Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 7

Three out of four records score top marks as the country music renaissance continues.


“Somewhere in the Tide”

Roberta Lea

Written by Roberta Lea

JK: The opening track from Lea’s tremendous 2023 debut album, Too Much of a Woman, gets its proper push as a single, and it’s a testament to everything that makes Lea one of the most vital artists in contemporary country. The imagery here is lush and vibrant and creates a true sense of place: It’s the kind of writing that the genre’s authenticity cops should be fawning over, but for the very obvious reasons why they won’t. The song’s melody is just lovely: It carries a real sense of movement that’s structurally perfect for a song about changes over time.

The line that has stuck with me is, “Someday we’ll be the lesson somebody else will teach,” and what a powerful sentiment that is. Reflecting on this exact cultural moment, when black women are consistently responsible for some of the highest-caliber country music and are doing so in greater numbers and with greater visibility than at any point in a lifetime, it’s important that Lea recognizes the magnitude of her own art and of her contributions to a movement that’s greater than any one artist. And the way she leans into her drawl when she delivers that line– the short /e/ in the word “lesson” transforms into at least four separate vowel sounds– feels like an act of defiance. When so many of the genre’s white men constantly insist upon their country bona fides, for a black woman to sing with such a thick country accent and to do so with conviction is to insist that, yes, she belongs in this space. 

Would that the industry truly embraced songs of this quality, an artist like Lea might not seem revolutionary just for the virtue of her down home vernacular, but here we are. I pray that Americana and AAA radio bite on this, because it’s one of the year’s best singles to date, and it’s the best showcase yet for what Roberta Lea can do. A

KJC: When Wynonna recorded Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Girls With Guitars,” we got a brief taste of brilliant and sophisticated songwriting paired with vocals beyond reproach.

Roberta Lea brings both to the table, taking a lyric that was already captivating and elevating it with her distinctive and compelling vocal performance. This is country music at its philosophical best, illuminating the mysteries of life and reminding us of our own mortality and the legacy that we will leave behind.  

The legacy of nineties country lives on, if you’re willing to look beyond the radio dial. A  


“Cowboys and Plowboys”

Jon Pardi & Luke Bryan

Written by Rhett Akins, Jacob Rice and Cole Taylor

KJC: I’m genuinely confused.

Both of these performers have this “aw shucks” delivery that would’ve worked well for what is a very lightweight song. It’s like the Music Row dudes all got a memo that they’re not allowed to smile and be joyous, especially when singing about serious matters such as the difference between cowboys and plowboys. 

This would’ve made for a great novelty song, if the singers were in on the joke.

Is there even a reason that cowboys and plowboys need to reconcile? There is a laundry list of signifiers provided.  “I drink whiskey” vs. “I drink beer” is representative of them.

It all plays like a weak SNL skit that gets cut for time at a quarter to one.  C   

JK: I’m so salty that Kevin made me listen to this for our Roundup this week.

The premise barely scans as an actual joke– if there’s any sort of a punchline, it’s lost on me– and the song exists only because it took three hired gun songwriters to realize that these two words happen to rhyme. It’s not offensive in any meaningful way, which is why Jason Aldean wouldn’t bother with it, but it’s just artless

That Bryan is well past his prime comes across in a tryhard performance, and I’ve yet to hear anyone who actually sounds good when paired with Pardi’s froggy vocal tone that works well when he’s solo but makes him a terror of a duet partner. The best part of this is that I’ll have memory-holed it by this time next year, as I imagine a whole lot of people will have. D


“Hello Stranger”

Kelsey Waldon & SG Goodman

Written by A.P. Carter

JK: Waldon and Goodman are fine examples of how modern artists who trade in traditional country get tagged as “Americana” because we live in an era when words and facts mean very little. They’re kindred spirits, these two, and they’re two of the greatest talents among the next-gen traditionalists. That makes Goodman an ideal foil for Waldon on this cover of “Hello Stranger,” the first single from her forthcoming record of songs that first pulled her into country music: They make this Carter Family track sound fully of a piece with their own contemporary perspectives, while keeping it rooted in the genre’s history.

