By Bobby Peacock
Jan 31, 2023
Jan 5, 2023
By Bobby Peacock
20. "Come Back as a Country Boy" by Blake Shelton
Blake has been on autopilot so long that I'm afraid he's about to crash into a mountain. And given how many singles in a row he's had that bricked on the charts, I think he's on his way off radio playlists. Although it doesn't help his case any that he's been so phoned in that he should be charged for a data plan. That's a lot of silly ways of saying that this is exactly the same stock country-boy tropes you've heard a billion times with no narrative and no personality. It's exactly what you think it is and nothing more; the only even mildly interesting thing is that it's in Dorian mode, but that didn't save "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" either, now did it? It's not even his worst song -- I doubt he'll ever sink as low as "Nobody but You" -- but it's a sad, cynical reminder of how far he's fallen creatively since "Austin."
19. "Strange" by Miranda Lambert
I think I finally get what Miranda has been doing the last couple albums. She seems to have ditched lyrical concreteness in favor of this more poetic troubadour style. And the fact that "Troubadour" is just about the only George Strait song that actually pisses me off should tell you why this isn't vibing with me at all. There's literally zero through line with these images. coyotes, Maytag dryers, a tired "country ain't country" argument (seriously -- people have made that argument ever since Buck Owens strapped on an electric. Knock it off.), and zero indication as to what "times like these" are supposed to be, or why they make her feel strange. I've rarely been more confused trying to figure out what a song is even about, and it makes me feel strange.
18. "Summer State of Mind" by Lady Antebellum
I'm not gonna lie: I legitimately hate listening to Lady Antebellum anymore. Their worst radio single "You Look Good" already made it clear that they're worse at conveying "fun" than a youth pastor wearing a backwards ball cap and ending every sentence in "yo." Charles Kelley is too mannered, and Hillary Scott too pitchy, for another tired name-drop of Yeti coolers, Ray-Bans, and "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" (which is so tired that I now see it on the shirts of residents in assisted living facilities). It's bad optics for Charles to be singing about alcohol when the band had to cancel a tour just so he could go into rehab. The production feels like Diet Florida Georgia Line what with the overly synthesized drumbeats and processed vocals (although the guitar tone is actually pretty good). That this song didn't chart shows that these guys are clearly in the past tense now; that and my hopes that Charles beats his demons for good are the only reasons this song isn't higher.
17. "Take My Name" by Parmalee
I tweeted "you can't spell 'Parmalee' without 'lame'" and the band liked the tweet. Take of that what you will. I don't know how these guys mounted a comeback; I thought for sure "Hotdamalama" would have torpedoed them. But a painfully boring wedding ballad with a Z-list trap artist somehow got them back on track. So what do they do next? Release practically the same damn song, just with less Blanco Brown. This has exactly the same cadence as its predecessor, and just like everything else, there's no sense of "band," just Matt Thomas' vanilla-ass voice and a backing track that sounds like it came off a Christian pop karaoke CD. There's no personality to the lyrics either; just the same sweet little nothings of holding hands, the first time, part of my world, baby baby baby (seriously, why do love songs overuse "baby" so much?). This is so boring that I'm just going to stop here and move on to the next review.
16. "Tell 'Em Why" by Redferrin
I didn't know who or what this was until I saw it on Trailer's list, and it was a single so it qualifies for mine. He's released several singles on Warner but I haven't seen any promotion for him whatsoever. No ads in the Billboard country update, no reviews, no streaming figures, nothing. And if this song is any indication, my theory is that Warner's embarrassed. Redferrin's raspy drawl sounds like if you had an AI mash up Tyler Hubbard, Jason Aldean, Chase Rice, and three or four other assorted bros. And the premise is douchey too. He's basically saying "yeah, we broke up, but tell 'em it's all your fault" -- and the only reason that doesn't seem worse is because other than "I always gave my best" he doesn't really give any reasons why he thinks he's right and she's wrong. But that's just made worse when we get to "now ya up in my IG' creepin' / Trnya hit my new girl in the DM" which kinda makes me think... hey, his ex seems a little douchey too. How do you make a breakup song where you can't root for anyone? Redferrin found a way.
15. "Soul" by Lee Brice
Brice has had this uncomfortable "fake nice guy" tone to his songs for years now that just makes him seem like a tryhard. "You're Mozart in the sheets" is the kind of pretentiousness you get from a guy who always carries around a copy of Pride and Prejudice but never reads it. And that's not even the worst line in the song, because coming up next is the part where he rhymes "holy mother of Moses" (you mean the woman best known for throwing baby Moses in the river to hide him from the Pharaoh) with "kiss you from your head to your toeses." The hook "I like your soul" is also painfully forced, and has nothing at all to do with the rest of the song. Even Brice's vocal feels forced, with the way he goes from zero to falsetto on the "toeses" line and then still somehow gets lost in the finger snaps and backing vocals. In a discography that includes him ripping off the melody of "Body Like a Back Road," name-dropping Microsoft, and singing about peeing, this is by far his worst.
14. "Easy Tonight" by Niko Moon
His least-bad song to date, but that's not saying much. I don't get his obsession with snap beats. Never mind how his vocal range is so limited that he has to go for a forced talk-sing that makes Walker Hayes sound like Gary Morris in comparison. On paper, I don't entirely hate his "no sad songs" motif: sometimes you just want to spread a little happiness. The problem is, I don't think he has any of that either. All of his songs are the same rehash of "drinking with my buddies" without a clever hook or anything that feels even remotely personal. If he could at least contextualize his eternal happiness -- maybe give a specific scenario, a bad thing in life he's recovered from, anything (seriously, you can't even name what brand of beer you're drinking?) -- then his artistic shortcomings might be mollified at least somewhat. But as it stands, Niko Moon's one-dimensional happy happy happy makes almost too easy of a target.
13. "Rolex® on a Redneck" by Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean
Why is Brantley Gilbert still releasing music? From the beginning he's recalled the worst dregs of the post-grunge scene. You could convince me he's an ex-member of Hinder and I'd believe you. Especially because his songs have the same snarling douchey tone as something like "Lips of an Angel." And this one is the same, just with more snap beats. And with this song, he staples on another forgotten relic of early-noughts music: glam rap. Am I supposed to buy that a country boy who's trying to be a butt-rock bro and hasn't had a hit in ages can afford to bling out his truck? At least "Fancy Like," awful as it was, had a goal that seemed attainable to a good ol' boy. But in a time where this song's target audience is probably saving up just to afford a McDouble, this seems all the more tone-deaf. And that's before we get to Jason Aldean, who's clearly too elite to even care anymore.
