New records from Ashley McBryde and Luke Combs join a Dolly Parton duet from the vaults.
“The Devil I Know”
Written by Ashley McBryde, Bobby Pinson, and Jeremy Stover
ZK: After last year’s Lindeville project, I forgot just how spotty Jay Joyce’s production could be when it comes to Ashley McBryde’s work (and in general, really). Sadly, this is a case of going too far and blowing out nearly everything in the mix. It’s a push for metal-inspired heaviness that doesn’t make sense for a singer who can naturally sell raw emotions with a punk swagger.
But yeah, between the overblown mixing on the chorus that’s only further brought down by weird hand-clap percussion on the verses and a general hollowness otherwise, this is just messy. It’s also missing the more unique flair that she usually brings with these character sketches; it feels broadly sketched and underwritten. I love nearly everything else from her, but to quote that recent Jason Isbell album, “this ain’t it.” C
KJC: The production choices are a bit peculiar here.
It’s like it wants to be a nü-metal anthem in the chorus and a reflective country ballad in the verses.
I’m always down for some contrast, but I think the Jekyll and Hyde approach distracts from the excellent songwriting and a damn good vocal performance.
I’ve known intellectually that Terri Clark is a major influence on Ashley McBryde, but I can feel it in my bones on this track. Sign me up for the inevitable unplugged version, which will flip this B to an A.
JK: As “Terrible Things,” her recent duet with Halestrom, demonstrated, Ashley McBryde has the vocal chops to sing a full-on rock song. And, as someone who cut his teeth on alt-country as a teenager, I’m always game for country music with a heavy rock slant.
But wow, I thought McBryde would pull on some cooler rock influences than what’s on display here. The arrangement on “The Devil I Know” sounds, at best, like those interchangeable post-alternative bands that courted top 40 airplay in the late 90s / early aughts (Three Doors Down, Lifehouse) and, at worst, like nü-metal (Puddle of Mudd, Hoobastank). It’s loud, but it’s loud in the most boring of ways. Hell, The Band Perry had the wherewithal and good taste to rip off Franz Ferdinand a full decade ago; I just expected more from a legit badass like McBryde.
What saves “The Devil I Know” is the ace songwriting– the central concept is clever, and the individual details about drinking in a hole-in-the-wall outside of E’town are thoughtfully chosen– and McBryde’s forceful performance. She overcomes the production with her powerhouse delivery. She’s really operating on a different plane than most of her peers in the mainstream right now, though, so even a messy single like this one has a lot going for it, and it’s clear that her forthcoming album is going to be killer. B
Written by Tracy Chapman
KJC: I’ve been largely indifferent to the numerous cover versions of “Fast Car” that have come out over the years. Tracy Chapman’s original record is so raw and personal, and while previous covers may have come from a genuine place, they’ve all felt superfluous to me.
I can’t say the same thing about Luke Combs’ take on “Fast Car.” He performs it so well that it makes me long for an entire album of outside material from him. He reminds me of Dwight Yoakam in that the full power of his vocal talent is best harnessed by covers.
Combs’ background and point of view are so different from Chapman’s, but he sings her lyrics with a guttural urgency that makes every line feel like his lived experience, and he pulls it off without changing the lyrics to align with his gender.
The same lines take on new meanings: a small town, white, working class man putting his dreams on hold to stay at home and take care of his ailing father? Jason Isbell has sung about that (“Speed Trap Town”) but it’s so far removed from what the guys on the radio sing about that it hits differently coming from Combs.
It feels like the mirror image to those powerful covers we’ve gotten lately where women of color have taken ownership over white male angst standards like “Creep” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Collectively, these covers capture the universality of the human experience in a way that only music can, and the potency of this is intensified in these dark and divided times. A
JK: I’m going to try to keep this under 3000 words, but I have a lot of conflicting responses to this song. I’ve been on the record for over a decade about the brilliance of Tracy Chapman’s original recording of “Fast Car,” so I appreciate that Combs is demonstrating excellent– surprisingly so– taste in material. He’s stated repeatedly that Chapman’s debut album was one that his father often played, and his connection to the song is based on a sincere and authentic formative experience from his childhood. That’s amazing and is the kind of open appreciation of a woman’s music that, in recent years, only Kane Brown has ever really expressed among the A-list men in country music. That matters.
As a singer, Combs has exactly one setting, with every line delivered at a 10 in terms of intensity. While that approach flattens the emotional range of Chapman’s narrative, it also makes for a different and interesting take on “Fast Car.” Whereas Chapman’s performance is a slow-burn that builds to a state of crisis, there’s an urgency from the first bars of Combs’ cover that suggests that his version’s narrator is already speaking from the throes of that crisis. That works, too. Combs’ narrator isn’t on the cusp of anything or holding on to any lingering illusions of what could be: He’s raging against experiences that he believes have left him disenfranchised.
But I struggle with that exact message coming from Luke Combs. Not to discount any of his “dues paying,” but Combs’ first thirteen singles all shot to #1 at country radio, his albums have outsold those of nearly all of his contemporaries, and he’s among the genre’s biggest live draws. He ascended to superstar status more rapidly than had any act in decades.
