’s next project, “High” feels like it straddles the balance between restraint and power-country-pop bombast much better than anything on 2020’s Supernova. The more noticeable country elements in the thick acoustic strumming on the first verse and touches of fiddle throughout really help flesh out the melody well, and they can go step-for-step with the rougher electric guitar snarls that give this song some surprising potency and heft, especially on that hook; this has some welcome kick to it.
Granted, pure passion has never been a lacking element in Smith’s songs, and while this is your typical heartbreak track about being haunted by an old flame even in spite of one’s very best intentions to move on, this has the pure, stomping power to justify its intensity. A-.
KJC: I love the passion of this record, and the contrast of the arena rock chorus with the traditional country folk verses. Smith has a great set of pipes, and as Jonathan notes below, she elevates her Miley Cyrus co-write to a higher level with her vocal interpretation and its surrounding production.
Kudos to Cyrus for having the good taste to write with Smith. A pox on the house of country radio for keeping Smith toiling in the background as a songwriter when she should be on the radio, front and center. B+
JK: To address the MILEY! angle: The original version of “High” was an album track on Cyrus’ Plastic Hearts, the pop star’s foray into early 90s rock. Cyrus is a powerful and evocative singer with the worst diction in pop music– she enunciates the song’s title as, “hoo-ah,” not far off from Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman performance– so her rendition, while still quite good, never fulfills the potential of the song itself.
Her co-writer, Caitlyn Smith, rectifies that. Smith’s never sounded as fully in control of her voice as she does here, delivering a performance of range, control, and passion that’s as impressive as any I’ve heard from a mainstream country star in a decade. Her reading of the song’s verses is mournful and heady (the twinge of bitterness when she sings, “You, like a neon light / Shining through a door that a can’t keep closed,” is especially fraught), only to explode into a wail of swirling emotions in the chorus.
Smith’s powerhouse singing is matched by the production. “High” is a song about intrusive thoughts, and it’s structurally perfect how the first dynamic shift comes out of nowhere. Smith’s backed by a fairly limited arrangement when the song opens; a full choir’s worth of harmony vocal tracks and a thundering percussion line hit in the middle of a word in the first chorus, transforming the song into something entirely different than what it had been up until that point. From there, it takes off melodically and dynamically, and it’s all simply extraordinary. Smith has taken a song she co-wrote for one of the biggest stars in pop music and roped it back into the country genre where it truly belongs, and we’re all the luckier for it. A.
Written by Sam Hunt, Chris LaCorte, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne
KJC: David Nail has this amazing song called “That’s How I’ll Remember You,” and it more effectively captures what Sam Hunt is going for on “23.”
Nail leans into the nostalgia and the freezing of a love’s memory at its most beautiful time, and he does it without mucking up the sentiment with bitter asides that suggest “you’ll never be happy without me and they’ll never really accept you in the city anyway, Mississippi Girl.”
For every line I loved in this one, another made me wince. I think that makes it my favorite Sam Hunt single to date? C-
JK: The two trademarks of Sam Hunt’s career are the shamelessness of his cultural appropriation and the massive chip on his shoulder. The entry we’ll discuss next actually lays bare the hackery of his entire aesthetic, which has been embraced by a whole lot of critics who should know better since he first half-rapped his way the the top of the charts. That element of Hunt’s schtick has become so entrenched within the country mainstream that a record like “23” doesn’t sound identifiable as Hunt’s in the way it might have seven years ago.
As for his latent bitterness, most often expressed as outright misogyny, well, that’s still here. And, again, our next entry proves that it’s a choice and a liability. There’s a nastiness to some of Hunt’s asides on this that doesn’t add any emotional complexity to an otherwise uneventful slice of nostalgia; it just reaffirms that part of Hunt’s artistic persona is that he’s kind of a dick. “23,” to that end, is neither here nor there in the context of his catalogue. Maybe he’s grumpy that songs as whateverish as this have transformed him from someone poised, however inexplicably, for superstardom into just another interchangeable square-jawed, marginal talent on Music Row’s B-list. C-.