12. "Get Down Like That" by Gary LeVox
If you had asked me what Gary LeVox's first post-Rascal Flatts single would be, I would have taken 50 guesses before I got to "jacked up party in the woods anthem #39,487." Rascal Flatts did a lot of songs that just plain did not fit his unusual voice at all, but this is the worst mismatch yet. There's a weird processing on his voice that actually manages to bury his nasal-ness for once, but that just makes him seem even more out of place in a sea of bonfire, beer, boobs clichés. I don't need a 52-year-old man trying to show me how to "get down" when that's not something he's ever been known for doing. And what the hell is that sound around 2:20 in where it sounds like the synthesized horn section just threw up? Was even the music sick of Gary here? A Christian song or a love of family song would have been unoriginal, but at least it would have sounded like a good fit for his voice. This is just "you're not cool, dad."
11. "To Be Loved by You" by Parker McCollum
Ow, my ears. This one is ranked where it is for one reason: it's one of the whiniest songs I've ever heard in my life. Maybe it's just the wheedling way he sings it -- actually, no, I take that back. Even from a lyrical standpoint, this is a brat who won't shut the hell up. Lyrics like "Will it kill you to tell me the truth? / What in the hell does a man have to do to be loved by you?" sound like they're coming from the mouth of an entitled brat. Especially because we get literally zero details about what he's doing that makes him think he even deserves her love. It's just "me me me, pay attention to me me me, look at me, I'm trying soooohard and yet you still won't love me." Maybe if you'd stop bitching and actually put some genuine effort in, you might get somewhere with her. Ever think of that?
10. "Truth About You" by Mitchell Tenpenny
For the most part, the song can't decide what it wants to be: the vocal and musical tones are earnest and anthemic, and lines about meeting in the middle clash with all his angry attempts to figure out who's cheatin' who. But when he gets to the hook "If you quit telling lies about me, I won't tell the truth about you," it becomes uncomfortably threatening and misogynstic. This is not a guy who's bitter about an acrimonious end; this is a guy who's going to dox you unless you tell the story his way. Call the police. Maybe there's subtext I'm reading into this because it's coming from the same guy who gave us "Bitches" (which has eluded my lists only because it was never a single). Or maybe he's just a giant tool entirely on his own merits. I guess when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a tenpenny nail.
9. "Country On" by Luke Bryan
CountryOn, apply directly to the goofball. How did a great writer like Mark Nesler get roped into this? It's a lazy, pandering shout-out to good ol' hard-workin' boys in a fifth- or sixth-level dilution of "40 Hour Week (For a Livin')." That alone would make it hokey and toothless, never mind the tone-deaf pro-cop line and "thoughts and prayers" cliché for the soldiers. Even the chorus is lame with its "hey, hey, USA" chant, mollified only somewhat by "we ain't seen our better days" (a welcome subversion of the sanitized Norman Rockwell "good ol' days" nostalgia that usually makes these songs even worse). But then they just... run out of lyrics halfway through and country on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. It's a little heavier produced than Luke usually goes, but in the end, it's still got his emotion-less, range-less drone of a voice and the right level of pandering to get another #1 hit with zero staying power. (And after "Up" bombed, I actually kind of wanted him to stumble a bit harder to see if that would make him try something different...)
8. "Country'd Look Good on You" by Frank Ray
I found a lot of fascinating info on this guy when creating his Wikipedia article: he's Mexican-American (his real name is Francisco Gomez) and a former police officer. His first single "Streetlights" keeps some of that south-of-the-border flavor with nylon-string guitar, horns, and a few lines sung in Spanish. So what does he actually chart with? Stereotypical country-boy list song #3,999,999. Snap beats, muddled guitar, no bass, and a processed vocal with no phrasing. Back roads, alcohol, full moon, blue eyes, her waking up in his shirt. I knew what this song would sound like before I even heard it over the speakers at work for the first time. It's the kind of song that breaches top 20 and is completely forgotten -- seemingly by even the record label, as I saw zero promotion for this while it was active and have heard no word on a follow-up since. But maybe that's a blessing in disguise. He could easily leave BBR right now and independently release more songs like "Streetlights," and I bet he'd heat up in a way this stale bit of radio fodder didn't.
7. "How It Oughta Be" by Shane Profitt
While I do agree with a couple of his sentiments (take it from the son of a teacher; that profession's underpaid as hell), it immediately drops into cliché after cliché: cold beer, mama's chicken, high gas prices (seriously, people have been bitching about that since the gas station was invented; knock it off already). But there are two lines in particular that irked me: "somethin' good about somebody's all that oughta be told." So... no criticism of anyone? You do know criticism can be a good thing to help someone improve, right? (Like say, a no-name music writer giving a negative review of a song by a guy who seems like he otherwise has potential.) And of course we get to "oughta be off your ass when that anthem gets sung." I thought Take a Knee-l McCoy ran that argument into the ground years ago because people don't know what "peaceful protest" means. He does show promise in terms of delivery and production, but I think if he's going to break through, he needs to get off the soapbox first.
6. "AA" by Walker Hayes
He's just trying to set a good example for his kids; what's wrong with that? Well for one, it's hard to come across as a struggling everyman when you're swimming in money from Applebee's commercials. It's hard to come across as condemning alcohol when your last song name-dropped Natty Lite. And it's hard not to be grossed out about the line "keep my daughters off the pole" when your oldest one is, what, 16? The one genuinely good line ("I married up and she married way, way down in Alabama...") is negated by leading into yet another shoehorned-in college football reference for extra pandering points. Like all his other songs, it has the same awkward fumbly talk-singing and a drum machine that sounds like it was run over by a truck first. He sounds far less like a "real person" and more like the bumbling sitcom dad who was already a tired cliché when I was in kindergarten. But what really pissed me off was finding out that everyone I know who likes this song doesn't even know what AA is. That's a failure in communication right there.