So the most pivotal lines of “Fast Car” (“And I had a feeling like I belonged / And I had a feeling I could be someone”), delivered by someone who catapulted to A-list status seemingly overnight in a genre that, even by the standards of its own history, is currently steeped in some especially ugly, exclusionary politics? When those lines were written by a queer black woman, and are being delivered by the straightest and whitest of straight white guys, at a moment when countless queer artists, non-white artists, women, and all intersections thereof are actively being gatekept out of even an iota of comparable status? Combs has always belonged and very quickly had the doors opened for him to be someone. It feels more than a little wrong.
But the counterpoint is also valid.
Here, one of the biggest artists in country music– yes, a straight, white dude who previously had Confederate flag iconography as part of his kit– has turned a famous song by a queer black woman into a massive country radio hit at a time when Jason Aldean is releasing openly bigoted trash (“Try That In A Small Town”) to radio. That matters, and it matters that the Aldean – Wallen demo, thus far, hasn’t blasted Combs with their WOKE bullhorn for leaving the song’s original gender roles intact or for covering the song at all.
In terms of moving the needle, culturally, there’s a strong argument to be made that what Combs is doing here is a hell of a lot more impactful than, say, Jason Isbell dunking on MAGA trolls on Twitter. But it would still sit more comfortably and have far better optics if this rendition of “Fast Car” were actually sharing space on country radio playlists with the latest singles by, to pick just two examples, Amythyst Kiah or Allison Russell. It isn’t, and it won’t, and that fact remains to the unending shame of the country establishment’s refusal to be better.
As for Combs? I’m not convinced he’d really get any of that. Maybe he’s more subversive than I’m giving him credit for. Or maybe he’s just covering a song he liked as a kid and doing it pretty well. A-
ZK: I’m writing this blurb just as news breaks out of this song passing Tracy Chapman’s original version in pure chart position. And while I can see the potential danger of that, one has to remember that this cover has been a long time coming: Combs has been adamant about his childhood connection to the song; he covered it during his pandemic sessions; and he’s incorporated it into his live shows. There’s a genuine love and respect present here for the song and artist who made it.
Most importantly, though, is that this is completely faithful to the original, right down to him singing it from the perspective of that checkout girl. Heck, if anything, one of the easy criticisms is that it’s almost too faithful to the original in its composition. But this isn’t trying to outdo the original – and indeed, it doesn’t – it’s just a good cover regardless, if only because, as Kevin and Jonathan already noted, Combs’ skills as an emotive interpreter are superb in speaking to a timeless tale of a woman caught in a cycle of poverty who wants to climb out but can’t.
Do I think this will outshine the original in terms of overall legacy, then? No. The framing is key to its resonance, and even most casual music fans realize that. So if it helps revitalize one of the best songs of all time for a time, I can’t complain. I’m a fan. A-
Vestal Goodman & Dolly Parton
Written by Martha Carson
JK: Vestal Goodman is considered royalty within the very small territory that is “Country Gospel” music. She’s spent decades as one of the headlining acts on the Bill Gaither & Friends stage, which is to say that, in my youth, I saw her perform live more than once, and her target demographic knows well that, when she starts waving a floral scarf above her, she’s feeling the Spirit move.
For as much as I am in no way part of that Gaither “Homecoming” demo as an adult, I still appreciate the sincerity and the struggles captured in this flavor of gospel music when it’s done right. “Satisfied” is a conservative record in every sense of the word, but, make no mistake, it’s kind of a banger.
I mean this as the highest of praise: Goodman, at her best, sounds a whole lot like Connie Smith, in terms of her tone, power, and phrasing. Here, the forcefulness of her delivery matches her confidence that she won’t be alone when walking through life’s valleys, and, unlike so much CCM and Hillsong-type “praise” music, there’s an acknowledgment within Martha Carson’s song that there are actual hardships in life.
For as great as Goodman sounds, the revelation on “Satisfied” is Parton. While her own recent recordings have often leaned into how her voice has diminished with age, she sounds flat-out youthful on her verse and lead chorus. There’s a fire in her delivery that recalls the uptempo rave-up arrangements of her own “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” and it’s as invigorating as anything she’s recorded in ages. Parton and Goodman thoroughly take ownership of Carson’s song– and I can only assume Kevin’s going to include a particular video clip of a Carson performance below, and hoo boy– and turn “Satisfied” into a duet that is both reflective and celebratory. Praise be. A
ZK: This is charming and rollicking from beginning to end. It’s honestly not the type of song I’d normally seek out on my own accord, but for just a few minutes Vestal Goodman’s exuberant charisma and Dolly Parton’s almost literal angelic contributions combine to make for a song that would liven up any church proceeding. The well-balanced dobro and saloon piano play off each other well enough to give this song a strong bounce. A-
KJC: I’m so happy that they dug this one out of the vaults. Vestal Goodman is perfectly in her lane. Martha Carson might as well have written this one for her, and Jonathan’s comparison to Connie Smith is dead on.
But oh boy, is Dolly Parton the highlight here. Since she seems to be releasing duets with every living recording artist and more than a few dead ones this year, it’s felt a bit overwhelming to even wade through everything that’s been hitting the market.
Thank God Jonathan flagged this one because this is my favorite Dolly Parton vocal in a long time. Alison Krauss would break down and cry when recording harmony vocals with Parton because to her, Parton sounds like the actual voice of heaven singing.
I’m not spiritual enough to go that far, but I will say that if God and Jesus are really as great as they sound when Parton sings for them, eternity is going to be lit. A