Nineties superstars rub elbows with rising artists on the latest single review roundup.
“The Man Was Burning”
Traditional, with Additional Lyrics Written by Jake Blount
JK: Look, I’m a sucker for handclaps: I once did an entire installment of my college radio show entirely of songs with prominent handclaps, and let me tell you, it was a glorious two hours.
Here, Blount uses handclaps to give a deceptively jaunty backing to a single that’s otherwise structured as a traditional blues dirge, and it works brilliantly. The minimalism of the arrangement of “The Man Was Burning” keeps the focus on Blount’s contemporary update of the song’s narrative of Biblical retribution. Blount’s interpretation imagines the atrocities witnessed when a vengeful God went down to Georgia, laying waste to greed-driven blasphemers, and it makes for an of-the-moment political allegory and cautionary tale for those who attempt to weaponize faith for earthly gain. What Blount has done here is a perfect example of bringing traditional music into the present with a real sense of purpose and musicality. A
ZK: The first of two songs reviewed here today to center around the dangers of weaponized faith, and by simply adding to a traditional song that already still feels relevant for the modern day, Jake Blount just may have made the better one. Sure, the upbeat handclaps may detract from the song’s darker overtones, but if you’re going to communicate a real message, best to do it in a way that doesn’t sacrifice its musicality to get there. Another new name for me that I’m happy to add to my rotation. A-
KJC: The entertaining and engaging production demonstrates the power of a pop flourish, even when the record remains grounded in a simple presentation. Blount’s revival of “The Man is Burning” takes a timeless song that is unfortunately quite timely in its resurrection. A
“Sweet Little Girl”
Written by Kelsey Waldon
ZK: It looks like Kelsey Waldon is stacking the deck ahead of her upcoming No Regular Dog album, bringing in Shooter Jennings on production – who, as an aside, has been quietly killing it in that lane over the past few years. And matching her very old-school timbre and already established traditional sound with his smoked-out textures that can call to mind an older era without necessarily feeling beholden to it feels almost too natural of a fit.
It helps that Jennings’ own production is getting warmer and richer with every act he produces, and that there’s a healthy emphasis on that cutting fiddle line to match Waldon’s more haggard delivery here. She’s got the firepower and subtle swagger to make this song feel bigger than what the text may show at first – a broadly sketched yet still familiar picture of a small-town raised woman who takes to writing songs and singing country and bluegrass music as well as indulging in some hard living when there isn’t much else to do in town, especially with the further implications of a bad childhood feeding into that soul-searching. I do wish this song had a bridge or maybe a final verse to better flesh out the story a bit more, but as it is, this is an excellent first step for what’s ahead. A-
KJC: It’s difficult to pull off a song that is both melodic and conversational, but Kesley Waldon pulls off that rare combination quite well on “Sweet Little Girl.” It sounds trite after all these years to talk about country music being “three chords and the truth.” Still, “Sweet Little Girl” sees small town life in 2022 with clear eyes, observing the possibilities and limitations that lay ahead for a girl from such a town, who is using all of her strength to keep “daddy’s money out of her arm,” but still fully intends on getting drunk and high to help the day go by. B+
JK: As a fellow Kentuckian, I’ve been biased in favor of Kelsey Waldon from the jump, and it’s gratifying to see her stature grow to the point that she’s been able to draw in some killer collaborators like Aida Victoria and, here, Shooter Jennings. While I’ve never been a fan of Jennings’ own recordings, I’ll gladly co-sign Zack’s observation that he’s come into his own as a producer of other artists’ records, and the balance between lo-fi grit and Outlaw-era twang is perfectly matched to Waldon’s persona. What I love about her delivery here is how unapologetic she sounds about the dichotomy between her immediate desires and the social pressures for women to present themselves as unassuming and demure. She’s a singer of deceptive power, and she deploys that to such terrific effect on this record. Her forthcoming album is one of my most anticipated for this quarter, and this single only stokes that excitement. A
“Catching Up With an Ol’ Memory”
Written by George Birge, Jaron Boyer, Lalo Guzman, and Clay Walker
KJC: Rediscovering Clay Walker has been one of the joys of the Every #1 Single of the Nineties feature. He’s such a distinctive, talented vocalist, and his hit records allowed that talent to shine.
Lyrically, “Catching Up With an Ol’ Memory” is on point. Its vivid imagery and compelling character work are all Walker needed for a classic country record. So why is he being produced like he’s one of those guys that needs production bells and whistles to sound good? Who thought an artificial-sounding drum track was the way to go?
If he recut this with a simple, straightforward country production, with his still-stellar voice front and center, it would be an easy A. As is, B-.
JK: Oh, hell, Clay Walker is singing over that same goddamn snap track that country radio has run into the ground for at least four years now. To quote poor doomed Gollum: IT BURNS. IT BURNS US.
If nothing else, this highlights how much better a vocalist Walker was and is in comparison to all of the men currently dominating radio playlists. None of them actually sound as good singing over this kind of sludgy arrangement as Walker does here. The song itself would have been in Walker’s mid-tier in his commercial prime– as Kevin noted, the 90s #1 feature has prompted me to reconsider how great Walker actually was– but that’s still better than whatever HARDY or “Bitches” Tenpenny or Niko Moon or whoever else are bleating out. But that just means Walker is casually stepping over a bar that’s been set on the floor, when he’s capable of a gold medal high jump. C
ZK: I’ve been disappointed in Clay Walker ever since his return with 2019’s Long Live the Cowboy, so this acting as more of the same doesn’t really surprise me, sadly. He was an excellent singles artist in his heyday, but the buck stops here. This wouldn’t even be so bad if the production wasn’t so overbearing; I’ve heard cleaner Thomas Rhett songs than this.
