Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 10

Four great records this week from three longtime Country Universe favorites and a new artist who will likely become one.

“Gallows Tree”

Jessye DeSilva featuring Old Tom & The Lookouts

Written by Alex Calabrese and Jessye DeSilva

JK: There’s a bar & grille downtown– it’s changed names a couple of times over the last decade, though it operated as one particular iteration for almost my entire lifetime– that I used to frequent in my mid-20s. I have countless fond memories of evenings spent overlooking the bustling weekend sidewalks before going out bar-hopping with friends, bouncing between the vaguely sketchy basement dive bar, the broom closet-sized music club where I saw so many amazing shows (Arcade Fire! Kelly Willis!! Drive-By Truckers!!!), the Irish pub that was always too loud for a conversation, and the drag revue where my uncle performed Reba’s version of “Fancy.” I think about how, by choice, I’m not close to any of those friends anymore and haven’t been for years, and how the sadness of that still doesn’t make me regret those choices today.

“Gallows Tree” brought all of this up because that bar & grille operates on the site of what used to be my town’s slave auction house; there’s a marker right on the sidewalk to give a sanitized version of its history. And when Jessye DeSilva sings, “There’s a tire swinging from the gallow’s tree / And there’s an angry rift between you and me / And we’re living like it’s fine,” it makes me reconsider who I thought I was twenty-odd years back and how easy it is to ignore what’s ugly about our own histories– the personal ones and the shared ones.

The undercurrents of melancholy and frustration in this song ring true for me in a way that I’d like to imagine ring true for anyone who tries to do better when they know better, but that’s all speculative. DeSilva, for her part, delivers this message with powerful conviction: When she sings, “Bringing out the worst in both of us / Darling, all we have is time,” she’s not necessarily letting anyone off the hook, but she’s also showing empathy for those who need to learn to check their privileges on occasion. It’s a heady lesson for what is, on the surface, a country-folk tune with a lovely melody and an arrangement that gives DeSilva ample room to breathe. Sometimes a tire swing is just a tire swing, but Jessye DeSilva is keenly aware of what it means when things aren’t that simple. A

KJC: DeSilva and co-writer Alex Calabrese pull off some ambitious songwriting here.  To draw parallels between the glossed over history of lynching and the glossed over cracks in a relationship could have been disastrous because there was a serious risk of trivializing the former by pairing it with the latter.

They smartly intertwine the two threads instead of separating them, making it feel like a stream of consciousness epiphany that the two are connected. This approach reveals something about human nature as a whole, like how dangerous self-deceptions can be.  A      


“Fiddle in the Band”

Kane Brown

Written by Kane Brown, Gabe Foust, Russell Sutton, and Jordan Walker

KJC: When I went to Nashville for college, it was like being reunited with long lost relatives who truly got me.

There we were on the Belmont campus, having come from all corners of the country for the same reason: the country music that we loved so much that we couldn’t imagine making a living anywhere but Music Row.   

We bonded over the craziest things, like how passing Halcyon Avenue off 12th Ave South made us think about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Jubilee.” We headbanged to Suzy Bogguss’ “Other Side of the Hill” like it was a personal anthem, as if we’d actually been to a rodeo.

But when we got in the car we were true nineties kids.  That meant Pam Tillis and Wynonna were going to pop up on mixtapes next to Pearl Jam and Jay-Z, because country music wasn’t the only genre that was reaching new artistic heights in those days.

Kane Brown was just a boy when we were in college,  and growing up, the first album that he remembers jamming out to was Shania Twain’s Come On Over.  So of course he was making mix CDs in the 2000s like we did in the nineties. His eclectic music tastes show up in his live show, he can do rapid fire covers of “Ol’ Red,” “Redneck Woman,” “hot girl bummer,” “Stand By Me,” “Beautiful Girls,” and “Simple Man. ” It makes sense that all of these covers work wonderfully, given that Brown can deliver a stone cold country song as effectively as a pop one.

He’s my favorite mainstream country artist to break out since the Chicks a quarter century ago, and it’s specifically because he is the embodiment of those mix tapes we used to make back in the day: country, rock, pop, R&B, and hip-hop, side by side, with none of their distinctive elements watered down beyond recognition.

“Fiddle in the Band” is Brown telling his origin story. If a fiery fiddle track gives you chills and 808 drums make you want to raise the roof, it may be your origin story, too.  

It’s a potpourri of sounds culled from multiple genres, anchored in country instrumentation like Brown has remained anchored in country music itself, but incorporating other styles that he is just as proficient in.  He’s a son of the south who embraces all of that region’s musical roots as his own, and his ecumenical approach to genre makes “Fiddle in the Band” a perfect distillation of Brown’s musical point of view.

