Our Single Review Roundup is now a weekly feature spotlighting three new releases.
Here are our takes on the latest records from Marty Stuart, Brad Paisley, and Julie Williams.
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Written by Marty Stuart
ZK: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives make their equally fabulous return after six years, by taking us back to where it all began. A twofold statement, given that this is as playful and plucky as Stuart gets at his best, and also because it’s an origin story. It definitely aims to an older, broader sentimentality of climbing the ladder at a time when traveling across the country making a name for one’s self was the expectation. And speaking as someone who finds himself increasingly tired of rapid uprises where the hype doesn’t justify the talent, it’s a refreshing perspective.
Don’t think of it as old-fashioned, though; Stuart and his rag-tag band of pickers sound as fresh as ever. B+
KJC: We’re not going to get many more origin stories like this, with the path to country stardom these days being far more likely to pass through Belmont University than the honky tonk circuit.
What’s cool about this record is how Stuart recaptures the driving ambition of a young musician chasing a nearly impossible dream, while also waxing nostalgic about a journey – and destination – that exist only in the past. B+
JK: I’m at least somewhat immune to the pull of “origin stories” as a trope. Drop me cold into an established universe– think the first John Wick film– and I’m good to go. And I’m also at least somewhat immune to Stuart’s specific brand of country music historian. At times, it borders on the type of cultural gatekeeping that would have the genre suffocate behind museum glass.
But damned if this one doesn’t work for me. I think the key is how out-of-time these specific details are: A wedding ring stolen from Lester Flatt? That’s a great story in and of itself, and I love how Stuart casually drops it into the second verse here. The other big selling point is the production. The Fabulous Superlatives have rarely sounded so loose or rocked this hard on record, and the lack of mannered stuffiness suits them in the way it suited Stuart during his commercial heyday. I dig it. A-
Brad Paisley featuring President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Written by Taylor Goldsmith, Lee Thomas Miller, and Brad Paisley
KJC: It’s been a good long while since Brad Paisley released a record that plays so well to his strengths. Paisley is an understated singer, and this is a lyric that could have descended into schmaltz if someone with less subtlety as a vocalist had recorded it. (See: Raye, Collin, circa 1995.)
The conversation with the Ukrainian president is a nice touch, and a reminder that most of the democratic, freedom-loving world is standing in solidarity with his country as they remain under attack by a hostile world power. But the song would work just as well without it, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it repurposed down the road during other moments that call out for unity and loving thy neighbor. B+
JK: Even for someone who, as I noted on Twitter, is well past his A-list status, releasing this in the current country music milieu is ballsy as all hell for Paisley. There’s no “Shut Up And Sing”-ing about this: Paisley is making a nakedly political statement and seems fully aware that there are a lot of people who will condemn him for it.
As for the song itself? It’s pretty good– one of the best-written singles Paisley has offered in quite some time, even. As an artist, his over-reliance both on attempts at humor that can come off as punching-down (“Online,” “I’m Still A Guy”) and on concepts beyond his grasp (“Welcome to the Future,” “Accidental Racist”) can undercut his empathy. It’s actually songs like this one, that capitalize on his ability to identify shared experiences, that he does best. Here, it’s how casual his delivery is, even on pointed lines about the “left coast,” that emphasizes our common humanity. B+
ZK: For as much controversy as Paisley has stirred with this particular song, underneath it all is the same trademark wide-eyed, innocent, empathetic perspective that’s framed his work dating all the way back to the late ’90s; that’s really a bad thing?
And with the dying embers of bro-country now long since put out, it’s long past time for Paisley to return – even if it’s away from the A-list spotlight and more focused on recording what he actually wants. Thankfully, that still includes warm, crisp neotraditional country – tempered to a fault of being “pleasant,” but still easy to appreciate. In terms of songs asking us to appreciate the world beyond our own perspective, my favorite in this vein is still his own “Southern Comfort Zone.” But it’s so good to have him back. B+
“Wrong Mr. Right”
Written by Lauren Hungate, Karleigh Schmidt, and Julie Williams
JK: Among contemporary singles, my benchmark for the exact theme captured in Julie Williams’ “Wrong Mr. Right,” is Delta Rae’s extraordinary “If I Loved You.” And it’s a testament to Williams’ expert use of specific details and the vulnerability of her vocal performance that her single absolutely belongs in such rarefied company. T
he arrangement features prominent country instrumentation in a way that doesn’t pull focus from either Williams or the song, allowing her observations about how her former lover stood so much taller than she did, even when she wore heels, and how he made the “perfect plus one” for social functions to land with the weight of a deeply felt personal impact. Williams delivers those lines with a heady, complex blend of wistfulness, regret, and uncertainty: She doesn’t have a single unkind word to say about this man, but she’s attuned to what her heart does and doesn’t want, and she knows that they both deserve someone who wants that other person.
As ever, there are barriers of race and gender that will likely keep this from being the radio hit it deserves to be, but “Wrong Mr. Right” is modern pop-country at its best. A
ZK: For as much as heartache is a bedrock of the greater country music formula, it’s rare that it ever explores the unmined deeper complexities it can offer. And perhaps the toughest point-of-view to articulate is one where a relationship has ended for reasons that aren’t apparent on the surface. That’s when it becomes personal and self-reflective, aimed more at a natural falling out than any “one side versus the other” point of discussion.
To be clear, that’s brought out some damn fine cheating and vengeful country songs. But it’s nice to hear something this mature and even-keeled every so often, too. My only gripe is that the production is restrained to the point of feeling hollow at points. This is my introduction to Williams, so I’m looking forward to hearing more. B+
KJC: I love the tone of William’s voice and appreciate her clear phrasing and on point enunciation. Those may seem like odd things to celebrate, but they’re becoming exceedingly rare and they make such a difference in the enjoyment of a record as sparsely produced as this one. She has nowhere to hide as a singer and she gives a flawless performance without a safety net.
The lyric itself is achingly sad, with a resignation to an unfair fate being tempered by genuine goodwill instead of jealousy or bitterness. It makes me wish the entire country music ecosystem of the nineties still existed, where a song like this could either be on the radio by its writer a la Mary Chapin Carpenter, or covered by a hitmaking artist of the day, like so many great songs by Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters were. A