Our ninth roundup of the year touches on a wide range of country music styles.
“Hour on the Hour”
Mike and the Moonpies
Written by Mike Harmeier and Adam Odor
ZK: I love this recent trend of independent artists saying “screw it” and releasing singles to mainstream country radio, just to see what happens. “Hour on the Hour” was an easy highlight on Mike and the Moonpie’s One to Grow On album from last year, a sad-sack heartache track in which Mike Hermier is the star of the show – well, on top of that fantastic pedal steel and bass interplay, that is. But really, for such a well-worn, timeless concept, Hermier sells being haunted by a former love through a song he hears played every hour on the hour on the radio with one of his most passionate performances yet.
He’s the kind of character you can’t help but feel sympathetic for, given that he keeps trying to move on and just can’t. And it all eventually leads to that incredibly passionate crescendo on the bridge that continues to amaze me with every revisit. A
KJC: I have to echo Zack’s praise for the pedal steel here. I would’ve loved this single even if it was just an instrumental track. I’m always a sucker for songs about songs, and how they can trigger your memories against your will. Intentional or not, there’s also some sly commentary about radio playlists here, which repeat the same dozen or so songs every hour.
Hermier sings the hell out of it, too, and while he doesn’t have the control of Dwight Yoakam, his phrasing is reminiscent of Yoakam’s early hits. If this was what was playing every hour on the hour, I might get into country radio again. B+
JK: I love that they’re sending this to radio; I would’ve loved even more if they’d tried the same with a single off their fantastic tribute album to Gary Stewart. Still, this crew is always in the mix for the title of best active band in country music, and they’re in top form here. The dig at narrow playlists is fully deserved, and how much less of a landfill inferno would country radio be if it made room for singles exactly like this one instead of adhering to “MAX SPINS!!!!” ads in Country Aircheck that rotate weekly among long-predetermined, manufactured hits no one will remember in a year? A-
“Bonfire at Tina’s”
Ashley McBryde featuring Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti
Written by Brandy Clark, Benjy Davis, Connie Harrington, Nicolette Hayford, Ashley McBryde, and Aaron Raitiere
KJC: The most compelling tracks on Lindeville are the ones that lean into the small town concept and gather the townsfolk together. So much context is packed into such economical songwriting: “Small town women aren’t built to get along. But you burn one, boy, you burn us all.” Two lines and you get a window into the entire town dynamic.
McBryde holds court brilliantly, and she’s surrounded by high caliber talent. Brandy Clark’s sensibility is all over this project,and it’s a treat to have her on the mic. The whole thing gives me the kind of chills I got from “The Hard Way” and “Can’t Stop the Girl” all those years ago. A
JK: All of the soundalike men who clog radio playlists Mike & The Moonpies were just talking about? Haven’t STFU about proverbial small towns in what feels like a lifetime, and, despite their insistence on the virtues of those places, they’ve rarely, if ever, imparted a real sense of humanity for the living and breathing people who live there. Ashley McBryde and the women of Lindeville lay bare that failure with a single riveting line that deserves to be repeated here in its entirety: “Small town women aren’t built to get along / But you burn, one, boy, you burn us all.”
In a world where the country music industry hadn’t spent the last two decades doubling-down on open contempt for women with interior lives and independent agency, the soaring chorus and perfectly constructed hook would make “Bonfire at Tina’s” one of the year’s biggest hits. Alas, Lindeville might exist in some multiverse timeline, but it’s a work of fiction in this one. So, instead, this will go down as one of the year’s best and most important and ignored singles, a treatise on how contemporary feminism isn’t always about burning down the patriarchy but is just as much about women who are sick to death of men’s bullshit getting together to “light it up” in solidarity. A
ZK: Ah, a huge comical fuck-all played seriously as a cathartic high as neighborhood women get together to blow off steam – what’s not to love? I agree that this the brilliant climax of Ashley McBryde’s recent project, which in reality, belongs as much to her collaborators as it does to her, hence why this get-together actually has some real stakes to it. Brilliantly huge hook and all … hell, just light it up. A
“Catch & Release”
Written by Aaron Allen, Billy Strings, and Jon Weisberger
JK: As his name-recognition has grown, it would’ve been easy for Billy Strings to take his prog-grass in more accessible directions to gain even broader appeal. Instead, he’s pivoted to a more traditional Bluegrass sound on a project with his dad. He’s a keeper, this kid. “Catch & Release” is one of two new singles released more or less concurrently– the other is a cover of “Long Journey Home” that is at once terrific and nowhere near as good as Miko Marks’ rendition from just a year ago– and it’s as catchy as anything he’s ever committed to record. Hat tip to country music critic slash singer-songwriter Jon Weisberger for the co-write here, too, on a song that captures all of the best ways that Strings is steeped in genre know-how while still sounding like a once-in-this-generation talent. A-
ZK: Really, for me, the weirder this guy gets, the more I love him. So I wasn’t sure what to make of a pivot toward more traditional bluegrass on 2021’s Renewal, and I knew even less what to make of him making a defiantly traditional album with his dad, even it is heartwarming as hell.
