A Shakespearean ballad from Emily Scott Robinson and a resurrected classic from Jo Dee Messina are the consensus picks from this batch. You can listen to all of this edition’s entries here.
“That’s How Love is Made”
The War and Treaty
Written by Dave Barnes, Michael Trotter Jr., and Tanya Trotter
JK: I’ve been amazed by Tanya (Blount) Trotter’s voice since she sang Lauryn Hill the whole way off this piano bench, and her performance on this ballad is nothing short of riveting. The harmonies with her husband, Michael, are intricately arranged, highlighting the vocal interplay that makes The War & Treaty one of the finest duos in the country music space.
As for the song itself? It’s all right. It’s certainly of a piece with co-writer Dave Barnes’ best-known hit, “God Gave Me You,” a hit for Blake Shelton a full decade ago, in the sense that it paints an adult relationship with a very broad brush that supports the kind of vocal bombast that The War & Treaty bring to the table. Now that they’re signed to a major label on Music Row, it will be interesting to see if this single actually gets the same kind of push to radio that is given to every mediocre white man with a half-grown mullet and a sleeveless shirt. It would immediately be one of the best things on country radio if so. B+
ZK: This is one of those rare instances where “pleasantly safe” is still really, really damn great. A soulful love song; something more and nothing less. And, as Jonathan noted, it’ll be interesting to see if this gets the same push as your average boyfriend country track that opts for this same theme but can’t nail the same swell or flair. We’re heading into the months when big ballads like this have a chance to fare better on the charts; this deserves the chance to succeed. B+
KJC: This record makes me wish Charlie Rich had done more duets back in the day. The War and Treaty have too much heart and soul for this to end up the generic ballad that it could’ve been in lesser hands. They remain one of the most promising duos in country music. B+
“Built On Bones”
Emily Scott Robinson
Written by Alisa Amador, Violet Bell, and Emily Scott Robinson
ZK: Emily Scott Robinson sliding into witchy territory for a Halloween-inspired side project really doesn’t come across as much of a surprise – not when you consider what she did with last year’s excellent American Siren.
But, I mean, it’s still awesome, especially when she and collaborators Alisa Amador and Violet Bell have the sort of soft-spoken, echoing tone that could be described as haunting – literally. More specifically, this is the start of a song cycle for the Witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, so the idea of a songwriter creating her own prophecy and nailing the creaking ominous tension with not only bloodstained content, but also a tense restraint eventually fleshed-out by strings and violin, is just magnificent. How her version plays out remains to be seen, but this is right up my alley. A
KJC: Haunting and evocative, “Built On Bones” is a perfect showcase for Robinson’s compelling storytelling. It’s a dark and somber warning for the future, acknowledging just how ugly our past is and reminding us that the past is prologue. Who knew Macbeth could still be so relevant today? A
JK: There’s a rampant streak of anti-intellectualism among some of country music’s would-be gatekeepers, and what a moment for the just-brilliant Emily Scott Robinson to come along with a rebuttal like this. I love how she’s adopted the structure of a traditional dirge here. It’s the perfect choice, really, for a study in how we might try to be done with the past, but the past is never truly done with us. The way that Robinson has layered her vocal track with those of Amador and Bell is another spot-on decision, too, for how it invokes the spirit of how the Wayward Sisters’ lines are often delivered most effectively. This is of a piece with Kathryn Hunter’s riveting performance in director Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, and what a stirring reminder that country music, at its best, can and should be approached with the same rigor as any other art form. A
“Music City’s Killing Me”
Julie Roberts and Jamey Johnson
Written by Ray LaMontagne
KJC: If this was 2008, this duet would shut down the entire country music blogosphere like it was the Texas Grid on an unseasonably cool day.
It brings together two underappreciated artists from that era. You know, the tail end of the days where artists were expected to be able to sing well and to be distinguishable from one another.
Their voices are the perfect vehicle for this weary industry weeper, with Roberts fully settled into the smoky vocals that were once so far beyond her years. Johnson’s vocals still sound like they are somehow from twenty years in the past and twenty years in the future.