5. "She Likes It" by Russell Dickerson and Jake Scott
The "boyfriend country" trend was clearly fading out this year, and this may very well be its last gasp unless Dan + Shay's "You" manages to pull itself out of the mud. Both men on this song have such wispy vocals that they make Justin Bieber sound like Tom Waits. The production consists entirely of a drum machine and guitar, yet still manages to clip so hard that my radio visibly vibrates when this song comes on. Lyrically it just lists off a bunch of sweet little nothings, and the hook "she likes it when I" doesn't even build to anything. I don't even know why Jake Scott was put on here, as the song makes literally no sense as a duet and there's zero attempt to make the two of them mesh artistically or even give a pretense of even being in the same state when their parts were recorded. Having them bond over their common ways with the opposite sex, or even having them competing for the same girl (or having them direct their love to each other) would at least have made this mildly interesting. I know this kind of romantic fluff isn't for me to begin with, but honestly, between this and "AA," even the wine mom demographic deserves better.
4. "Progress" by John Rich
I know this is another washed-up has-been stringing together conservative buzzwords for an audience he already knows will agree with him. So if it's not for me and it's not relevant, why even give it an entry? Because I feel its faults stand on their own. Blaming every perceived problem on an unquantified "they"? Straw-man non-sequiturs like "they say let go of Jesus and let government save"? Claiming that you, a white straight male, are being victimized and silenced? Check, check, and check. But lest it seem that I'm reviewing the politics and not the song, I will point out that John Rich is honestly not that bad as a producer. This sounds perfectly fine. But as a vocalist, he is way too laid-back to convey the anger he supposedly feels. Aaron Lewis' "Am I the Only One"may have been worse overall (mainly by having one overtly racist lyric), but Lewis at least felt passionate. This just feels like most of Rich's output lately: too lazy and cynical to even get angry at anymore, just enough to make me roll my eyes and wonder how we got from "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" to this.
3. "Dutton Ranch Freestyle" by David Morris
David Morris is lucky that his absolute butchering of "Carrying Your Love with Me" (sorry for bringing up memories of that) wasn't a single or I'd have to declare this a tie. Hick-hop at its worst gives us a lazy beat with token banjo and worse flow than that moldy tub of cottage cheese at the back of the fridge. Honestly, I could have put this on the list for the Morgan Wallen name-drop alone, but that's far from the only awful lyric. Where do I start? "I don't want y'all to get offended / Everybody's just so sensitive?” "I am the excrement"? (At least you admit it.) Name-drops of Yellowstone characters that, because they say nothing about those characters, go over the head of someone who doesn't watch the show? The abrupt switch from bar hookup to bragging about clout you clearly don't have as a Z-list TikTok rapper who probably won't have another single ever? This guy makes Colt Ford look like Merle Haggard in comparison.
2. "You Proof" by Morgan Wallen
To quote Spectrum Pulse, "the disinterest in actually changing feels palpable." And that's a great summary of Wallen here: after several years of drunken antics that normally kill careers, he's still wallowing in boozy self-pity, and not even acting like it's a problem as long as his stans keep him rolling in dough. And I could get angry at that, or how the "no such thing as bad publicity" machine has made this the longest-running #1 in the history of the Country Airplay charts. But entirely on its own, it's just a horrendous song. Joey Moi's tendency to smother every vocal in reverb and Auto-Tune is at its worst to try and bolster an even weaker than usual vocal read. The production is smothered in trap snares and other instruments so processed I can't even tell what they are. Hell, it isn't even in minor key. Lyrically, there is literally zero detail about the woman he's trying to forget -- not a description of who or what she even is, what she did that brought him here, just a litany of empty "trying to forget you" phrases amid all the alcohol name-drops. I need something Morgan Wallen-proof.
1. "Don't California My Texas" by Creed Fisher
Fun fact: the first time I heard this song was at a construction site by my house. The next song they played was by Uncle Kracker. I've mentioned before that "Texas, fuck yeah" is one of my least-favorite country music tropes (my disdain for "If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)" actually led to Trailer calling me a heretic), but that's actually the least of this song's issues. While have the same old guns, beer, wave the flag, "this country's going to hell" right-wing rhetoric (and for some reaspon, potshots at electric cars), what pushed this one to the top of my worst list is not one, but two homophobic lines. If you've read any of my stuff before, you probably know I'm pansexual and try to support the LGBTQIA+ community in any way I can. So to have someone come in and say "don't bitch and moan 'bout all the things that you don't have" -- especially in a year fraught with anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric such as the Club Q shooting -- makes this one of the most insulting pieces of music I've ever heard in my life.
(Dishonorable mentions: "Beers on Me," "Half of Me")
Jan 4, 2023
by Bobby Peacock
BEST OF 2022
20. "Circles Around This Town" by Lunatic Country Music Person... I mean, Maren Morris
I've always liked Maren Morris, although I get why she's not everyone's cup of tea. The "trying to make it big in Nashville" trope is one that's been done, but Maren's take has plenty of flavor. She touches on the cliché nature of songwriting ("trying to compete with everybody else's ones that got away") and the relentless hustle needed to make it big. She even works in a couple references to her earlier hits that make perfect sense in context. Sure, you could argue it could be produced a little cleaner, but it still conveys a brightness and optimism just the same. And I've always felt Maren had a more progressive edge to her stuff that would make her stand out, so the subtext of her younger and more contemporary leanings is a perfect match for the concept of trying to write circles around stodgy conservative ol' Nashville.
19. "Something in the Orange" by Zach Bryan
The vastly lopsided way it caught on with streaming, international audiences, and just about every damn place but country radio is telling; this is quickly falling into the "Feathered Indians" pile of "Americana/alt-country song that's accessible enough to catch on with the social media and bar band crowds.” Truth is, I'll probably be burnt out on it by 2024. But taken entirely on its own merits, I love the tension of this impending heartbreak, combined with how the abstract metaphor of the title conveys that sense of unease. (I'm a very literal person, so if a more metaphorical song clicks this hard for me, you know you've done something right.) The old-school singer-songwriter approach (gruff vocals, guitar, harmonica, that's it) can be a cliché in the wrong hands, but here it feels like deliberate minimalism. In short, I'm happy that a song this different and artful has managed to reach a lot more ears.
