Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 6

The best singles this week come from the Wonder Women of Country and from the Wonder Woman of Pop and R&B.

“$10 Cowboy”

Charley Crockett

Written by Charley Crockett and Billy Horton

Jonathan Keefe: Crockett takes the vagabond spirit of Kacey Musgraves’ “Dime Store Cowgirl” and filters it through a decade of consumer inflation. Sure, the cost has gone up, but the restlessness and the understanding that there’s an element of drag revue in country’s genre signifiers are both the same. Crockett always makes interesting choices with his phrasing, and he’s able to elevate familiar– perhaps too familiar, in this case– themes like these by bending his vowels. “$10 Cowboy” is the catchiest single he’s released to date, and it’s refreshing to see it gain traction at both Americana and AAA formats. Would that a song like this still get the country radio play that would make even more sense. A-

Kevin John Coyne: You can’t reasonably call most Americana artists exiles from the genre because most of them were never let into it in the first place. So we have this weird dichotomy going on right now where mainstream country music is identifiable by middle age suburban white men pretending they are cowboy hat wearing pickup drivers taking a back road to a party in the barn with a barely legal gal in the shotgun seat, wearing barely any clothing and carrying even fewer thoughts in her head.  Or big cities are being railed against as a threat to the country’s survival over tired rock and hip hop beats that make Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s collaboration from two decades ago sound fresh and innovative in comparison.

Then we have the actual traditional markers of country music – fiddle, steel, banjo, and damn good songs sung well – being utilized mostly by artists outside the mainstream of the genre, and being called something other than country music.  By any historical standard, Charley Crockett is a traditional country singer, and “$10 Cowboy” is as good a record as anything we got from a good chunk of the radio artists from the new traditionalist era of the eighties and nineties. 

Because it’s as well written as it is well performed, “$10 Cowboy” feels like a country radio hit waiting to happen…in 1993.  There’s a path back to the glory days of the genre if the powers that be are willing to take it, but they’ve got to get the right artists on the bus before they hit the road.  A-


“American Girl”

Dierks Bentley

Written by Tom Petty

KJC: Sometimes I think it’s the artificial barriers that we put between genres that make cross-genre moments like Dierks Bentley doing a rock-infused bluegrass take on Tom Petty so damn exhilarating. 

Because outside of those artificial barriers, there’s nothing surprising about a classic rock song working as a contemporary country song.  Musicians can rock out on the banjo just like they can on the guitar. 

We’ve reached the point in the Bentley timeline where we can say he’s been underappreciated for his talent. Hearing how effortlessly he tosses off a Tom Petty classic, making it his own while respecting the original recording, it’s that much harder to believe that he doesn’t have a shelf of awards acknowledging his prowess.

What a fresh take on an enduring hit.  B+

JK: There’s not such a massive gulf, aesthetically, between Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and Dierks Bentley’s Riser, so it’s no surprise that Bentley would be slated for the first single from the forthcoming country tribute album to Petty. And “American Girl” is certainly within Bentley’s wheelhouse.

He sounds comfortable here, but I’d argue that it’s at least somewhat because he’s gone to this exact well before: He took a similar approach to his cover of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” back on his Up On the Ridge album. While I’d argue this particular style– incorporating Bluegrass instruments into a rock-leaning brand of modern country– is where Bentley truly shines, there’s something to “American Girl” that strikes me as a bit rote. This is fine, but I expected great. B


“Another Broken Heart”

Wonder Women of Country

Written by Bruce Robison, Monte Warden, and Kelly Willis

JK: Having leaned into their collaborations on tour, Kelly Willis, Melissa Carper, and Brennen Leigh officially declare themselves a supergroup. On talent alone, the Wonder Women of Country are aptly named, and “Another Broken Heart” is a tremendous first single, and it’s fitting for this project that Willis wrestled control of the songwriting away from Bruce Robison and Monte Warden, who’d started working on it before she overheard them.