The call-and-response between Waldon and Goodman gives both of them the opportunity to shine here, and they both give knowing performances that are so effortless that the record truly sounds like a conversation between two old friends who are just shooting the shit… and maybe getting into some shit they know they shouldn’t. Justin Francis’ production here is flawless, too; this is twangy as all get-out, while still taking advantage of modern engineering tech that allows every instrument to ring true. “Hello Stranger” shows how even a song that’s nearly a century old can figure into the modern genre in ways that aren’t just about paying lip-service to or reflexively over-valuing the past. A

KJC:  The Carter Family’s songs are timeless because they deal with love and loss in the most plainspoken and simple ways. They’re of the time they were written but not tethered to it. You don’t need to understand what it was like to live during the Great Depression or World War II to appreciate the truth in their lyrics.

“Hello Stranger” is a song I first heard on the 1993 CBS Women of Country special, where it was Emmylou Harris leading the call and response, supported by a pre-stardom Jon Randall. She’d included it on her live album with the Nash Ramblers, which defeated radio hits by Alabama, Brooks & Dunn, The Kentucky Headhunters, and Restless Heart to win the Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. 

That win was an early indicator of the eventual split between Country and Americana, where music more in line with the roots of country music would be sidelined in favor of what was getting radio airplay.  It’s mind-boggling that this take on “Hello Stranger” would be categorized as anything but country: fiddles, steel, and twangy vocals on a track written by A.P. Carter should check all the boxes.

This is one of the best traditional country records I’ve heard in a very long time, and it’s a credit to Waldon and Goodman that they made such a familiar song sound current and relevant again. A

The One (Pero No Como Yo)

Carin León & Kane Brown

Written by  Edgar Barrera, Kane Brown, Jonathan Capeci, Oscar Armando Diaz de Leon, Bibi Marín, Julio Ramirez, Elena Rose, and Johan Sotelo

KJC: Kane Brown’s collaboration with Carin León brings together the best of both worlds: country music and Regional Mexican music.

I couldn’t help thinking back to those great seventies records by Freddy Fender when listening to it, but even more so, I thought about Linda Ronstadt.  She wrote powerfully in her memoir about living near the border and hearing both Mexican music and country music on her radio. It wasn’t until I heard her Mexican records that I fully understood how she fused the two together. 

In that sense, this collaboration is one of the most purely traditional country records of the year so far, especially for those of us who adore the Tex-Mex stylings of Fender and Ronstadt. 

Kane Brown gives one of his strongest vocal performances to date on “The One (Pero No Como You),” a positively bewitching record that showcases the emotional impact of twang. I love the way that both Brown and Leon express their heartache by dialing up the twang.  Brown just keeps getting stronger as a singer, and León does a great job at keeping up with him.

For those only fluent in English, something you might miss on this record is how well the Spanish and English verses play off of each other. In the first verse, León sings, “Que otro perro te ladre más,” which translates roughly to “Let another dog bark at you more.”  Brown fleshes out the details, noting that “You’re here and then you’re goin’, goin’, gone. But I know you’ll be back soon…’cause you know I’m the one.”

Country music is at its best when it’s at its least insular.  It should stand proudly alongside other forms of popular music, knowing that it has just as much to offer other genres as it has to learn from them. More so than any other A-lister, Kane Brown understands this. 

On “The One (Pero No Como Yo),” two superstar artists found a commonality between their singing, songwriting, and love of acoustic instrumentation, and it produced yet another song that will be in contention for my end of year list.  A

JK: When we reviewed a few of Brown’s cross-genre collaborations last fall, I wasn’t sold on either the quality of their craft or on how Brown’s participation really followed the logic of his career arc or persona. But this? This, I like.

Kevin’s parallels to the best of Ronstadt and Fender are spot-on, and this also makes me think of the work of some 90s artists whose work I loved at the time: Alejandro Escovedo, Rosie Flores, and Tish Hinojosa. Another more recent parallel is to The Last Bandoleros, whose incorporation of traditional Mexican and Tejano influences into their pop-country landed them on our year-end singles countdown a couple of years back. Aesthetically, this all just works, and I love how this single highlights specific cultural signifiers while still sounding like the best of today’s pop-country.

And I love that Brown is leaning into the notion that country music is at its best when it’s at its most inclusive. Just as with Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ‘Em,” “The One” is a celebration of who is allowed to make country music and who is allowed to love it. A

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