18. "Don't Come Lookin'" by Jackson Dean
It's refreshing to hear a newcomer with some bite and an original premise. This guy just wants to clear his head, and he'll go anywhere that isn't "here.” I love the hook "if I don't come back, don't come lookin'" and how it summarizes that sense of wanderlust. His vocal delivery is appropriately rough-edged and he knows how to vary his phrasing a bit on each chorus. But probably the best element here is the production: with the low-tuned acoustics and hard-edged slide, the guitar work sounds straight out of Jay Joyce's playbook. If Jackson Dean hadn't gotten to this song first, I could easily see it being a new cut from Eric Church. I'm lookin' for Jackson here to have more hits in 2023 that have even a little bit of this one's grit.
17. "Marlboros & Avon" by McBride & the Ride
Although I'm considerably younger than the nostalgia brought up in this song, I can still relate. Even in the early 90s, my small town still had a drive-in theater; my neighbors still had wood-panel TVs; I listened to CCR; and dad drove my grandma's old 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which isn't that different from a Mercury Marquis if you're not a car guy. Hell, even the smell of Marlboros and Avon is nostalgic to me, as our housekeeper was a chain smoker who also sold Avon products on the side. And by matching all these details to the tight twangy harmonies of McBride & the Ride -- who sound like they haven't aged a day since five-year-old me was captivated by "Sacred Ground" in 1992 -- that nostalgia buzz hits all the harder.
16. "Everything She Ain't" by Hailey Whitters
I admit, seeing her name on the atrocious "Happy People" was a case of starting on the wrong foot. Thankfully that was the only misfire, because everything else I've heard with her name on it since then has been great. Case in point: her first bow as a singles artist. Between the banjo and sharp twangy vocals, I'm already getting serious Chicks vibes from this in all the right ways. You don't often see the "dump the person you're with because I'm better" trope played from a female perspective, and that's probably why this one stands out to me. Some of the details are quite interesting as well, including possibly the first ever Hank Sr. name-drop that also mentions his first wife Audrey. Some have interesting contrast like "plenty of fish in the sea...only one of me" and best of all, the title hook of "I'm everything she is and everything she ain't.” Can we have more of this in 2023?
15. "What He Didn't Do" by Carly Pearce
Carly Pearce hasn't missed once for me, while her ex-husband Michael Ray has exactly one song I like. But her ex did inspire a rather clever, incisive song about a breakup. We've got the stage set with the usual "if you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all" and admission that there are two sides in play. It all gives context to a neatly summarized list of things one would expect out of a relationship. By framing it this way, Carly doesn't seem bitter or judgmental, just matter-of-fact and even subversive. And it doesn't stop at the list, as we get further great lines like "Imma take the high road, even though we both know I could run him out of this town / That's just dirty laundry, I don't need to wear the truth.” Carly has a clean-cut delivery and the production is crisp but still stays out of her way, helping to make this sick burn really land.
14. "Fall in Love" by Bailey Zimmerman
This one works in part because of what it doesn't do. There's no petty misogyny or pleas for sympathy, and he's not too sulky or angry; we just get detailed scenes with the right amount of melodrama, building up to a great hook of "you don't wanna fall in love.” The verses tell us a lot about what both of them are doing now that they're no longer together. I especially like the detail of him meeting her mom at the store and asking about her, only for her to take his side too ("tried to go convincing you not to settle down with him"). I could see where his voice might not be for everyone (there are times when he sounds like if Morgan Wallen could stay in key without Auto-Tune). But between that rough vocal and the production -- surprisingly uncompressed, with actual bass and drums -- the result feels considerably more real than I expected from a guy who got popular through TikTok.
13. "wait in the truck" by HARDY and Lainey Wilson
Oh hey, it's the first song I've liked from either artist. Maybe the secret was HARDY finally turning off his caps lock. It's been a while since we've had a good murder ballad on radio, and this one hits all the right notes. Both vocalists give credible performances (which on HARDY's part, is saying something) that portray a man's willingness for revenge -- namely, to murder another man who is committing abuse while also protecting the abused woman. There's an almost sinister tone to the morally gray protagonist, balanced with a few well-placed lines from the victim's POV. Even the production stays out of the way (which on Joey Moi's part, is REALLY saying something), keeping the surroundings spare and moody. As often as HARDY has vacillated between decent and awful, he was bound to find "great" eventually and I'm glad he did.
12. "Damn Strait" by Scotty McCreery
I wanted to like Scotty McCreery from the beginning, but his forced aw-shucks demeanor always made him seem like a southern-fried Alfred E. Neuman to me. But between the goatee and some stronger song choices, he's finally won me over. His best radio release yet takes the shopworn trope of "make a song largely out of references to song titles" and actually comes up with something original by leaning into a pun for good measure. (I can tell Trent Tomlinson wrote this.) The songs chosen -- I especially like that more modern ones like "I Hate Everything" and "Give It Away" got worked in -- show a knowledge of Strait's material that goes deeper than average, as well as a knack for wordplay ("But do I wish I could get her back? Damn Strait") that slot seamlessly into the radio-centric narrative and an appropriately neo-trad sound. Is this Scotty's best radio single to date? Damn straight.
11. "Doin' This" by Luke Combs
For his last few singles, Luke Combs has been the musical equivalent of cranberry juice cocktail: heavily watered down, but still with just enough flavor left to remind me of the stronger taste it used to be. His first good radio single since "Even Though I'm Leaving" maxes out the humble everyman nature that has kept me from dismissing him entirely. The concept is interesting on its own, being an answer to an interview question many musicians have been asked: "what would you do if you weren't doin' this?" His answer may not be surprising -- he'd still be singing and playing music just for the fun of it. But if you were to take any mainstream artist in Nashville and convince me he's not in it for the money, Luke Combs would probably be one of the first I'd buy it from. And between his gruff yet intense delivery and that clever hook of "I'd still be doin' this if I wasn't doin' this,” I believe him.