The only knock against “Another Broken Heart,” really, is that it sounds like a new solo single from Willis. Which, to be clear, is not a negative in and of itself– I’ve been fully on board with Willis since her run of killer major label albums starting back in the early 90s. But her legion of fellow Wonder Women function primarily as background singers here: Both Carper and Leigh have distinctive voices, and I’m eager to hear the two of them and Willis in full-on trio mode. That’s not what happens here. Instead, this is a great single that doesn’t necessarily introduce these Super Friends as a fully-formed act. An A for a triumphant return from Willis, though.

KJC:  I fully agree that this sounds like a Kelly Willis single, and a great one at that!

Usually, collaborative projects are previewed with a song that highlights the unique harmonies of the participating artists or gives each artist a turn at the mic.  Songs that are essentially solo records that pad out the project usually come later.  Using Trio as an example, “To Know Him is to Love Him” featured their three part harmonies, which was then followed by two singles that showcased individual artists.  “Telling Me Lies” sounds like a Linda Ronstadt record until Emmylou Harris shows up at the end of the final chorus, and “Wildflowers” is a Dolly Parton record through and through, despite the beautiful harmonies that elevate it overall.

“Another Broken Heart” stands tall among Kelly Willis’ best moments on record. Her vocals are stunning, featuring all of the twang and range of her early MCA work while also introducing the gravitas that comes with three additional decades of living, loving, and learning.

It has me hoping that the key concept behind the Wonder Women of Country is to let each woman get to be the superhero on a track or two, with some more fully collaborative tracks in the mix that showcase their collective talent.  A  

Texas Hold ’Em


Written by Beyoncé, Elizabeth Boland, Megan Bülow, and Nathan Ferraro

KJC:  I’m going to open with this quote from Rhiannon Giddens, who plays banjo and viola on “Texas Hold ’Em”:

“My only hope is that it might lead a few more intrepid folks into the exciting history of the banjo. I used to say many times as soon as Beyoncé puts the banjo on a track my job is done. Well, I didn’t expect the banjo to be mine.”

I don’t engage too much in the culture wars discourse that country music is often weighed down with, but I have seen quite a bit of variations on the idea that Beyoncé making a country record is somehow overshadowing or undermining what’s being done by black women already in country music.  An older quote from Giddens after the 2016 CMA Awards is being used in support of this argument, and it’s a remarkable piece of sophistry given that Giddens is the driving instrumental force of Beyoncé’s first major country single.

Beyoncé is from Texas, and has as much claim on country music as her regional heritage as any artist does from there.  But what’s significant to me about her making a country record from such an authentic place is that it’s the culmination and validation of the work that Giddens and so many of her peers have been doing over the past decade and more.  They’ve created the space for Beyoncé to make this record, which might end up the most important crossing of the streams between country and R&B since Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music

Like Charles’ take on country music standards back in the day, “Texas” works just as well as a country record as it does as a Beyoncé record.  Her signature phrasing as a singer – and turns of phrase as a songwriter – are abundant. She gives a remarkable vocal performance that twists and turns and woops and yelps, and she makes it sound so effortless on her part. 

She wrote and performed a great country song out of the gate, and she used some of the best musicians that country music has to offer to make it soar even higher.  She could’ve pitched this to any one of the country legends who have covered her before (The Chicks, Reba McEntire, Sugarland…) and they would’ve recorded it.  And I’m totally hoping it finds its way onto one of their setlists like “Daddy Lessons,” “If I Were a Boy,” and “Irreplaceable” did before it.  A

JK: From the jump, the discourse around “Texas Hold ‘Em” wasn’t centered around whether or not Beyoncé’s first official country single is good– which it is– but whether or not it is sufficiently country– which it also is. It’s the reason all of the major media coverage of this release invented new taxonomies of exclusion or qualification– “country-themed,” “country-inspired,” “country-leaning,” “country-steeped,” and on and on– and the reason much of the countrier-than-thou handwringing from within the genre’s establishment has focused on Beyoncé’s perceived authenticity and whether or not she is pulling focus from the black women already in the country music space that they barely support at all, and begrudgingly at that. 

