Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 9

Going old school pays dividends this week for Kimmi Bitter and Denitia.


“Old School”

Kimmi Bitter

Written by Kimmi Bitter and Michael Gurley

JK: I’m typically immune to the purported charms of things that exist just for the sake of nostalgia for a bygone era that is never as pure as described. So color me surprised by how much I like what Bitter’s on about here on “Old School.” I think what’s critical is the specificity of her citations: The “Folsom Prison Blues” guitar licks that punctuate the arrangement, gunfighter ballads that cut deep, and the sting of a needle droppin’ on a vinyl. It isn’t just a general sense of longing that Bitter’s expressing. She knows precisely what it is that gets her hot and bothered, and that makes all the difference.

Aesthetically, this recalls Tami Neilson’s first couple of records, right down to Bitter’s big hair and the lo-fi fuzz in the engineering. Inviting comparisons to Neilson is akin to having a death wish, and while Bitter doesn’t have a once-in-a-lifetime voice like Neilson’s, she’s a fantastic singer in her own right. She has a great tone and sense of control, and she doesn’t embarrass herself for invoking Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline. Let your old soul sing out, Kimmi Bitter. A-

KJC: Going all the way back to his Slant Magazine days, my general rule has been that I don’t want to read what Jonathan has written about something before I have to write about it.  It’s like he gets to all of my ideas first, makes them more sophisticated, and points out all of these other things that I’ve missed on my own.  He’s too damn good.

So I am so relieved that he didn’t mention Rosanne Cash in his blurb above, so I can add to what Jonathan has already captured so beautifully about this Bitter record.  Rosanne Cash is a wildly underappreciated vocalist, and Bitter’s gorgeous tone evokes King’s Record Shop-era Cash, which we could all use a lot more of these days.  I want to hear so much more of this. A


“Your Place”

Ashley Cooke 

Written by Ashley Cooke, Jordan Minton, and Mark Trussell

KJC: There’s a germ of a good idea here, as well as a couple of lines that manages to say something old in a new way (“You made your bed and I ain’t sleeping in it.”)

I can picture the writers having their “a-ha!” moment when they stumbled upon the potential double meaning of the title. I just wish they had delivered on the concept a bit more effectively.

The ideas are a bit underdeveloped, which make the stronger moments stand out more than they should.  The second verse includes the fresh break up take of telling you ex to forget your family’s birthdays, but it soon dissolves into cookie cutter drunk dial references.

Cooke has the goods. She just needs some more artist development time.  B-

JK: It’s interesting to me how much Cooke’s singing seems to improve over the course of this record: Those opening few bars are rough, but she’s settled into a confident and much better-controlled delivery by the time the final chorus hits. I’m not 100% convinced thay was a purposeful choice in her performance, but it does suit the content of the song itself.

Like Kevin, I like the concept here more so than the execution of that concept. I’m not usually keen on songwriting by committee, but I do wonder if a couple of hours of workshopping with some of Nashville’s better hired-gun songwriters might have resulted in a singular image or turn of phrase that would elevate this further.

As is? I wouldn’t be mad about hearing this on a radio playlist, but I don’t know that it’s something I’ll seek out again . C+


“What She’s Doing Now”


Written by Pat Alger and Garth Brooks

JK: A slowed-down, somber re-arrangement is such a tired trope when it comes to cover songs that an artist really has to demonstrate a deep understanding of a song to get away with that in the year 2024. Enter Denitia, who takes one of Garth Brooks’ best singles– no spoilers here for Kevin’s blurb– and dives into its core of loneliness and longing. 

Whereas Brooks’ rendition of “What She’s Doing Now” has a bit of a self-deprecating streak thanks to Brooks’ natural affability, Denitia never once lets herself off the hook for calling up an old flame’s old number. Denitia sounds absolutely crushed by the weight of recalling, “The last time I saw her, it was turning colder / But that was years ago,” on the song’s opening bars, and she only sinks further from there. She isn’t picking a scab; she’s cutting open a scar. Her performance is a masterclass of sadness and regret, and her vocal tone is simply a wonder. A

KJC:  Much like on Ashley McBryde’s bare bones cover of John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night,”  Denitia’s reading of the Garth Brooks classic “What She’s Doing Now” showcases the solid structure of nineties country music at its best. When songs are written well, they can shine even with the simplest of arrangements.

For me, Brooks’ original recording was a little too antiseptic, like it belonged on his less assured self-titled debut and not his landmark Ropin’ the Wind set. Until now, I’d have pointed to the original Crystal Gayle recording as the best “What She’s Doing Now” on record.  But Denetia’s haunting performance brings out shades of bittersweet that I’ve never heard from this lyric before.  What a fantastic revival of a song that needed to be heard just like this. A


Think I’m in Love With You

Chris Stapleton

Written by Chris Stapleton

KJC:  What do you do when you wrote a generic lyric and you want to make something compelling out of it in the studio?

I guess you thank God and Greyhound that you’re Chris Stapleton. His vocal performance does all of the heavy lifting that the lyric cannot do on its own. He infuses such a wide range of contradictory emotions with his performance, and he is supported by some phenomenal musicianship that could stand on its own as an instrumental record.

This doesn’t approach his finest moments so far, which is a high bar for anyone to clear. I still love listening to it, and it makes for some solid radio filler.  B

JK: There are some genre purists who get super pedantic about how Stapleton isn’t really a country artist and that he’s really more of a blues or R&B act. It’s an exhausting exercise in countrier-than-thou posturing, like the modern country genre has any business turning away an artist of his generational talent and massive pop-cultural appeal.

If “Think I’m In Love With You” were the first song of Stapleton’s I’d ever heard, though? I might say they have a point. 

This is the kind of modern engineering on a vintage-styled R&B record kind of single: It actually reminds me of the (very, very good) Silk Sonic album Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak put out a couple of years ago. That’s not a terrible thing to be, in and of itself, and Stapleton’s an even better singer than Mars. As a one-off album track, this is just fine; it’s actually quite good for what it is, even.

What’s at least a little bit frustrating here, though, is that Stapleton had a host of superior options for country radio hits on Higher: The title track, for instance, is one of his finest vocal performances, while “The Bottom” would surely be a Song Of The Year contender. My worry with Stapleton is always that radio PDs are just itching for a reason to drop him from heavy rotation, when he’s been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio for the last decade. And I think there’s a non-zero chance this is his “Camouflage” moment. It’s not such a massive departure for him, artistically, but it’s just enough of a dip in quality control that it nervouses me. It was for sure the wrong choice for a single. B-

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1 Comment

  1. …in the context of the whole album i like “think i’m in love with you” quite a bit. particularly, bearing in mind how the very first writing session of chris stapleton and morgane went. pretty steamy it seems. still, somewhat of a test for country radio morning show djs to announce or seeing it off with a smart little sentence. especially, right after something from dustin lynch that might have made you lost for words.

    having seen ashley cooke only recently opening for jordan davis, i’m more than slightly biased towards her. she was really as refreshing as she looks. her vocals matched almost perfectly what she is: your young woman from next door in a sunny part of the country following her arrow, which luckily hit bullseye on tiktok to start with a year ago or so. i like this one, even though i always hear a slightly irritating element of kelly clarkson’s “because of you” at the beginning of the refrain.

    “what she’s doing now” – very nice twist on a terrific original and on crystal gayle’s fine version.

    when i heard kimmi bitter for the first time recently, i thought: seriously? now, i’m more like: pure early boomer delight.

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