We kick off the new year with two great indie records and two radio hits of widely divergent quality.
“Why Do I Do This to Myself”
Written by Dori Freeman
JK: Dori Freeman is always fantastic, and I’m kicking myself for having missed her late-2023 album until I noticed that this single has started to get some traction at AAA and Americana formats in the new year. And rightfully so: It’s the best standalone single Freeman’s released to date.
The melody and structure are an obvious homage to Juice Newton’s “Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me,” as though Juice had been hanging in some deeply sleazy dives. That works brilliantly, in that Freeman has no delusions that love is some outside source that has been hard on her: She’s taking full responsibility for the state she’s in, with full knowledge that she’s not about to change her behavior. Clever and just impossibly catchy, one of 2024’s finest singles has surely come early. A
KJC: The Juice Newton comparison is so apt, and I’ll throw in a comparison to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s grooviest work.
This could easily have been a mopey ballad, given the darkness of the lyric. I love the contrast between the upbeat arrangement and the downbeat message. It’s the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Freeman’s songwriting is compelling and I look forward to hearing more of it. B+
Written by Benjy Davis, Kat Higgins, and Ryan Larkins
KJC: Cody Johnson is emerging as one of the strongest mainstream artists of his generation, thanks to his traditionalist approach to country music.
And I’m not talking about steel and fiddle, my friends. His current album, Leather, is unique among radio artists because it does something that used to be standard in Nashville: pairing a strong vocalist with material written by Nashville’s best songwriters.
Johnson’s had co-writes on earlier albums, but this time around, he’s relied completely on other songwriters. That diversity of perspectives makes for a richer listening experience, one that we used to take for granted.
“The Painter” is one of those gorgeous tributes to the person behind the dreams, the one who inspires an artist to do their best work. By seeing their beauty, they can see it themselves, and it pours out onto the canvas.
LIke the best of the songwriter’s singers from back in the day, Johnson follows the Patty Loveless creed: “Don’t get in the way of the song.” He delivers a poignant lyric with delicacy, and it makes for one of his strongest records yet. A
JK: What I love about “The Painter,” and what sets it apart from so many of the songs performed by the genre’s other A-list men these days, is that it pays tribute to a woman who is described as having a fully realized interior life of her own. Johnson is reacting to and reflecting upon the ways that this woman’s independent agency and decisions have impacted him, rather than the ways that she’s an extension of him or a somehow makes him whole.
That Johnson sings this great, too, is no surprise. He continues to come into his own as a first-rate interpreter and technician. What’s even more encouraging is that, as great as “The Painter” undoubtedly is, there are three or four potential singles from Leather waiting on deck– “Dirt Cheap” is up next, and look for it to start running the table on the awards circuit later this year– that are even better. A
Written by Lizzie No
JK: No’s new album, Halfsies, impresses for an eclectic range of influences that all come together in a cohesive style… with the possible exception of “Lagunita.” The alt-rock production on this single has a harder edge to it than much of the rest of the album, which has a vibe of progressive Americana.
In the context of the album, then, it’s something of an outlier, but that doesn’t diminish “Lagunita” as a standalone single. There’s a hint of twang to the electric guitar power chords, and it all sounds like a track that, in the late 90s, would’ve started off as a hit on modern rock radio before crossing over to Adult Top 40 and then to the pop charts. As an angsty teenager, I would have been all-in on this.
As for today, I appreciate the way No structures the hook like a power-pop single– shades of Matthew Sweet or Fountains of Wayne. Moreover, I love the way that hook (“It never occurred to me / That ‘grief’ should refer to something bad that happened”) is an entire complex sentence– shades of Fiona Apple. While so many of today’s country acts are making overtures to country’s halcyon 90s era, I dig that No is so well-versed in the post-grunge rock scene. If she’s onto something with greater originality on the rest of her fantastic album, “Lagunita” is at least a spot-on homage. A-
KJC: Lizzie No has carved out a niche that allows her to be completely unfiltered in her musical vision, and I’m so down for it. “Lagunita” may as well be her personal anthem with the way that it celebrates being yourself, as well as forgiving yourself, so you can be the the most perfectly realized version of yourself.
What a blessing that we live in a time that such music can be readily accessible without corporate intermediaries gumming up the works. It’s early, but mark this one down for my year-end ballot. A
“Let Your Boys Be Country”
Written by Jaren Boyer, Allison Veltz Cruz, and Micah Willshire
KJC: Five decades ago, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were determined to expand the scope and reach of country music. Their approaches were different, but the outcome was the same. By writing and recording compelling material that was grounded in the country experience but universal in its understanding of the human condition, listeners around the world could relate to the songs that these two country boys were recording, well beyond the county lines that housed the small Texas towns that each man was raised within.