The significance of what Beyoncé has accomplished over the last three weeks is less about Billboard chart statistics– as Chris Molanphy has written about at length, the “Hot Country Songs” chart is prone to a litany of problems and false positives that overstate a single’s status or inclusion within the genre’s real establishment– and more about how she has used her cachet as one of the two or three biggest stars in popular music to bring attention to the contributions of black artists in both the historic and present country music space. It’s important, to be sure, that a black woman can now claim a #1 single as the lead performer on any country chart, but it’s even more important that Beyoncé’s visibility in earning that #1 might challenge entrenched stereotypes of who is allowed to make and who is allowed to love country music. If any one member of the Beyhive checked out and then fell in love with Roberta Lea or Colin Cutler or Chapel Hart or Willie Jones or Kentucky Gentlemen or Amythyst Kiah? That matters.

To suggest otherwise is, again, a matter of gatekeeping and an insistence that, because country music has historically been defined through the narrow set of experiences of straight white Christian men but for a tiny sample of exceptions, it should only ever be thus. I don’t buy that and never have: Country music is better when it recognizes the actual lived truth that country people are not a single monolith, and the more of those people who have opportunities to have their experiences heard and believed, the better.

It reminds me of a powerful statement made by the late Toni Morrison in a famous lecture at Portland State University in 1975:

It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is.

Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up.

None of that is necessary.”

Here, with “Texas Hold ‘Em,” we see in real time, nearly 50 years after Morrison laid bare the impacts of racists and their institutions on art, the act of a black artist needing to insist upon their right to exist. You’re from Texas? Oh, but you’re not from (try that in a) small town, Texas. You’re singing about a dive bar? Oh, your net worth is $800M. You’re singing with a lot of melisma? Oh, you aren’t Reba or Jennifer Nettles or Gary LeVox.

None of that is necessary.

From the opening bars, we have Rhiannon Giddens– MacArthur Fellow, Oberlin alumna, erstwhile Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman– plucking a lively riff on her banjo, establishing both melody and rhythm for the track. We get a few Millennial Whoops straight out of the Lumineers’ playbook– recall, too, that “Ho Hey” peaked at #49 on country radio– and some cheerful whistling that recalls the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show. We get an acoustic guitar as a lead instrument in the arrangement when the production brings in more than just Beyoncé’s singing over some boot-stomping percussion and Giddens’ banjo.

That banjo riff is spectacular, because of course it is, and the way it foregrounds rhythm is perfectly suited for a song that is a plea to, “take it to the floor now.” On the whole, “Texas Hold ‘Em” is, like countless other country hits, a celebration of escapism– of going to a bar to get away from problems that “just feel dramatic” or from tornados both literal and figurative. Beyoncé is known for her sense of humor, and the line that has drawn the most scrutiny from listeners who believe that song lyrics can only ever be autobiographical (“We’re headed to the dive bar we always thought was nice”) is both funny and tied to the country tradition of giving voice to the working class. 

The narrator on “Texas Hold ‘Em” has friends in low places, too. And she’ll have a real live boogie with those friends just as quickly as she’ll have a real live hoedown with a friend who rolled up in a Lexus. The whole point is the inclusivity. Beyoncé expresses that POV by bringing her own vernacular (“That shit ain’t pretty”) into a story that otherwise falls squarely into familiar country narrative tropes. She also brings her trademark vocal style– the aforementioned melisma and show-offy runs– to a performance that is joyful. On a song that is about the importance of opportunities to escape from the daily grind, Beyoncé sounds like she’s having fun. Again, that matters.

