The roundup returns after a brief hiatus. We’re making up for lost time with the best batch of singles we’ve ever gathered together.
“You Left Me a Long, Long Time Ago”
Written by Willie Nelson
KJC: The bluegrass reimagining of “You Left Me a Long, Long Time Ago” is much more compelling than the original version that Nelson recorded a few decades back. His weathered voice and halting delivery heighten the emotional resignation captured by the lyric, and it’s a pleasure hearing Nelson surrounded by bluegrass instrumentation.
Would this have been a better record if he’d recorded it even five years ago? Almost certainly. But it feels like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson have switched places as of late, with Parton finally being revered as a brilliant songwriter while Nelson seems more well known for his association with marijuana.
If it takes a bluegrass album to hit the reset button, I’m down with that. I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of this set, especially his new take on “Yesterday’s Wine.” B+
JK: I agree that this is superior to the original recording, but I’ll say it wouldn’t have been my first choice for the lead single from the fantastic Bluegrass project. The arrangement on this one is maybe just a hair too slow, though I’ll admit that could just be a function of my preference for uptempo Bluegrass. But the verses here drag a bit, to the extent that the very fine crew of pickers are in a struggle to keep from falling just behind the beat, which, of course, Nelson’s vocal does. Still, the album is another highlight on a terrific late-career run for Willie, even if I’m only giving this single a B.
Written by Jordan Fletcher and RVSHVD
JK: As impressive a throwback to the style and, more critically, the actual substance of 90s country as anything in the recent trend, “Shoebox Money” is a full-on banger. The way the instrumentation drops out on the last line of the chorus and RVSHVD sings a double-time lyric? That’s straight out of the Tracy Lawrence and Mark Chesnutt production playbook, and I am here for it.
As a contemporary country single, there’s a good deal more heft and a heavier backbeat than anything Lawrence or Chesnutt ever released, but RVSHVD has the vocal chops to ensure he doesn’t get lost in the mix. As he sings about delayed gratification– of “pinching pennies all summer long” and of paying his dues to chase his dreams of country stardom– he balances just the right amount of rowdiness with a palpable sense of gratitude for getting his shot.
A single that’s fully on-trend, “Shoebox Money” ought to be in heavy rotation at radio. And, as ever, it’s important to note why it won’t. If, say, Jon Pardi re-recorded this note-for-note, it would fly straight to #1. But here we are. A.
KJC: This tickles every one of my 90s sweet spots. It’s like RVSHVD fused the spirit of Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” with a shitkicking Kentucky Headhunters beat. These just add to the critical comparisons that Jonathan makes above, and it’s a tribute to RVSHVD’s skill that he can evoke Tracy Lawrence and Mark Chesnutt.
Coupled with the BRELAND record below, “Shoebox Money” is further indication of how impactful nineties country was on many Black musicians as they were growing up, and how lucky the genre is now that they’re drawing on those influences to make country music that’s both contemporarily relevant and nostalgic as hell. A
Written by BRELAND, Haley Mae Campbell, and Zachary Manno
KJC: “I like doing things that a cowboy don’t” is such a deliciously audacious approach to a country romance song, and it takes true grit on BRELAND’s part to toss the cowboy archetype to the side on a radio single.
It’s been nine years since Maddie & Tae laid bare the hollowness of the bro country imagery, but it’s still around. It’s just gotten more angry and insular. BRELAND presents himself as a better man to take home than those bros could ever be, and he does it with humor and confidence.
My personal favorite line: “I bet his boots are made for walkin’. Baby, mine are made for knock, knock, knockin’.” He’ll not only give her a better night in the bedroom. He’ll also still be there for breakfast in the morning. Because real men do what cosplay cowboy’s don’t. A
JK: Great in almost the exact same way that the RVSHVD single is– this one’s more Rick Trevino or Sawyer Brown, though– “Cowboy Don’t” is another absolute banger.
Genre purists are completely and willfully missing the point with BRELAND– and the reasons why are obvious– when the reality is that “Cowboy Don’t” demonstrates that he has a better grasp of country music conventions than a whole lot of his peers in both the mainstream and Americana spaces. That he playfully subverts some of the genre’s most tired “authenticity” arguments– Kevin highlighted the killer line about boots, which is as sharp a line as you’ll hear on any country record this year– while he’s at it? Ride til you can’t no more, cowboy. A
“Ready or Not”
Shakey Graves featuring Sierra Ferrell
Written by Cameron Neal and Alejandro Rose-Garcia
JK: God, I love the production choices on this single. After years of alt-country / Americana singles that are all the same exact shades of Cobb – Auerbach – Carlile beige, to hear something that pulls from the Flying Burrito Brothers as much as it does from A.M. radio staples like Donovan and The Mamas & The Papas feels like a revelation.
The tension between Graves’ ragged timbre and the natural sweetness of Ferrell’s vocal tone only heightens their performance of a song that trades in taking risks and rushing headlong into the open possibilities of the unknown. A low-key but high-stakes triumph. A
KJC: This must be the best batch of singles that we’ve ever reviewed at the same time, and they’re all so different from each other.This is how I like my roots music: dark and moody, but with a great melody and a distinctive vocal performance (and we get two of them!)
This would cause so much confusion on country radio that it would be legitimately dangerous for them to play it at rush hour, as bewildered listeners leaned into their radio to figure out what on earth these two are saying.
No, you play this one on headphones with your drink/smoke of choice and get completely lost in it. A