It’s creative, inclusive, and as purely entertaining as any record that will be released this year.

He’s one of the best, and he keeps getting better. A

JK: A rebound from the underwhelming “I Can Feel It,” “Fiddle in the Band” is much more apiece with Brown’s run of ace singles over the last few years. I don’t think it’s quite the equal of his very best work, but it’s still mighty good and is handily one of the strongest singles shipped to country radio this year.

I love the notion of this as Brown’s origin story. As much as I never want to hear anyone wax poetic about “authenticity,” this would actually be a prime example for those who insist that is the only path to country music of value. What’s more important here, though, is Brown’s sincerity: Unlike so many men in modern country industry who undercut any emotional expression with a heavy dose of toxic masculinity tropes, Brown unabashedly loves what and who he loves.

That sentiment carries the song through some verses that aren’t as tightly structured as I’d like to hear. The way he elongates the word “ringing” past the natural meter in the opening stanza, for instance, is the kind of thing he typically avoids. That pre-chorus is straight fire, though. A-

“Country Back”

Scoot Teasley

Written by Ben Snelling and Scoot Teasley

JK: One of the standout tracks on Kane Brown’s Different Man was called “Riot,” and what was so significant about it was how Brown deliberately co-opted the language used by right-wing bigots for his own purposes. Scoot Teasley does something similar on “Country Back,” which manages to play as a response record to “Try That In A Small Town” and its ilk without ever being overtly reactionary.

In the same way that Roberta Lea’s drawled vowels on “Something in the Tide” feels like an act of rebellion, there’s real power in hearing a black artist in the country music space proclaim, “I want my country back,” in the year 2024. It’s provocative and subversive and ballsy as all hell, and it is yet another instance in which a black country artist is refusing to be gatekept.

Do I wish Teasley made that declaration in the context of a song that had a few more distinctive images or that didn’t lean so hard on feelings of nostalgia? Absolutely. The song itself is just okay on face value. It’s the greater context of Teasley’s delivery of the song that makes it work:  it’s more interesting and more important than it is outright great. But Teasley has a terrific voice and real gumption, so I’m fully in his corner. B+

KJC:  The vanishing of small town America’s markers hasn’t been translated into a good solid country song in a long while.  “Country Back” recalls Lonestar’s “Everything’s Changed” and John & Audrey Wiggins’ “Has Anybody Seen Amy?”, two songs that also reflected on familiar buildings chock full of memories being torn down and replaced.

I love the imagery of a little old church being torn down and replaced by “a bar that only serves red wine.” And is this the first country song to reference a Bojangles drive thru? Talk about your small town southern signifiers!

Teasley has one of those “wiser than his years” voices that gave young guns like Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Byrd some gravitas back in the day, and he puts it to good use here.  For me, this song captures what it feels like when you’re suddenly not the young and hip crowd anymore, and they’re the ones making new memories while you pine for days gone by.

A new artist who can hold his own alongside Kane Brown, Jessye DeSilva, and Tami Neilson is a promising talent worth paying attention to.  B+


Always On My Mind

Tami Neilson

Written by Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher, and Mark James

KJC:  Given the power of her pipes and her ability to emote even when belting out lyrics, Tami Neilson could’ve gone big and bold here and the results would still have been rewarding.

Instead, she goes quiet, singing barely above a whisper, and she delivers a bigger wallop because of it.

For as many wonderful readings that there have been of “Always On My Mind,” this is the first one where I truly believe that the person singing it really did have their partner on their mind all of the time.

Neilson sings this so delicately that it could be a lullaby for her young children, sung to them before bedtime as she’s getting ready to hit the road. Or it could be an early morning conversation in bed with her partner, reassuring him that he is never forgotten as he holds down the home fort while she chases her dream.

Neilson’s “Always On My Mind” is an expression of genuine gratitude, and she doesn’t need the catalyst of her loved ones walking out the door for her to show it.

She’s one of the best, and she keeps getting better.  A

JK: We already got one revelatory cover of “Always On My Mind” this year, thanks to Chris Stapleton’s soaring rendition of the song on the concert recording from Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday tribute show. Tami Neilson, of course, is one of the rare vocalists who can actually exceed Stapleton in terms of grit, power, and pure technique.

So I was fully prepared for her to blow the roof off this cover. Instead, she turns in what is her most understated performance since “Lonely,” her gorgeous and haunting duet with Marlon Williams, and she offers what I’d argue is the definitive rendition of one of the popular canon’s most perfect compositions. Truly, this is an ideal match of singer and song, and Neilson continues to make a case that she’s one of country music’s all-time greats. A

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