It’s not a perfect single by any means. Given that she’s responsible for what I’d argue is the most rapturous middle eight in the pop canon, the instrumental bridge with just some whistling and “woo hoo” shouts is a let-down. The coda suggests that, like Renaissance, there is some purposeful track sequencing in store for the full album, which doesn’t necessarily work on a standalone single.

But in the scope of all of the things Beyoncé gets right about country conventions and about crafting a great single, period, on “Texas Hold ‘Em,” that nit-picking? 

None of that is necessary, either. A


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  1. Hey, Jonathan and Kevin. I wanted to share how much I love and use these single reviews to help me wade through all the music out there.

    As silly it sounds, I have always experienced music by reading about it first. It takes some time for me to commit to new artists and music. I am not a good sampler in the moment. Reading your takes on new music helps me organize and rank songs and artists of interest in my head, according to rules known only to me.

    The real magic of “Texas Hold ‘Em” is its ability to recruit and enroll listeners in the moment, live to air. There is no discovery delay. It’s now and that is so very cool.

    I had to discover “Modern Sounds in Country and WesternMusic” by combing through my parents record collection. I learned about Millie Jackson’s country album by reading an Oxford American essay. I learned about Stoney Edwards while flipping through CDs at Sam the Record Man in Toronto. I became aware of Arthur Alexander through songwriting credits on a Bob Woodruff cd. There was always a lag between the artist’s creative moment and my later discovery of it.

    There is no wait when a song is on top of the charts.

    • This feedback is appreciated. The single roundups are helping keep me up-to-date as well! I make a point to include mainstream radio singles as often as possible so we at least keep a little bit in the loop, and possibly discover some great things that are being sent to radio. I don’t listen to the song before choosing it for a round up, so it’s a discovery process for me from the jump.

  2. Re. “Texas Hold ‘Em”: What would be funny is if that song topped all three major charts (Pop; R&B; C&W) at the same time at some point. The last time this was done was in 1958, with “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers; and then there were the five songs by Elvis that had done likewise (“Heartbreak Hotel”; “Don’t Be Cruel”; “Hound Dog”; “All Shook Up”; “Jailhouse Rock”) in 1956 and ’57.

  3. …here’s another knock on the wonder women’s “another broken heart” – it may sound “like a new solo single from kelly willis, but it surely sounds like tracy byrd’s “a cowboy and dancer” (2007), just with different lyrics.

    …beating charley crockett in the coolness department is a heck of a task these days.

    …i think, even if beyoncé had been born in the circle of the grand ole opry – the ryman one – some people still would have wanted her to have kept her country mouth shut. then again, rome wasn’t built in a day either, was it? bless (texas hold) ’em

    • I actually laughed out loud when I saw someone whining about Beyoncé cutting the line in front of other black women in country music, as if after a hundred years, country music was just about to let black women in.

      It reminds me of the congressional clowns who say that they are opposing helping Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine because we have to take care of America first, while simultaneously threatening to shut down the government unless they can “block an effort by Democrats to increase funding for nutrition programs for low-income women and children.”

      Black women have been making some of the best country music for years. If the country music industry was going to embrace any of them, it would’ve happened by now.

      Regardless, Rhiannon Giddens has now played on a Hot 100 No. 1 song, and that alone makes Bey’s most significant foray into country music a victory. I’d prefer a world where Bey was collaborating with country music superstar Rhiannon Giddens, but this is as close as we’re going to get. For now.

      • You’re not kidding, Kevin, If they really wanted to embrace black female country artists, they actually could have done so starting perhaps five or ten years ago, as we saw with Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, and others. I really don’t know how anyone thinks people should react to Nashville ignoring these women any other way than they do.

        As for Beyonce actually collaborating for Rhiannon–Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it (LOL). Seriously, however, that actually would be a hell of a lot of fun (IMHO).

        • “Texas Hold ‘Em” is a good start! I hope she’s on more of the tracks on the rest of the album.

          The women you list are making excellent music of a much higher caliber than most of what’s on the radio, and that’s with radio getting somewhat better over the last couple of years.

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