Still, looking at it from a distance to examine the core underneath the crud – a tried-and-true heartbreak waltz – this is decent, possibly even good in the right mood or compared to its competition. It’s just not “Clay Walker good,” you know? C+
“Whose God is This?”
Written by Will Hoge
JK: I love how twangy and traditional the arrangement of “Whose God Is This?” is, considering that the song exists as a self-conscious rejection of the genre’s reputation for knee-jerk conservatism. For however much I love a good wiseass, though, there are elements of “Whose God Is This?” that are just too on-the-nose. There are lines here that absolutely land– the chorus, pitched as a plea from a frustrated bartender, is just terrific, as is, “He said he’s here with Jesus/But Jesus just shook his head no”– while others are preaching to the proverbial choir. Hoge is a fantastic singer-songwriter, and while I’m sure I agree with his premise here, the song itself isn’t one that holds up to repeat listens after the punchlines have landed or missed the first time. B-
ZK: It’s been a very long time since I found Hoge’s work even remotely tolerable, so I guess him playing coy with this mischievous, humorous ode to the dangers of weaponized religion is my favorite thing he’s done in a while. The general conceit and setup is actually pretty hilarious and reveals a lot of truths, but like most of Hoge’s late-career work, it can also feel ham-fisted in places and could have afforded an edit to trim things down. All in all, though, surprisingly enjoyable. B.
KJC: Organized religion that is explicitly or implicitly endorsed by the state can be a vehicle for bigotry, greed, and violence. The Christian nationalist version of God being presented her as the exception instead of the rule shows historical ignorance on Hoge’s part, and it undermines the critique he is trying to make. American Christianity didn’t start being bloody and violent and fueled by hate in 1952, and those traits are not exclusive to America, Christianity, or the last eighty years. But it’s easier to point at this version of religion and call it a perverted anomaly of what Christianity is, rather than truly wrestle with why, over and over again, the pairing of religion and power leads to persecution of the minority and the use of God to justify abhorrent actions and beliefs. As is, “Whose God is This” just exists to make left-leaning Christians feel better about their faith by dissociating it from its current far-right practitioners. C
“Broken Neon Hearts”
Written by Ronnie Dunn, Thomas Perkins, and Matt Willis
ZK: This is an upbeat “Neon Moon,” and is that really such a bad thing? Really, considering how many pivots Ronnie Dunn has taken with his solo career – often for the worse or, at the very least, the weird – this feels like a return to form that complements his terrific bellow well. It’s pretty by-the-numbers as far as country songs set in bars go, but between the appreciated kick in the production and, again, Dunn himself, it’s still a winner. B.
KJC: Ronne Dunn’s the best honky tonk singer of his generation, so he’s always going to sound right at home when singing about heartbroke barflies. He’s also always going to navigate comparisons to “Neon Moon,” which is the best honky tonk song of the last three decades or so. He makes a lot of great choices here, with the country instrumentation dominating over the electric guitars that make their presence known without overwhelming the steel guitar that drives the record. Nothing groundbreaking, but it sure does sound good. B
JK: To get technical for a moment: Dunn’s phrasing on this is masterful. There’s a line break at the end of the chorus (“The music plays/And the healing starts/For the lonesome blue/Broken neon hearts”), and Dunn holds his note on the word “blue” to span that break and retain the natural meter of the complete phrase. A lesser singer– say, any rando currently getting major radio play– would take a breath at the line break, and this is such a perfect example of what has made Ronnie Dunn one of country music’s finest vocalists for thirty-odd years now.
As for the rest of this? It’s fine. It’s no “Cost of Livin’” in terms of Dunn’s solo output goes, but it’s solid and includes some well-turned phrases to elevate a familiar premise. The production has a heft that Dunn has the firepower to match, though I will say there’s some noticeable AutoTune on his lower notes that I found at least a little distracting. Still, for Dunn to sound as great as he does here at this point in his career is a marvel. Zack correctly pegged this as an uptempo and lesser “Neon Moon” redux, but that’s a really not terrible aspiration. B+
“Heart Like a Truck”
Written by Trannie Anderson, Dallas Wilson, and Lainey Wilson
KJC: I winced at the title. Still feeling PTSD from “Body Like a Backroad,” I guess.
But Wilson delivers here, effectively using the metaphor of a truck to describe a heart that’s been beaten down but is still beating strong.
I wish they’d stuck with the simple and clean production all the way through. It loses its way a bit toward the end, with a particularly unnecessary electric guitar that feels out of place.
Wilson sounds great from start to finish though, and I’m curious to hear more from her now. B+
JK: Wilson’s two for two thus far on her solo singles, and she sure sounds like an artist who’s going to be around for a good long while. I actually think this is a step up from “Things A Man Ought to Know” in terms of the management of the central metaphor over the full duration of the song, and it certainly makes a better showcase for the full range of Wilson’s vocal ability. While I don’t know that the belting she does in the final refrain is really in service to this particular song, she shows an easy power in her delivery and a commitment to her performance. I cannot wait to see how she continues to develop, because there’s a world of potential in this surefire hit. B+
ZK: Well, now I’m just imagining this as the prequel to Julie Roberts’ “Break Down Here,” which is an overall compliment. I agree that the production gets a bit wonky in places – I’m usually a sucker for strings, but they come in out of nowhere toward the end and feel like an odd fit overall for a song trying to expose its rougher edges. But leave it to a female songwriter to make a song about a truck in 2022 interesting, and even insert one of the few odes to dirt roads worth a damn with that siren song line. B+