Caylee Hammack leads a decent batch of new singles.
“Fires Don’t Start Themselves”
Written by Ben Hayslip, Dan Isbell, and Jacob Rice
KJC: I’m never going to complain about a nineties country arrangement, though I’d peg this groove to a little bit past that golden era. The rhythm of the verses feels like a revival of James Otto’s “Just Got Started Lovin’ You.”
But if you’re going to namecheck Conway Twitty, borrow some of his subtlety. The chorus is annoyingly loud and cluttered, undermining the song’s intimate lyrics. Rucker’s got the voice to go full romantic, but he doesn’t use it nearly as well in the chorus as he does on the verses. I blame too many musical elements in the mix. B-
JK: I did a double-take when I first saw the songwriters for this listed online and read the name, “Isbell.” Needless to say, “Fires Don’t Start Themselves” bears none of the trademarks for quality songwriting associated with the other Isbell, though this is a fine enough song as radio fodder goes. Rucker has never recorded one true classic single– his song choices are usually so banal that I’d be hard-pressed to say that he has a “signature song,” which is odd for an act of his stature. “Fires…” in no way changes that. It’s better than the new Tim McGraw or Thomas Rhett singles, and it’s a whole lot less interesting than about 95% of what I’ve listened to this year. As ever, Rucker remains a better-than-average singer of aggressively average songs. C+
ZK: First of all, I appreciate how so many artists are pivoting back toward compositions that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on country radio in the ‘90s or 2000s. It’s especially interesting to hear artists who debuted within those eras pivot back toward them, especially given Rucker’s most recent clunkers like “Beers & Sunshine.”
So, as for the song itself? It’s fine, if conventional. It helps that Rucker’s easygoing charisma lands well in selling the simple conceit of a couple reigniting their own fire in a night of passion. Lighthearted, all in all, but likable and mature, too, especially off the rollicking fiddle and twangy electric axes. It’s probably my favorite single from him in years. B
“Bet the Farm”
Written by Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland
JK: I’ll admit that I knew nothing at all about this duo prior to stumbling across this single, but I’m kind of obsessed with them now. I mean this as the highest of compliments: Melissa McClelland’s performance reminds me of Faith Hill’s “Let’s Go to Vegas” in both her vocal tone and her humor. And it’s a far more obvious compliment coming from me when I say the arrangement sounds like a vintage Jerry Reed banger. I love pretty well everything about this one. A
ZK: For the record, Whitehorse’s country album from earlier this year is pretty rock-solid, playing to a lot of old-school country textures in the melodic progressions without adopting the same overtly retro pastiche that can make projects in that lane feel gimmicky; “I Might Get Over This (But I Won’t Stop Loving You)” and “Division 5” are fun listens.
This, on the other hand, is likely my least favorite song off of that project. Melissa McClelland has a lovely clarity and booming presence to her tone that’s really sweet and inviting, but she has also has a tendency to oversell certain moments, especially a twee one like this that feels more clunky than cute. It’s fine enough and I don’t dislike it, but revisiting it here didn’t change my mind on it. B-
KJC: I really love the way “Bet the Farm” takes a familiar saying and applies it to committing to a long term relationship. I’ve never heard anything from Whitehorse before, and I’m immediately a fan of the lead vocalist, who apparently understands that a nuanced performance lingers longer than just belting everything out.
There’s not a whole lot of lyric here, and they thankfully have enough sense to wrap this up quickly instead of stretching the concept too far. I appreciate the fresh and clean production choices. This is what it means to declutter, Mr. Rucker. Less is more. B+.
“History of Repeating”
Written by Caylee Hammack, Nicolette Hayford, and Ashley McBryde
ZK: I’m imagining an alternate timeline where 2020 didn’t derail Caylee Hammack’s career or, more specifically, the release of “Small Town Hypocrite,” which still probably wouldn’t have made a dent on modern country radio but deserved the chance to nonetheless. Otherwise, I’ve liked her artistic instincts well enough thus far, thanks to a singer-songwriter backbone that’s brought more flair and detail to her brand of commercial pop-country.
“History of Repeating” is another winner for her, and a lot of those same aforementioned instincts are there in the emotional nuance and framing of this song. Granted, a lot of it also has to do with Hammack herself, a terrific vocalist with an even better range, both on a technical level and in terms of her raw expressiveness and resonance.
And for modern pop-country, this is about as restrained as it gets with the opening watery acoustics translating to a pretty fiery chorus off the underplayed electric axes and percussive-heavy focus, even if it can still feel a bit clunky in its overall groove. But really, it’s a song that’s elevated further by its writing, in which Hammack’s character’s history of repetition refers to how she can’t let an old partner go and continuously stumbles trying to get them back. What sticks out for me is the self-awareness, where she knows there’s no chance of a reunion anyway but can’t help falling back into old habits, her frustration especially heightened by her crescendo on the final chorus that nails the emotional nuance. A-
KJC: “History of Repeating” reminds me so much of Ashley McBryde’s best work that it’s not the least bit surprising to me that she’s a co-writer here. This is a kissin’ cousin to “One Night Standards.’
Hammack’s demonstrated herself to be a remarkably strong singer-songwriter in her own right, and this is one of her best compositions to date. A delicate vocal performance is hindered only by the loud guitars that show up in the chorus. At least she doesn’t try to scream over them, but they do distract from an otherwise excellent record. B+
JK: The failure of “Small Town Hypocrite” to make Hammack an A-list star is a damning indictment of contemporary country music, but it’s to Hammack’s credit that she continues to court mainstream success with her brand of pop-country that’s at least two standard deviations above the current mean for quality in the genre. Of the two singles she’s released thus far in 2023, I prefer the more forceful “All Or Nothing” to this one, but that’s not much of a slight. Here, her ability to create a true narrative arc is the key to the songwriting, and she continues to emerge as one of the current generation’s best vocalists. A-