10. "Handle on You" by Parker McCollum
Parker McCollum's first two mainstream hits didn't do anything for me, due mainly to his extremely whiny voice on them. However, his third charted single goes down much smoother. There's a laid-back Texas country vibe that reminds me of early Randy Rogers Band, and a great reminder of what the steel guitar sounds like. I also like the hopefulness of how he's finally gotten over drinking her away ("after all this back and forth, a fifth won't do"), but that's far from the only brilliant line here. Add to that list the equally sharp "I tell myself that I should quit, but I don't listen to drunks,” not to mention a subtle nod to "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" that pays off the Merle Haggard name-drop earlier in the song, and the results are a damn good country song all around. I'm glad he's finally gotten a handle on his artistry.
9. "One More Night" by Miko Marks & the Resurrectors
Especially considering she's from my family's hometown of Flint, how has Miko Marks been off my radar until the past few months? Her lyrical tour of the more upbeat sectors of Southern music culture -- New Orleans jazz, Memphis R&B, Muscle Shoals soul -- is wrapped up in a musical package that encompasses all of them. The production swings and bops in all the right places (love that slide guitar!), and Marks' vocal is a torchy belt backed by some gospel-tinged harmonies. Everything about this song just sounds so cool in all the right ways. I can see why this is the kind of sound she'd want to be hanging around with for "one more night" because honestly, with the passion she's showing here, I'd want a lot more of this too.
8, "'Til You Can't" by Cody Johnson
"If you got a dream, chase it 'cause a dream can't chase you back.” Brilliant observation. While it's easy to feel catharsis in hearing someone recall the opportunities they missed (which is why Kathy Mattea's "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)" hits me so hard), Cody takes a more upbeat approach by pointing out that a lot of opportunities still exist. I only got to see my grandfather once before he died in '93, and I'm glad I did. My stepdad is slowly losing himself to early-onset Alzheimer's, and I'm glad I can still do anything at all with him. By latching onto specific details in a similar fashion -- in particular, I like the verse about fixing up a car -- Cody Johnson and the writers find that sense of realism and accessibility that makes those emotions connect. And of course, that it sounds so country and heartwarming doesn't hurt, either.
7. "The Man from Waco" by Charley Crockett
How does Charley Crockett release like, 90 songs a year that all slap? Maybe it's because he draws from so many influences and just owns all of them. Sure, its Western flavored murder ballad plot line may bring to mind "El Paso" (one of the best country songs of all time), but if you're warranting comparisons to Marty Robbins then I'd say you're doing it right. The production here is more sinister with that big spaghetti Western guitar sound I love so much, a deep minor-key melody, and Crockett's smooth commanding baritone. It's very economical lyrically, telling its entire story in four short verses, but there's still more than enough to fill things out. And that ending line "A moment of burning anger can curse the living through the days" adds a cautionary note for extra drama. Like most of Charley Crockett's material, this one exudes too much coolness for me to ignore.
6. "Bonfire at Tina's" by Ashley McBryde with Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti
Ashley McBryde doing an album inspired by Dennis Linde (my favorite songwriter) is the kind of stuff I live for. In the same songwriting universe that brought us such character sketches as "Queen of My Double Wide Trailer,” "Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” and "Goodbye Earl,” you're sure to find the same "small town women" sung about here. Sure, they don't always get along, but between the cheating lazy husbands and misbehaving stepchildren, they're able to air out all their dirty laundry together and find solidarity as "bitches that are sick of taking it.” I'd like to imagine that at least some of their husbands' possessions are in that bonfire. Maybe a stick doll effigy of one of them. Whatever the case, this is something that totally feels like it would happen in real life, and all present sing the hell out of it.
5. "Whiskey Sour" by Kane Brown
I swear I'm not doing this just to piss off Trailer (or to appease Kevin John Coyne, for that matter); I really did find Kane Brown grew on me immensely over the past year-plus. And this was the turning point: the moment Kane did a song that I'm sure even the "but Kane isn't country" crowd would say is country as hell. This guy thought he had her, but she turned into the oft-lamented "one that got away.” Kane fills us in on all the details of how this proposal went south, and he's now drowning his sorrows at the bar ("How can I get over if the love was never ours?" is a great line). While this wasn't a single, it qualifies for my list due to it having made the charts. If it ends up being a single in 2023 anyway, then I would seriously consider putting it on next year's list too -- because in the year that Kane finally won me over, this is his best song to date.
4. "Son of a Sinner" by Jelly Roll
Jelly Roll is a sympathetic figure: a "reformed drug dealer and active alcoholic" (to quote his own Twitter bio) who is clearly trying to right himself. Some of his hip-hop releases that I sampled fall into one of my favorite variants of that genre, where the artist just lays all their struggles on the line. So it's no surprise that his first outing as a country singer is in the same vein -- a man who's clearly dealing with substance abuse, a fixation on the past, and even a crisis of faith. With his rough-edged voice, lush production, and direct lyricism ("I'm only one drink away from the Devil"), he finds the perfect balance of realism and accessibility. And judging from the reactions to this song on social media, it's clear he's found a lot more "sons of sinners" who connected with this song.
3. "Here Tonight" by Banditos
"Live for today 'cause you're here tonight,” promises this unique bartender-giving-advice song. And that advice is delivered in a sassy, energetic tone by Banditos lead vocalist Mary Beth Richardson to a group of bar patrons as disparate as this song's instrument choices (baritone saxophone, güiro, banjo, Hammond organ, and what I swear is a toy piano). Between the extremely "real" feel to the lyrics and the way the production enhances the mood, this is easily one of the most interesting and fun journeys into the mind that I've had this year. And of course, a few well-placed name-drops of the lesser-known George Jones songs don't hurt, either.
2. "Made for Me" by Chapel Hart
In the wake of Chapel Hart's appearance on AGT, it's easy to forget they actually had songs sent out to radio too. Although one of their earlier recordings, it fits perfectly with their career arc. The buzz was already present before then, but Chapel Hart found a way to drastically increase their profile. Though they didn't win, they still got far more eyes on them than ever before. And that passion and drive to chase that (neon) rainbow is evident in this song's autobiographical lyrics. We learn the name of their town, previous jobs they held, and the fun times they had in small-town Mississippi before aiming their sights on the big time. And as is expected, they wrap it all up in a harmonious, tuneful package. This is probably the best song about yearning for musical stardom since "Baby Girl,” and it's made all the better by its subtext.