They sound like two legends swapping stories at a roadside bar on their way out of town, and it’s pretty darn glorious. B+.
JK: What a smart choice of a cover song this is, uprooting Ray LaMontagne’s NYC-set original and relocating it to Music City, which has never done right by either of these artists. Fifteen years ago, I never would’ve envisioned Roberts and Johnson as duet partners, but I just love how the unique timbres of their voices actually compliment each other. As someone who championed Roberts right from the jump– her terrific self-titled debut has two of the absolute finest singles of the aughts, and her sophomore set was an even more cohesive, moody record– I’m delighted to hear her bluesy drawl on a song like this. And hell, I’m delighted to hear something new from Johnson at all. And credit to Shooter Jennings, whose solo work I really haven’t found impressive, for the spot-on production choices, too. This one’s a winner: A
ZK: With the bar set extremely high for songs about the soul-sucking entity that is the country music industry, you’d think this would enter that lane with that title.
So it’s actually a little disappointing that it doesn’t and is merely just a cover. Maybe it’s because it’s more of a straightforward breakup song, where Nashville is just the setting for where the heartbreak happens and the references, though fitting in needing to escape the noise and drive back to the country for solitude, just don’t quite have the same level of detail because of how obviously interchangeable that setting is in the writing. I actually do think this works better as a duet and that both Roberts and Johnson have surprisingly good chemistry together – two singers who’ve proven before that they can sell weary resignation well – but this is more in the “like but don’t love” category for me. B-
Last Bandoleros and Hannah Brier
Written by Orville Burrell, Jerry Fuentes, Shane Hoosong, Derek James,
Hannah Kierszenbaum, Martin Kierszenbaum, Diego Navaira, and Emilio Navaira
JK: I’ve enjoyed every single I’ve heard by Last Bandoleros: “Where Do You Go,” which split the difference between the country-Tejano genre-blurring of The Mavericks and the expert power-pop of peak-era Fountains Of Wayne, even made my year-end and decade-end ballots here. But they’re a difficult band to nail down, aesthetically, and “California Moon” is another pivot. It’s surprising to see that a song as straightforward and conventional as this one has a whopping nine songwriters credited, but perhaps that contributes to the relative anonymity of this, at least in comparison to the band’s more personality-forward work to date.
It’s not a bad song or performance at all, and the interplay between the ellbees and Brier is actually quite lovely. It’s just a somewhat rote, right-down-the-middle Americana song that, but for some Spanish guitar work, sounds like everything Dave Cobb has produced in the last decade, rather than one of the most interesting bands in the country space: B.
ZK: Wow, it’s been a long time since I came across this name. A damn shame, too; these guys have felt horribly mismanaged since their debut …
… which showed a far more distinctive side to this band than what we get with their newest single, a soulless attempt at atmospheric Tejano pop complete with that damned snap track and synthetic backing vocals that aim for edgy but come up hollow instead. I’m glad to see they haven’t completely abandoned the Spanish flourishes in the guitar work or content, but this sounds like a pivot toward something more mainstream – which, for the record, I don’t typically use as an automatic pejorative. But considering this band already had the melodic chops and hooks to be accessible (five years later, I can still break out into “Get me HIGHER” from “Fly With You” like it’s muscle memory), I’m just left wondering who this is really for. C-
KJC: This would’ve been a solid alternative top forty radio hit back in the mid-nineties, nestled nicely between the latest records from Lisa Loeb and Blessid Union of Souls. In 2022, it’s a pleasant throwback, even if the only memorable element of it is the Spanish guitar woven throughout. The rest is background music for a Fox primetime soap opera montage. C
Written by Gabe Lee
ZK: We didn’t discuss him too long ago, but now Gabe Lee is gearing up to release a new project of his own, so there’s even more reason to get excited. I will say, though, that this wasn’t quite the pivot I expected for him to make following his previous work – a track with all of the bones of an anthemic heartland rock ballad about growing up and learning more and more about yourself and the world along the way.
