In a week that has new releases from Country Universe favorites like Sunny Sweeney and Tim McGraw, the consensus pick is Billy Gilman’s bluegrass debut.
Written by Phillip Douglas, Billy Gilman, and Dan Murph
JK: After his stint on The Voice, I assumed Gilman would use his second turn in the limelight to pivot in a pop direction. I’m stunned in the best ways that, instead, he’s opted to record a full-on Bluegrass record. And, if lead single “Roller Coaster” is any indication, it’s a maneuver he pulls off with real credibility. The song itself is fine enough– this is a well-worn metaphor– that’s elevated by a spirited and technically sound arrangement and by Gilman’s convincing vocal turn. This is in no way the music I expected him to record in between posting thirst traps on Twitter, but I’m eager to hear the rest of this project, which is nothing I ever thought I’d say about a new album from this former child star. B+
ZK: This year was already nutty enough by giving us new Iris DeMent and Nickel Creek releases, but I definitely didn’t have this on my bingo card for the year.
But yeah, this works. Even now, Gilman has the youthful exuberance in tone and delivery to fit this sound very nicely, leaning further effectively into it through a love song, where the titular metaphor used to describe the relationship is perfect for this particular genre. Granted, it’s not quite as wild or adventurous as one might expect from that from a compositional or lyrical standpoint, but this is very nice. I, too, look forward to more. B+
KJC: Once you get past the novelty factor of a former child country star going full on bluegrass, you’re left with a solidly constructed song that is delivered with the confidence of a seasoned performer. It’s perception shattering more than earth shattering.
Gilman’s done a better job than most young artists do at adjusting his sound to better fit his voice as it has aged. This is an encouraging new musical direction for him and I hope that he fully explores it. B+
“Red Dirt Girl”
Jamie Lin Wilson & Sunny Sweeney
Written by Emmylou Harris
ZK: I didn’t need this to remind me of Emmylou Harris’ fantastic songwriting, as essential to her career as her singing or stylism; yes, I’ll very much stand by that. So it’s fitting, in a way, that two Red Dirt veterans themselves come full circle to honor one of the genre’s best students and masters. And both Sweeney and Wilson certainly have the hardbitten swagger in their respective deliveries to effectively sell the role of being friends to poor Lillian.
But it is lacking the burnished potency of the original to stand better on its own, and I’d argue that Harris’ singular point-of-view as her best friend watching her dreams crumble is what adds an extra layer of heartbreaking poignancy to it. Unfair, yes, but it’s a bar that just won’t be cleared: not by anyone. Still, I don’t think that’s what Sweeney or Harris intended to do anyway, so as a tribute, this is still great. B+
KJC: “Red Dirt Girl” is among my favorite Emmylou Harris records of all time, which is no small feat, given the depth of her catalog. Sunny Sweeney and Jamie Lin Wilson do a fine job reviving it, and I’m happy to see this song getting a new life.
That being said, the raw emotion of Harris telling this autobiographical story is impossible for anyone else to match, so I’m missing the aching grief that powered the original recording.
Harris sounded like she was mourning a close friend. Sweeney and Wilson sound like they’re telling a story about a stranger. B
JK: Two artists I absolutely adore team up to cover an underrated late-career song from a genre legend, and it’s… okay? Sweeney and Wilson are a great idea for duet partners, in the sense that they both sing with a slightly flattened affect that is ideally suited to their wry points-of-view. But what brings tension and depth to their own killer records cuts against them on this particular Harris cover. Even though they share a kinship with this song’s characters, their vocals sound removed and almost impersonal in a way that simply doesn’t work for this story of this “Red Dirt Girl.” These two hardly ever miss, so I’m surprised by how much I didn’t care for this one. C+
“Standing Room Only”
Written by Tommy Cecil, Patrick Murphy, and Craig Wiseman
KJC: This should’ve been a slam dunk for Tim McGraw.
The inspirational lyrics are entirely within his wheelhouse, and he is one of the few superstar male artists who is completely comfortable being emotionally vulnerable and a little philosophical.
So why on earth did he go for such a bombastic production? He oversings the chorus, straining to be heard above the cacophony behind him. It’s like he wants to declare “THIS SONG MATTERS” with every ounce of strength he has.
That worked for “Live Like You Were Dying,” but this one needed a “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” approach. C
JK: As someone who actively dislikes “Live Like You Were Dying” and thinks McGraw’s very narrow wheelhouse is on songs with a deep undercurrent of melancholy, I’ll say that I am not at all the audience for this. It’s not “Don’t Take The Girl” or “Touchdown Jesus” in terms of being one of the more laughable entries in his uneven catalogue: It’s just a poorly-written attempt at gravitas that is completely blown out by the production and which McGraw can’t salvage by over-emoting the chorus. D
ZK: Kevin already noted the “Live Like You Were Dying” connection in relation to the sentiment and production, and to add to it, what worked about that single was a distinct point-of-view wrapped in urgent storytelling detail. This feels more broadly sketched and wrapped in lukewarm platitudes, which doesn’t help matters any when the production is rooted in washed-out, early 2000s adult-contemporary noise through how synthetic and plastic it can feel. It’s still a nice sentiment to aspire to, of course. But calling it “cheesy” almost feels too nice for it. C-