1. "Middle of a Heart" by Adeem the Artist
The narrator's story is a common arc that I've seen even here in the North: learning to hunt, falling in love, and going off to war. But it's that last verse -- where the narrator is so horrified by the atrocities of war as to commit suicide -- that Adeem goes where others fear. I've obviously never been in combat myself, nor do I know anyone who has, so it's hard for me to fathom the atrocities that can be seen on the battlefield or the ensuing PTSD. According to The Bluegrass Situation, Adeem wrote this song about someone they knew personally and described as "a richly problematic man who I loved deeply.” But even without knowing that, I know this song hits me hard every time, thanks in no small part to Adeem's sharp, sympathetic songcraft. I don't think any war-themed song has hit my emotions with that much force since "Travelin' Soldier.”
(Honorable mentions: "She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” "Joy of My Life,” "Out in the Middle,” "Going to Hell")
BEST NON-SINGLES OR OTHER SONGS
Note: Unlike previous years, where I only include singles or songs that charted in order to keep the list focused, I felt there was enough non-single content this year for an appendix. This is by no means exhaustive; just a selection of additional songs this year that I felt were strong enough to be worthy of a review.
6. "Suspicious Minds" by Morgan Wade
I swear, it's impossible to mess this song up. It's my favorite Elvis Presley song, and Dwight Yoakam turbocharged the hell out of it with his cover version on the Honeymoon in Vegas soundtrack to make it my favorite song of his too. Morgan Wade takes a different approach that I can only describe as "if Cheryl Crow sang lead for Electric Light Orchestra" and makes it work in a way that description alone does not do justice. Between the drums and the vocoder, there are a lot of production tricks sure to set off "not country" alarms, but the evergreen lyrics about a dysfunctional relationship keep it grounded. Now why hasn't she sent another single out to radio yet?
5. "Barbed Wire Boys" by Trout Fishing in America
Why no, this isn't just me trying to draw more eyes to my "Top 20 Trout Fishing in America Songs (That Aren't Children's Songs)" list (which was actually a Top 21 because I suck at copy editing). Even if I hadn't made that list, this song would be here regardless. I've loved Trout since the late 90s, and their 2022 album Safe Haven shows they haven't lost a step. As I said in the aforementioned list, it's easy to think of men -- especially "salt of the earth" types -- as not having any vulnerability whatsoever lest our society perceive them as "weak.” But Susan Werner saw that hidden depth in her original lyrics, and by actually having a male artist sing it, these lyrics feel all the more introspective. And honestly, I'd believe it just as much from these guys if I didn't already know they were responsible for songs as lighthearted as "My Hair Had a Party Last Night.”
4. "You Can Have Him Jolene" by Chapel Hart
This actually was a single last year, but it charted this year. And best of all, I got WATZ to play it. As I said in the singles entries, Chapel Hart seized an unconventional opportunity to get a bigger platform for their music this year -- in a way I honestly did not expect but am all the happier for having seen it happen. They already had me with "I Will Follow,” but their first song to actually chart proves it was no fluke. Sassy and hard-edged, they turn the evergreen "Jolene" on its head by telling the titular Jolene "when you think that he's in love, he'll surely leave, like he did me.” This song kicks ass in a completely different way than "I Will Follow" did, and that's ultimately its greatest asset: it proves they have range as well as talent.
3. "Southern Curls" by Julie Williams
This was also a single last year, and had I known about it then, it seriously would have had a shot at the top 3. I don't want my view on this song to go unnoticed, especially not after I finally found my way to a Black Opry show earlier this year (hi, Holly) and heard Julie Williams perform it live. Even as a kid, I wondered why so few Black artists (especially women) seemed to exist in country music. And the current climate of the genre has only made me all the more aware. It's a sad truth that far too many people in the world are "looked down on before [they]'re even born" simply because of who they are. Julie Williams tells of her struggles, yet offers a ray of hope through optimistic lines such as "I know that I glow, and so do you.”
2. "Carolina" by Adeem the Artist
"Some of us have childhoods that aren't poems on sight / But darlin', you're doin' alright.” So ends the first track on Adeem the Artist's White Trash Revelry. We learn a lot about their life in every richly detailed lyric, especially in the references to their "runaway" mother who withstood abuse from her parents. And while so many of these details are so different from mine, it's the sympathy emanating from every lyric -- finding one's identity (something I, a person on the autism spectrum, deal with constantly even before gender identity comes into the picture), coming to terms with life changes that didn't go your way (like the four jobs I went through this past year), and making the best of what you do have (the job I finally got by year's end that stuck). I honestly could have put nearly any song in this spot, but "Carolina" gets the slot because of that extra bit of personal connection.
1. "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" by Chris Stapleton and Patty Loveless
And you thought country music was dead? Well, take one of the most traditional mainstream artists out there, and match him with a '90s country icon. Have them both perform the best goddamn lyric Darrell Scott ever wrote -- you know, that haunting downer about the hardscrabble life in a Kentucky coal mining town? That one that like, six other artists have sung? Between Stapleton's bluesy growl, Patty Loveless' mature twang that I swear hasn't changed a day since "Blame It on Your Heart,” and a little harmony help from Chris' wife, the vocal arrangement is divine. The playing is professional yet never overpowering; I will literally never tire of the sound of a Dobro. I've rarely felt a song as much as I did when this performance aired. Every ingredient involved made it magical to listen to. In short, this was the best musical moment of 2022.
Jul 13, 2022
By Bobby Peacock
If you know Trout Fishing in America at all (bassist Keith Grimwood and guitarist Ezra Idlet, by the way), then it's probably for their children's songs. Stuff like "My Hair Had a Party Last Night," "When I Was a Dinosaur" (a Dr. Demento favorite), "Proper Cup of Coffee," or "18 Wheels on a Big Rig." (Did you know the latter two are covers?) I first discovered them at a concert in 1998 when I was only 11, then found a bunch of their albums at various local stores. Through these albums, I discovered their more serious, country-folk-rock side which I think deserves more attention. (Disclaimer: I couldn't find any of the songs off their first four albums, except for those reissued on The Dusty Dozen.) And given these guys are far lesser known than anyone else I've covered so far, I figured a top ten wasn't enough. So I present to you...
