Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 13

Four new records get A’s across the board.

“Count the Days”

Swamp Dogg featuring Jenny Lewis

Written by Charlie Foxx, Brooks O’Dell Johnson, Jerry Williams Jr., and Yvonne Williams

Jonathan Keefe: Jenny Lewis’ solo career has always fallen under the “big tent” of country music, with occasional forays out from under that canopy. “Count the Days” is perhaps the most dead-center “country” she’s ever sounded on record. The influences of Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson are all over her phrasing of this spectacular chorus: “If you don’t believe I’m a-leavin’ / Just count the days I’m gone.”

For his part, Swamp Dogg largely stays out of Lewis’ way here, offering some call-and-response type backing vocals and bringing Lewis in as a collaborator on his latest project. As is his wont, he showcases a savvy incorporation of Bluegrass instrumentation into an aesthetic that truly melds country forms with traditional blues and R&B conventions. He’s confident enough in what he’s doing that he can take a backseat on a single from his own damn record because he knows it’s just a total banger. A

Kevin John Coyne: This is a roots record in the purest form imaginable.

Much like all of the Abrahamic religions can be traced back to Judaism, the roots of American music can be found in blues, country, and R&B.  Regardless of how things have branched off since then, the roots are there, and they’re on full display on “Count the Days.”

Swamp Dogg creates the perfect playground for Jenny Lewis to cut loose, and the result is a timeless bop that feels contemporary and classic at the same time.  What an entertaining effort from two outstanding musicians.  A


“Dirt Cheap”

Cody Johnson

Written by Josh Phillips

KJC: Cody Johnson continues to release exquisitely written material. 

“Dirt Cheap” isn’t the first country song to explore the emotional impact of selling land that has been in the family for generations.  This one has the defiance of “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm” as well as the poignance of “Cafe on the Corner,” a winning combination that makes the devastating pain and the determined resistance of the protagonist that much more compelling.

It’s remarkable after all these years that you can still get a classic country song now and then that is “three chords and the truth.”   Just pair a great song with tasteful production and a strong singer and you’ve got a classic.

So simple on paper, yet so rare in the wild.  A

JK: Spectacular. The obvious centerpiece of Johnson’s Leather, “Dirt Cheap” is a career record that is certain to catapult CoJo fully onto the genre’s A-list, and if that signals an ongoing sea change within the tone and quality of the mainstream? Hallelujah.

To piggyback on Kevin’s comment, I certainly hear the poignance of “Cafe on the Corner” here, and I also hear the melancholy of “The Dreaming Fields” and the generation-spanning perspective of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” The idea that a song of this quality is poised to be an outright hit is just so encouraging. A


“Roll On Mississippi”

Danielia Cotton

Written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan

JK: What I love about “Roll On Mississippi” is how Cotton leans into a down-home country blues aesthetic– the guitar licks still shine in the mix here, and there’s a rasp to Cotton’s voice that is just everything– while putting just enough studio polish on it to make it sound like a hit. Or, at least, what would’ve been a hit in the summer of 1993.

The song itself boasts a clear sense of place while still having a broad resonance about ties to home. Its nostalgia feels earned, rather than overly romanticized, and that’s an important distinction.

For her part, Cotton sings the absolute fire out of this. She belts. She growls a little. She breaks between her chest and head voices at the end of lines when it feels right. She pulls back the volume and drops into her lower register. And every single change in her performance is deliberate and elevates the song, and I want to live in the timeline where she’s a massive star. A

KJC:  For all of the credit the industry likes to give itself for Charley Pride’s superstardom, I don’t think Pride himself gets enough credit for what he brought to country music.Specifically, on records like “Roll On Mississippi,” how he brought the southern African-American experience into country music.  There’s something odious about the recent trend to write off Black artists who record country music as interlopers, given that it was their ancestors who worked the land and  built the American south as we know it today.

“Roll On Mississippi” feels heavy with that history in Danielia Cotton’s hands, thick with the heat and sweat of a summer in the American south. Her performance helps surface some of the underlying tension of the whistling walks that Pride sang about, as he later disclosed in his autobiography the racial epithets that were hurled at him as a child as he walked along those Mississippi roads.

It reminds me of how when Alison Krauss covered “9 to 5,” she brought all of the drudgery of office life to the surface in her rendition, making for an interesting counterpoint to Parton’s original recording. The lyrics didn’t change, but the perspective of the singer did, and it gave new life to an old song. 

This is also a contemporary artist having a conversation with one of her genre’s ancestors, and it’s all the more powerful because of it.  What an amazing record.  A


Put it in a Song

Trisha Yearwood

Written by Jim “Moose” Brown, Erin Enderlin, and Trisha Yearwood

KJC: Trisha Yearwood has always cited Emmylou Harris as her ultimate role model because her music is consistently excellent and she is deeply respected by her peers.

So how appropriate that Yearwood, who recorded better outside material than any country artist in the last forty years, would write her own album for the first time, just like Harris did in 2000 with Red Dirt Girl

And damn if she doesn’t pull it off.  “Put it in a Song” is Trisha Yearwood’s strongest single since the Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love era.  Yearwood already recorded the gold standard of songs about songs with “The Song Remembers When.”  That she had the audacity to revisit the same theme as a songwriter and that she actually pulls it off is a stunning achievement.

She knows how good this song is, and she takes a real singer-songwriter approach to it.  The production is sparse and her vocal is restrained.  The lyric has nowhere to hide, and it blossoms in broad daylight.

It would be a highlight in just about anyone’s catalog.  That bar is higher to clear for Yearwood than anyone actively recording today, and she clears it with room to spare.  A  

JK: Given her stature within the industry, Trisha Yearwood could have chosen to work with any of Music Row’s long list of hired-gun songwriters– the Ashley Gorleys, Hillary Lindseys, and Josh Osbornes of Nashville who are consummate professionals but who do not always have a distinct trademark that elevates their work. But no, for her first album to showcase her voice as a songwriter, she’s chosen to co-write with an artist like Erin Enderlin, who has released some tremendous, under-the-radar albums over the last few years, and who is a writer of the caliber of the Matraca Bergs and Kim Richeys whose songs she was cutting in her commercial prime.

As ever, there is no questioning Trisha Yearwood’s taste.

What “Put It In a Song” suggests is that there’s not going to be reason to question her songwriting bona fides, either. While I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say this fully in conversation with “The Song Remembers When” as a composition, I’d argue that very few songs are. And I’d also argue that this is one of the finest “songs about songs” I’ve heard in the decades since Yearwood released that landmark single. 

We know from her “Cry Myself To Sleep” duet with Wynonna last year that she can still cut loose on a record, so her understated, restrained delivery here is truly about the song itself and not a matter of diminished capacities. She remains the premier vocalist of her generation. Now are we going to need to reconceptualize her as one of her generation’s premiere singer-songwriters? I can’t wait to hear more to find that out. A

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