And these were some small, small towns. Waylon Jennings was born in Littlefield in 1937, when it was a town with less than 4,000 residents. Willie Nelson was born in Abbott, when it was a town with less than 400 residents. If one wanted to know what they could try in a small town, both Waylon and Willie could let them know.
So when they recorded “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” written by fellow small town alumni Ed and Patsy Bruce, they lent the song’s message some real gravitas. They knew the loneliness of the cowboy lifestyle, which wasn’t too far off from the road-weary musician’s life. You leave your home, wander from place to place, and never quite settle down, breaking a few hearts along the way.
So they encourage mammas to let their babies dream bigger: “Don’t let them pick guitars or drive them old trucks. Let them be doctors and lawyers and such.” They’re just as talented and capable as any city boys, and their ambitions shouldn’t be limited by their small town origins.
It was the perfect song for a genre on the rise. Country music was learning how to retain its core identity while still appealing to a wider audience, and they did it through artists who were also just as talented and capable as any rock or pop musicians.
There are some contemporary mainstream country artists who still fit that description, but Jason Aldean isn’t one of them. He puts on the hat and mimics the grit of the outlaws from days gone by, but it’s like one of those sexy nurse costumes that are so popular around Halloween: an exaggeration of the real thing, worn by someone without the skills needed to get the job done.
So of course he’d record “Let Your Boys Be Country” and sing it with enough intensity to pop a blood vessel. And in a way, it’s the perfect Jason Aldean record, because its overdone bravado can’t mask the insecurity underneath.
Aldean’s just a kid from the suburbs who is raising his own boys in a mansion alongside all the rich city boys and girls who he pretends to loathe. On his records, they are existential threats to his country (and his country’s) existence. In real life, they’re his neighbors. It’s performative theater from an artist who is far better at being theatrical than at being a performer.
“Let Your Boys Be Country” itself is a composition thinner than the paper it’s written on. It implores small town mothers to force feed every tired country boy stereotype down their sons’ throats:
Let ’em ride ’round trucks, making backroad noise
Let ’em hang out on Friday, gettin’ wild with the boys
Let ’em go to the woods in the cold, painted up camo green
Yeah, let ’em chase, let ’em fall for a small-town girl
Let everything inside these county lines be his whole world
You want him to grow up to be someone he’s damn proud to be
Mammas, let your boys be country
“Let Your Boys Be Country” isn’t a message of country pride, no matter how hard he tries to sell it as one, because “let everything inside these county lines be his whole world” is fundamentally about fear. You can’t let your sons experience the world outside these county lines because we don’t really think what’s within them can compete with it. Please, ensure he doesn’t leave, because as Hal Ketchum once sang, “when people leave town, they never come back.”
It’s really an insult to the country way of life that it pretends to celebrate, as if being “country” requires just a camo hat and a pickup truck, and not any virtues or core values. How fitting for a man who’s been pretending to be a country boy for the last twenty years while alternating between his Nashville mansion and his vacation home in Turks and Caicos.
Aldean’s city bashing songs have never offended me. They’re just as boring and detached from reality as the rest of his work. But if I was from the country, I’d be pretty damn pissed at this urban cowboy after hearing this record.
Waylon and Willie, where art thou? F
JK: “I’d really like to thank my parents for not changing my gender when I went through my tomboy phase. I love this girly life.”
That’s the statement Brittani Aldean chose to make on her social media, setting off a cycle of controversy– not the first for either herself or her husband– that stoked further division within some elements of the country music “family.” It’s an ugly, ignorant sentiment that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be transgender, and it was another example of how the Aldean family brand has, over the last few years, turned into one of making deliberately provocative statements then claiming victimhood when called on the carpet.
The throughline from that transphobic– and, yes, it’s overtly transphobic– comment to “Let Your Boys Be Country” is obvious. This is a song that exists not to make any actual point or to communicate any sort of deeply-held truth: It exists exclusively to perpetuate Aldean’s highly profitable grift. There’s no reason to be outraged. Once again, as a “lib,” I don’t find myself “owned” by this; I find myself bored. It’s all so perfunctory and predictable, particularly in the wake of how Aldean rode a wave of white grievance to the top of the Billboard charts less than a year ago.
He’s a middling talent and always has been, and he was fast approaching his sell-by date when it comes to radio success. So all he’s doing with this utter nothing of a song– it’s a rote list of rural signifiers that signify only that anything outside of a narrow vision of gender and social norms must be shunned and shamed– is playing to his base’s basest instincts to keep himself relevant.
As with “Try That In A Small Town,” he’s just cosplaying, and that’s why there are so few details that ring with anything that even approximates an actual lived experience. It’d be far more honest for him to sing something like, “Let your small town be Brentwood.” Or, “Let your mistress be your wife.” Or, “Let your President be a rapist.” But then he probably wouldn’t get another #1 on the Hot 100, which is really the only thing that any of this boils down to. It sure isn’t about country music as art. F