The Top 20 Trout Fishing in America songs (that aren't children’s songs)
(note: there are actually 21 - two #4's - but we're gonna let it ride)
20. "Just a Little While"
I still remember finding the album Over the Limit for a dime at an FYE that was closing out the last of their cassette tapes. This first track jumped out to me right away with its sheer positivity. "We live a little while, then everything must change / It might get better, it might get worse, it never stays the same / But right now, I'm having a good time" just looks so simple on paper, but they sell the hell out of it. And it's an easily accessible lead-in to stories about falling in love in a Pontiac and staying in rundown hotel rooms while working as a touring musician. Right now, I'm having a good time listening to this song.
As someone who grew up with a very detached view of fiction in general, I tended to be dismissive toward how "perfect" things can be in entertainment. Movies, books, and TV shows often seemed too idealistic for me to engage in them the way I should. Because just like Ezra asks in this song... who are these "perfect" people we see in fiction anyway? And what secrets do they hold, if any? I've asked these questions about every fictional being I've encountered, from cartoon imps to sitcom doctors to talking gryphons in fantasy novels. This song perfectly captures that mix of admiration, confusion, and curiosity that I have now that I've become slightly more accepting.
These guys love their lyrics about temptation. Would it be so bad if she were beautiful, nice, rich, and romantic? He admits fully that he's dreaming, but knows that "it would sure be great / To get what you ask for and not tempt fate." The invocations of Cleopatra, Mona Lisa, and Marilyn Monroe add a surprisingly worldly touch, and I especially like that he ultimately takes his time. But best of all is the sound design: a sort of reggae beat with wah-wah guitar and even a vibraphone, an arrangement they haven't used in any other song, complement Keith's measured vocal.
This one has aged well, what with its lyrics about high gas prices, debt, and political promises. (It was written in 2010.) But before you think it gets too heavy or preachy, we're also offered images of attempts at striking up conversation with a potential date or winning off a lottery ticket. It's easy to get cynical and jaded, to expect things won't change. After all, how many people actually do win the lottery? (Or even win on a game show, like I did?) And it's the second half of that phrase "I'm bettin' that it won't, but I'm hopin' that it will" that, like so many other Trout songs, keeps an air of positivity in any hard time. The peppy organ riff doesn't hurt, either.
The images are appropriately evocative: not just "quiet alleys," but also dusty stacks of items in the corners of a room and the beauty of nature. Those hit home to me as I look at the stacks of CDs and books gathering dust in my room because I'm lazy -- including a couple Trout Fishing in America albums I dusted off to write this. They also come to me whenever I look out my bedroom window and see the forest. Ezra's delivery is relaxing, and Keith switches to fiddle for a new sonic texture to the duo. But even in the calmness, there's still an air of tension; a "tangled knot that will never unwind." I find the overall approach oddly similar to my experience in video games: sometimes before tackling a tough boss, I just need to hit pause for a while and gather up the nerve.
15. "My Front Door"
There are a lot of songs about the joys of coming home from work, but few have been this quirky and joyous. In fact, I'd even say it's almost stream of consciousness, what with its oddball imagery of cardboard trees, macramé tattoos, and singing car keys. Normally I would consider this too abstract for my tastes, but here it adds flavor. And it's not like every line is silly; "When I'm backing out my driveway, I'm just taking the scenic route home" is a wonderfully positive spin on working man life. Add in Keith's upbeat delivery and the Mexicali-sounding production, and you have yet another example of Trout's uncommon approach to common, relatable themes.
Another song about the suddenness of love found and lost. Set to a breezy melody and plenty of steel, this one seems simple at first glance. They meet when he was hitchhiking, and then go out and look for turtles in a park before parting ways. But in between these vivid images, things get philosophical ("Halfway simple to be halfway a man / Half on purpose, the other half planned") before another friend takes the girl away. I don't know if any of this is true, but from how sharply it's written, I'd believe it. Plus, the metaphor of being hit by a truck is a striking (no pun intended) one that slots perfectly into the singable chorus. Much like that metaphor, this one hits when you least expect it.
I hadn't thought about Trout in a while when I found this song online. Turns out they haven't lost a step. Also, Ezra has learned to play the bouzouki. The lyrics are sharp and quirky as ever in their recollection of a lost love. We don't know much about her, but the emotion is palpable in lines like "When the choirs fall silent and the bells won't ring" and "Five o'clock the world was closed and it won't reopen soon." This was the first bit of new music I heard from them in years that wasn't a kids' song, and it felt like a grand reintroduction to everything I liked about Trout's more "adult" side in the first place. Indeed, they showed up at the strangest times.
As of this writing, I'm working four part-time jobs, living in a rundown house with a cat and no car. Is this what I had in mind after I won on Wheel of Fortune? No, but as this song says, "those great big dreams only get you so far" and "sometimes second is the best that we can do." That latter line is important, because of all the "second" choices the people in this song lean into -- second choice job, secondhand clothes, second childhood, and most importantly, not second-guessing. These guys were living on the streets when they first started making great music together, and 40+ years later, they're still making great music. Sure, they haven't charted or won a Grammy, but it's great music with a massive fanbase spanning all ages. And I'm a longtime fan, writing about them now in a house I didn't even have a decade ago. So as a matter of fact, for both Trout and for me, I think we're both doing just fine.
One of their rare cover songs; specifically, Oklahoma folk duo Barton & Sweeney. But it's got a mix of quirkiness and depth that fits like a glove. An encounter with a California earthquake, a Dust Bowl storm, an East Coast hurricane, and a Hawaiian volcano eruption send this hapless fool all over the country in hopes of finding a better life. Despite his tongue-in-cheek denial, it's clear that he does learn a lesson at the end: running away from problems isn't the answer, because you'll just find more problems. (Indeed, once he settles down, killer bees find him.) It's equal parts humorous character sketch and widely applicable life lesson.
10. "You Can't Get There from Here"
Another one that seems like it could have been a country radio hit. It almost feels like a predecessor to Brad Paisley's "Who Needs Pictures" by reminiscing about old photos (only in this case, they were actually developed). The lost love in those photos, the oldies on the radio, and every other memory of the past -- all of these can't be relived, no matter how hard you try. Subtle but effective lines like "Guess I was looking for something / Don't know what I expected to find" are matched perfectly to Keith's tender delivery and the gentle waltz. I hope other people discover this song for the first time in the same way I did, because that's one of the few places I can't get from here.
