Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 21

Gretchen Peters and Sam Williams both have Single of the Year contenders this week.

“Watch it Shine”

Gretchen Peters

Written by Owen Temple and Walt Wilkins

Jonathan Keefe: When one of the all-time great songwriters chooses to record a cover, the song has better meet a certain set of expectations. And wow, does “Watch It Shine” deliver. Temple has described the song as a “transcendental road song or… a love letter to the sun,” neither of which I could dispute or hope to improve upon.

What’s great here is how the song is of a piece, both in terms of the quality of its songcraft and of the thematic content that focuses on finding a guarded sense of optimism in the natural world, with Peters’ best work. Highest of praise, then, to say that I’d have clocked “Watch It Shine” as a new Peters original. She sings it with warmth and passion, too: It’s worth mentioning how her voice continues to take on a similar timbre to Emmylou Harris’, which is even more high praise. A

Kevin John Coyne: I’m so happy that Gretchen Peters never went the full mainstream country route, choosing instead to patiently cultivate her talents as a singer and recording artist over time, in tandem with her continued growth as a songwriter.

Back in my Twitter days, I once observed that Peters could’ve put her pen down after writing “She got a divorce and a chestnut horse” and retired as a legend. That she’s continued to push herself even beyond songwriting and has become one of our best interpretive singers is impressive, but unsurprising because it all comes from the same well of humanity.

The song is gorgeous, the vocal elevates it, and together they have me once again pining for a covers record from one of the greatest songwriters in country music history. A


“I Could Use One”

Tracy Lawrence

Written by Brad Hutsell, Kyle James, Anthony Olympia, and Brent Rupard

KJC: Someone uploaded the 1993 ACM Awards to YouTube this week, and I got to relive the amazing moment where Tracy Lawrence won Top New Male Vocalist over Billy Ray Cyrus, who was heavily favored. It was an early moment of recognition for an artist who’d ultimately go far too unrecognized, given the consistent quality of his material and his entrancing vocal performances.

I can definitely hear the impact of time on Lawrence’s voice on “I Could Use One.” Where I diverge from my colleague is that for me, it heightens the impact of the lyric, which I quite like. You reach a certain point of middle age, and there are things that you want – even need – that are visible but out of reach, and it’s too late to start all over again. I hear that specific sort of melancholy all over this track. 

I wish the production was stronger, in the sense that the band sounds great but what they’re doing isn’t perfectly in sync with what Lawrence is doing at the mic. Go back and listen to one of his classic records, and you’ll hear how well the musicians were intertwined with his singing.

But a good song delivered well enough by a nineties country legend is bound to hit my sweet spot, and this does.  B

JK: In terms of the songwriting, this is the weakest track on Lawrence’s new EP. That it’s the song that pulls most heavily from contemporary tropes is no coincidence: There’s an over-reliance on rhythm and internal rhyme that both lend themselves to list-making more so than real narrative heft.

This would be one of the better songs Thomas Rhett ever cut. But not Tracy Lawrence.

That it’s so far out of his wheelhouse is evident in his half-out-of-breath, slurred-consonant performance. He sounds like he’s struggling to keep up with the lyrics at all, let alone giving a nuanced delivery. And it only heightens how thin and AutoTuned his voice is on this project. 

Our Every Number One Single of the Nineties run served as a reminder of how good Lawrence was in his heyday. Those hits are worth revisiting. This single is barely worth a first listen. D


“American Actress”

Sam Williams

Written by Greg Becker and Emily Nemmers

JK: A lilting, minor-key lament, “American Actress” is a tremendous trad-country throwback: With its references to Garbo and Grable, it sounds like a song Williams unearthed from some Music Row vault that had been sealed for decades. 

Still, Becker’s and Nemmer’s song showcases a modern POV that works well for Williams. A line like, “Some say that I’m unstable / Because I go from Garbo to Grable / Scared to death that one day you’ll get bored,” is a marvel of contemporary neuroses and self-doubt, even if it’s couched in terms of Golden Era icons and set to a an arrangement that’s drenched in lonesome fiddle.

Williams emotes the hell out of this, too. The song demands a balance of self-awareness and insecurity, and that’s the piano wire Williams dances along. This is a career-best from an artist still putting the finishing touches on a distinct persona. A

KJC: Sam Williams understands the raw appeal of his grandfather’s music better than anyone in his lineage that has preceded him, great as many of those artists were.

Because there’s nothing derivative about “American Actress.” It’s the genuine article. If Hank Williams came along in 2024 and happened to be gay, I think his records would sound exactly like this.

The nerves are just as exposed here as they were on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The absolute agony of being in a relationship that you’re certain will end once you drop your facade.

It’s Impostor Syndrome: The Musical, and I am here for it. A



Johnny Cash featuring Dan Auerbach

Written by Johnny Cash

KJC: Absolutely not.

Everything about “Spotlight” highlights what was lost when Johnny Cash stopped being seen as an artist and started being seen as a deity.

It’s too reverential, and it betrays the producer’s fundamental misunderstanding of Johnny Cash. The first American Recordings album cut straight to the bone because it washed away all of the layers of artifice that had clouded Cash’s work for the fifteen years leading up to it. Cash himself said that for many years, he felt that he wasn’t being Johnny Cash. He was, in his words, “burlesquing Johnny Cash.”

But I would take burlesquing over this slow moving funeral procession. Johnny Cash has never felt more dead.  F 

JK: I’m so tired of Dan Auerbach’s production. He’s become as one-note as Dave Cobb or Brandi Carlile, and his ubiquity in the country and Americana spaces over the last five-plus years has contributed to a certain fatigue that’s spilled over to his day job as half of The Black Keys, who saw their album and ticket sales go off a cliff this summer.

“Spotlight” sounds exactly like everything else Auerbach has touched of late. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I would’ve gone to bat for this exact sound five years ago– Hell, I’m on record as a huge fan of Dee White’s debut album– if he hadn’t long ago beaten this horse to death. It’s even a decent context in which to set a vintage Cash vocal track: I like hearing a youthful Cash in this kind of aesthetic, as opposed to how his voice continued to diminish over the course of the American Recordings series.

The song itself is fine: Cash’s songwriting relies on an economy of language that is contrasted with his larger-than-life presence on record. “Spotlight” doesn’t ever pull off that tension because Auerbach is continuously pulling focus. C

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1 Comment

  1. …i could imagine that lucinda williams would have been proud of having written “american actress”. beautiful record. knowing who played on these “new” cash songs, i can’t help to be impressed with the sound they recreated. hearing cash again? is a bacon cheeseburger ever not welcome? i accidentally spent quite a chunk of the pandemic with gretchen peters’ “hello cruel world” album playing. pretty fitting at the time and to john prine’s.”watch it shine” is a terrific song and goes with her vocal style ike “the matador”. she’s a very special artist indeed.

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