And with “Catch & Release,” we kind of get the best of both worlds, a muted, straight down-the-middle, rollicking, acoustic-pickin’ spoken-word tune that has the rapid conversational lyrical flow and storytelling flow of, say, a long-lost Tom T. Hall gem … just, you know, mixed with plenty of drug references; you do gotta love this kid. Funny and heartwarming, yet again. A-
KJC: I get the best kind of Todd Snider vibes from this track, where the humor comes from vividly drawn characters in an offbeat storyline. Billy Strings has musical chops to spare, and he could easily be successful on a more traditional bluegrass path. That he’s choosing to be so idiosyncratic instead makes him far more compelling as an artist. A-
“Middle of a Heart”
Adeem the Artist
Written by Adeem the Artist and Kyle Bingham
ZK: Adeem the Artist’s steady hand in examining their own identity through recent work has resulted in some truly moving material, and in looking outward this time around, they amplify that same empathetic scope that’s always bolstered their writing perspective. And they do so by honoring a real-life friend who, though self-admittedly different from them in nearly every regard, is still a human shaped by personal experiences – familiar ones here, like learning how to hunt with his father, get married, and go off to war.
But they’re milestones of life with actual weight behind them, from taking an animal’s life to taking responsibility for someone else’s life … and then actually taking another’s life; the ending is expected, but still brutal.
They’re all themes we’ve heard sung about in country songs before, but never quite with this much of a connective tissue or in ways that reveal the fuller scope of what coming into one’s own really means, personal consequences of how it shapes us and all. And though expected that this song leans heavily on more straightforward, traditional production, it still carries so much muted warmth in reflecting the overall heaviness of this song’s message. Uncomfortable, but a song worth confronting regardless. A
KJC: I didn’t see the ending coming at all and it knocked me on my keister. There are so many fallen soldier songs, and this one is on par with “Travelin’ Soldier” and “Dress Blues,” as far as I’m concerned. What a powerful narrative, and Adeem the Artist cultivates empathy for everyone in it. A
JK: Adeem The Artist is at the absolute peak of their formidable craft on “Middle of a Heart,” a latecomer to the mix for the best song of 2022. Always very, very good, this still represents a quantum leap in terms of their ability to tell a story of range and power. Comparisons to Jason Isbell don’t come cheap, and, like Kevin notes above, “Middle of a Heart” belongs in a conversation with Isbell’s “Dress Blues”– and “Sunstroke” and “Soldiers Get Strange,” for what it’s worth– about the human toll of military service. Even then, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a song that reckons with the psychological cost of taking a life as powerfully as Adeem does here. To that end, “Middle of a Heart” puts Adeem in the company not only of Isbell but of John Prine and Patty Griffin as one of our finest humanist songwriters. This is just a brilliant, beautiful song. A
“For What it’s Worth”
Written by Rocky Block, BRELAND, Jacob Durrett, and Greylan James
KJC: Much like “Bonfire at Tina’s” above, “For What it’s Worth” is the emotional peak of BRELAND’s Cross Country album. BRELAND has learned all the right lessons from his heartbreak and is working on himself while he’s pining away for the woman he has lost.
“For What it’s Worth” is refreshing in its honesty and its sense of accountability, and his vocal communicates a dogged resilience that will insist on self-improvement for its own sake, even if he can never be with her again. A
JK: The tracks on Cross Country that really hit do so thanks to BRELAND’s genre awareness and his capacity to match something forward-thinking to a quality song. “For What It’s Worth” stands as progressive less in the context of its parent album than it does alongside the work of BRELAND’s mainstream contemporaries. Like the best of Kane Brown’s work, this song is respectful of women in a way that shouldn’t have to be a reprieve from the genre’s entrenched toxic masculinity, and that perspective matters and immediately elevates the song.
BRELAND sings the song with a real emotional investment, but the arrangement here lacks the spark of creativity of his most compelling tracks. But for a radio single in 2022? I ain’t the least bit mad at this. B+
ZK: To be honest, most of what I’ve heard from BRELAND has ranged from mediocre to terrible, so I went into this with low expectations. And while I think the bombastic, by-the-numbers pop-country production puts this song at odds with its otherwise reflective, introspective writing (even if there is some appreciated warmth in some of the guitar tones), this is definitely my favorite thing I’ve heard by him.
It helps that he’s a charismatic presence who can sell the balance between mature reflection and his sadness over not getting that second chance he knows he doesn’t deserve. And I’d say his performance only gets more passionate as the song progresses. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard done better elsewhere, but if this became his breakout hit, I wouldn’t be mad. B-
Joy Oladokun featuring Chris Stapleton
Written by Ian Fitchuk, Shae Jacobs, and Joy Oladokun
JK: A shining example of how the right choices of collaborators can elevate a good song and single into something far greater. “Sweet Symphony” is all about how seemingly disparate elements– personality quirks, established habits, core beliefs– can combine in unexpected ways to strengthen a relationship. That’s reflected perfectly by the way the natural sweetness of Oladokun’s timbre combines with Stapleton’s trademark rasp and bluster. They’re an unlikely pair on paper, but they sound glorious together on a lovely song that, ideally, should give the immensely talented Oladokun’s profile a deserved boost. A-
ZK: A great (if perhaps predictable) vocal powerhouse showcase, because of course Joy Oladokun and Chris Stapleton can hold their own separately or together; especially together, though. A damn shame it mostly plays to muted coffeehouse folk in the overall production, but the writing, as Jonathan notes, is definitely a highlight, framing a tried-and-true song around unexpected details about how two idiosyncratic souls came together. Sweet, indeed. B
KJC: I try to use the phrase “achingly beautiful” sparingly, but my goodness, this is achingly beautiful. Stapleton’s ability to be delicate in his supporting vocals is an underrated gift of his. As Jonathan and Zack both note, these two very different artists blend together beautifully, creating something new out of unexpected parts. It’s a wonderful showcase for Oladokun’s talent, and Stapleton supports her well without overshadowing her on her own record. B+