Old-school touring musicians no doubt have a ton of stories to tell about bad sets. Set to a hard-country waltz reminiscent of "Lucille," this song recounts a great deal of them in vivid detail. From playing on the streets, to a show where nobody came, to being paid not to play, to allergy-wracked voices (I can relate), it's all here. (I particularly love how Keith mimics the audience's jeering over the choruses. I heard them do this song during a live stream, and Ezra cracked up at that part.) This is a fun, self-deprecating look back at the hard times, and both of them perform it with a mix of nostalgia and dry humor. They remain as sharp as ever in 2022.
"Acting your age is getting harder and harder to do / When the age that you're feeling inside's more the size of your shoe." This song's images are quirky, amusing looks at people who aren't letting increasing age get in the way of their inner child: a man racing a grocery cart, a woman getting a tattoo, and an elderly couple dancing and flirting. There are times I feel I'm "too old" to do certain things. I feel too old to watch cartoons until I see a nursing home resident in a Beavis and Butt-Head shirt. I feel too old to rock out until I hear my stepdad blaring Metallica. And most importantly, I feel too old to have any sort of fun at all until Keith and Ezra come along with another winning tune full of charisma, wit, and truth.
Ever have one of those days so bad that you're driven to cry, but you end up laughing instead? That's what this one is all about. (Although I hope neither of them actually cut off their toes with a lawnmower.) Sometimes you just have to realize that if it weren't for the downs, the ups wouldn't be as rewarding. Keith has the right playful delivery for the truism "My life's been funny lately but it's not boring me to death." I also love how Ezra jumps in with a spoken interlude about a man whose life is perfect though he "never laughs." This was the first song I ever heard them do in concert, and it was a wonderful introduction.
This was the last song they played at the first concert I saw them at, and the last song on the first album of theirs I owned (Family Music Party). It's a tender promise of undying love with a beautiful production and calming vocal. I love how every declaration spans from silly ("If apples keep on falling / And three and two is five") to direct ("When couples fight their troubles it unites their hearts / When the good times roll, they can drift apart") to poetic ("When all this work is over and my ship comes sailing in"). Plus it's got a great hook in its fantastic chorus. I'll still be loving Trout, no matter what goes right.
Somehow I had skipped the Closer to the Truth album until now. This song is a very interesting balance between dreams and reality. It's got a very inspired metaphor of treehouses being built, but isn't so caught up in this flight of fancy to forget one highly important detail. "A labor of love can be the hardest labor." Even dreams have to be worked for if you want them to come true, after all. This song's spacious, jangly sound makes me think of childhood family trips to Texas, and the anticipation once we hit that first truck stop in Missouri after what felt like hours of forests and farms. It's that sense of joy and anticipation that, twenty-plus years later, still resonates with me.
This song was supposedly inspired by a painting. I've never seen the painting, but I can visualize the moody street corner with sidewalk artists, dark blue lighting, "marble stairs and red brick roads." Strangely, these images also evoke another moody slice of nostalgia. Around the time I discovered this song, I photographed a dead shopping mall: dark, dusty, full of abandoned 70's storefronts, "frozen in time" just like the cityscape mentioned (and when the "dead mall" scene was in its infancy!). I hear the ghostly guitar fills, the rumbling string bass, and the haunting harmonies. And whether I hear that song or see my own 20-year-old pictures, I can also "go back there anytime."
One of their few cover songs is also one of their strongest. This one comes to us from Susan Werner; Claire Lynch also did a version, but I think TFIA has the best take. One just does not expect men -- especially not hard-working rural Midwesterners with calloused hands -- to display any vulnerability. Some of them probably died with so much that societal expectations of men forced them to keep bottled up. And I think that's what makes this version have so much more impact: Ezra is able to convey that weathered vulnerability and play the role of a "barbed wire boy" who's still capable of pushing his "softer" side to the forefront when needed.
I've seen a lot of people come and go in my life: three of my grandparents, my father, several of my high school buddies, musicians I admired, you name it. It feels surreal that at age 35, I've already lost so many people who've shaped my life. Keith and Ezra are both twice my age, so I can only imagine they feel that sense of loss and loneliness even harder. Even the arrangement is starker than usual, consisting just of their weathered vocals and bouzouki. It's very similar thematically to "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)," but there's still a modicum of reassurance in lines like "I know it's not forever / It's not the end of the world." Songs about aging shouldn't hit me this hard, yet they still do.
This song was inspired by the two building a playplace for their children. While about childhood imagination, it ultimately takes a more mature perspective. The images start whimsical with toy helicopters and rope ladders, but take a more introspective bent at the bridge ("Childhood just becomes a box stored upon the closet shelves"). I think we never fully lose the joy, energy, and imagination of childhood, but far too many of us repress it. (Even I'm guilty. And I'm the same age as Ezra's daughter.) So here I have a bittersweet reminder of what was, and what still can be. Never stop growing, but never stop being a child.
This was the one that stopped me in my tracks. It's a slightly oddball look at an on-again, off-again relationship that's clearly burned this guy before. Every single line is on point: "Am I crazy or just crazy about her?," "She gets a chicken-fried smile on her face / And I'm just a big bowl of gravy dancing in her hand," etc. But best of all is the line that wowed me 20 years ago: "Do we learn from our mistakes? I surely hope not / Takes all the fun out of making them again." Who hasn't done something they know might have a negative outcome, just because they want to? Keith's voice is the perfect fit for this song's mix of quirkiness and introspection that wouldn't feel out of place on a Tyler Childers or Sturgill Simpson record. And I love where it just drops out to a lonesome steel guitar before coming back full force with one last chorus and Ezra's heavy strumming. This isn't just my favorite Trout song; it's one of my favorite songs, period.
Honorable mentions: "Two Brains," "Lucky Guy," "How Many Times a Fool," "The Day the Bass Players Took Over the World," "Knock Me Down," "Breakfast Blues"
If I included kids' songs, then "Mine!," "Pico de Gallo," "My Hair Had a Party Last Night," and "My Best Day" would be on here