A pretty familiar template – hell, for rock and country – but the beauty with Lee’s work always comes in the lived-in, observational details that actually make his scenarios feel fully fleshed-out. It almost reminds me of Steve Earle’s “Someday,” only the fire has been somewhat tempered here as Lee takes greater stock of himself and his journey left ahead. I’m not wild about the echo placed on his usually expressive howl that somewhat buries him in the mix, but I can also get using it to note the distance between his past and where he’s at now. Only time will tell if it’s more feature than flaw, but for now, it’s more solid than rusty. B
KJC: So many stylistic throwbacks in this batch! Gabe Lee gets his Steve Earle on here, though as Jonathan notes below, Lee’s a stronger vocalist, so we get some actual melody and range on Lee’s record. No new ground is broken on “Rusty,” but Lee’s performance is anything but. B+
JK: I mean it as the highest of praise that, while so many are attempting to ape the style of 90s country, “Mister” Gabe Lee has come along here and pulled off a throwback to both the form and content of 90s alt-country. There’s a lo-fi raggedness to the production here that favorably recalls the sounds of Old 97s, Slobberbone, and Son Volt in a way that appeals to me, specifically, maybe more than it ought to, given that there isn’t much of a contemporary update to that style on “Rusty.”
But that also fits with the song’s overall message of feeling past one’s sell-by date, so I’m inclined to say that the mimicry works in context. That Lee absolutely sings the hell out of it, helps: He’s a far superior vocalist to, say, Jay Farrar or Steve Earle, and his connection to this message sounds fully lived-in. This isn’t up to the same standard as “Common Law,” which we just raved about, but I’ll take this a thousand times over the latest by Luke Combs or Blake Shelton. A-
“Heads Carolina, Tails California”
Jo Dee Messina
Written by Tim Nichols and Mark D. Sanders
The successful reservicing of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” to pop and rock formats must have been inspiring to Curb Records, as they have sent Jo Dee Messina’s debut hit back to country radio in the wake of the Cole Swindell hit, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina.”
That’s a good record in and of itself, but ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby. Messina’s debut record captures the kinetic energy that would become her signature style, and it still fires on all cylinders 26 years after its initial chart run. So many memorable lines, many of which will simply confuse those with no functional memory before Google Maps.
How awesome that this particular song, which was overshadowed by the massive success of her sophomore project, is getting another moment in the sun. It deserves it. A
JK: I’m not convinced this is actually going to re-chart, and I’d love to see country radio take a Mulligan on songs that weren’t already hits in the first place. Let’s give programmers another shot at Julie Reeves’ “Trouble Is A Woman” or Mandy Barnett’s “Now That’s All Right With Me” while we’re at it.
But, for sake of argument, this is a straight-up classic single, and rightfully so. As Kevin recently had occasion to post, I’d say it’s Messina’s second-best single, behind “I’m Alright,” but her top-tier hits were truly some of the finest of their era. What I love about this particular song is the joy in Messina’s delivery. She has a limited range as a vocalist, both technically and as a performer, but “Heads Carolina” was in the dead center of her wheelhouse at her first at-bat. It’s a song about embracing what if, and Messina sings it like she wasn’t taking her shot for granted. A
ZK: I’m not sure whether I find it tremendously sad, comical, or awesome that country music’s “sound” of the 20s thus far has been an attempt at a ’90s country revival. “Attempt” is the key word there, given that most outings haven’t been successful. But, as we already said before, what makes Cole Swindell’s tribute to this Jo Dee Messina classic work is that it serves as more than a cheap namedrop and actually wraps itself around a storytelling narrative.
And really, that’s why the original is so damn great, too. Messina’s urgency to just get the hell out of Dodge and find happiness where she pleases is just as euphoric now as it was in that golden age. It’s joyful, but it’s also a little unsure of itself … and Messina is going to lean into it all anyway, come hell or high water. I don’t predict this will do much the second time around – Nashville is kind of like Nintendo, in that it wants its fans to remember and reminisce but doesn’t actually want them going back to the classics – but I’m sure glad to be talking about it again. A