ZK: I’ve never been a Hunt fan, and this single doesn’t really change that, even if it’s far from his worst and actually boasts some nice atmospheric textures in the production and a surprisingly strong groove. It’s just that it’s balanced out by overmixed synthetic percussion and an overdone reflection of a past summer romance that, yes, may be more detailed than your average stab at this type of song, but with Hunt that’s never a good thing. As Kevin notes, the bitter asides tossed in remain trademarks of his work and are never welcome. I think what surprises me more is how nondescript this sounds for Hunt and the complete lack of buzz for this as a whole. He used to annoy me back in the day, but I’m comfortable just calling this forgettable. C-
“Whatever You’re Up For”
The Kentucky Gentlemen
Written by Brandon Campbell, Dylan Campbell, Ty March, Chris Sligh, and Paul Wrock
JK: The production is square in the middle of what country radio sounds like right now: The looped rhythm track with occasional flourishes of traditional instrumentation to indicate the radio format that’s being courted. The Kentucky Gentlemen, for their part, sound fully at-ease with the half-singing cadences here. There’s a warmth to their delivery that surprises and distinguishes them from the more robotic performers– see Hunt, Sam, above– who have popularized this style. What further distinguishes “Whatever You Like” and makes it a winning introduction to this duo is how the song center’s the preferences of the woman they’re singing to. She’s allowed to be a complete person, whose desires are asked rather than assumed or dictated, on this record, and it’s a refreshing counterpoint to what country music has been saying about women for over a decade now. It isn’t the best single I’ve heard so far in 2022, but it’s maybe the one that I’m rooting for the hardest to catch fire at radio. B.
ZK: There’s no reason why this shouldn’t catch on at modern country radio, which is a two-fold statement statement. On one hand, I wish literally everything here wasn’t pushed to the front of the mix, but above it all the duo members have an easy, likable charm that elevates an otherwise average lyric (though, as Jonathan notes, the framing is crucial here in establishing its likability). This was another new discovery for me, and I’m glad for that. B.
KJC: This is the kind of radio filler I could get behind. It’s a capable genre exercise that incorporates country and R&B elements seamlessly, and the Gentlemen have charm and personality to spare.
I want to hear their stab at something more substantive. At every moment of this record, I felt they were doing something that they could knock out in their sleep. B
“You Asked Me To”
Jesse Daniel featuring Jody Lyford
Written by Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver
ZK: Waylon Jennings’ softer side, ironic as it may sound, provided most of my favorite songs of his, and both Jesse Daniel and Jodi Lyford turn in a respectable cover of a song that doesn’t seem to receive the same love as Jennings’ other well-known songs (Nanci Griffith knew what was up, though). Truthfully, I’m still waiting for Daniel to come into his own as a vocalist, and I can’t even say this beats a recent Shannon McNally cover of the same song. But in trading in that signature backbeat for brighter acoustics and welcome pedal steel, fiddle and dobro, it’s certainly the most chipper one I’ve heard, adding a levity that’s still valid for a serious sentiment. It’s almost more conversational in the way Daniel and Lyford trade off one another’s parts. The old feels new yet again. B-.
KJC: There was this stretch of time where it felt compulsory for country acts to cover “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” Some acquitted themselves just fine, while others transcended the original and made it their own.
Daniel doesn’t aim any higher than acquittal here, and he doesn’t quite get there. It’s competent and his heart is in the right place, but it just makes me want to go listen to the original instead. C
JK: Daniel falls into the category of Americana acts I feel like I’m supposed to like a lot more than I actually do, and, as Zack noted above, that’s largely a function of feeling like he still hasn’t settled on either a singing or artistic voice. He’s a promising enough talent that I’m confident he’ll yet get there, but this cover still leaves me cold. If anything, he’s shown up by Lyford in a jarring way. That said, I love the instinct to choose to cover this song at all. C+
“Til You Can’t”
Written by Matthew Rogers and Benjamin Stennis
KJC: This is what Paul Overstreet would’ve sounded like if he thought he was Chris Stapleton.
All of the appreciation for family and true love and intimacy are there in the verses, and the chorus itself would hold up just fine if he wasn’t screaming it.
Tim McGraw is listening to this somewhere and thinking, “That’s over the top, man.” B-
JK: I’m not mad that this has turned into a hit for Johnson, a veteran of the Texas scene I’ve gone to bat for on more than one occasion when we’ve done our “If We Ran the CMAs…” posts. Johnson is wildly out of his depth with what he’s trying to accomplish vocally here, but, other than Stapleton, there really aren’t any other great vocalists among the men who routinely get major airplay. So, for better or worse, the record stands out. A generation ago, I would have shrugged off Craig Morgan’s over-singing in much the same way. At least you tried, I guess? B-.
ZK: See, I get the point about it being overly intense – and I’m normally not even that big of a fan of Johnson’s work. But for me, while I’ve heard this sort of inspirational song plenty of times before (especially in recent years, given … oh, let’s just summarize it nicely as “events”), there’s a real urgency to Johnson’s delivery, where I believe he’s going to give it his all until he can’t any longer. It’s actually the passion that somewhat works for me and, at the very least, makes this one of the few bright spots at radio right now. B+