Songs for the Trump Era: Shuttin’ Detroit Down

Off John Rich’s Son of a Preacher Man album and co-written by Rich and John Anderson (a great songwriter), Shuttin’ Detroit Down is a song I can’t help but think would make a marvelous addition to Pres. Trump’s campaign trail playlist. It’s a pop-country song of stark populist contrasts that self-consciously screams heartland, and though a pre-Trump bailout-era 2009 song, it feels pretty darn relevant today.

The song focuses on the contrast between the hard-working and self-reliant real world folks against the D.C. bailout boss man jet-setting crowd. The people getting their hands dirty building real things and working hard to improve their lot versus the entitled city-dwellers who sell “make-believe” and game the political system to their advantage on the backs of working folks. SDD elides over the fact that it was the auto-industry too, and not just big banks, that received bailouts and perhaps, as one of the reviews of the song I read suggests, ventures a bit too far into class warfare in seeming not to draw a distinction between success as a result of hard work versus profiting at others’ expense. But the general contrast, in any event, is a powerful one, with the unfairness of farmers auctioning ground and hard-working auto-workers left with nothing while others pull the strings of big government for personal profit.

The highlights of the song are the verses about the narrator’s dad, first instilling in the narrator a sense of fairness, work ethic and individual responsibility. Then as a contrast to these ideas, the people “losing billions” and coming to folks like his dad to get rescued and “Well, pardon me if I don’t shed a tear / they’re selling make believe and we don’t buy that here”. And finally the unfairness in his father, towards the end of his career, with callouses on his hands not having nearly enough to show for his years of labor. These lines make the themes of the song personal and focus the listener’s attention on the song’s protest: that there really is something wrong going on here and it’s affecting real people’s lives.

The instrumentals of the song hit SDD’s themes home perfectly, and combine with the only average lyrics to make this a good song. To begin with, the background piano, drums and a bit of electric guitar set the mood and jump in at the right places to make the song not one of despair, but rather as a “fightin’ mad” protest song. The acoustic guitar, particularly prominent at the start of the song, and the crying fiddle and steel guitar – instruments that sound like the heartland feels – add to the song’s purpose: the protest that things are backwards and “what the hell is going on around here!”

Overall the song is a success. Despite lyrics that are hit or miss and could have done a bit better at zoning in on the problem, the song still manages strikes a real chord, especially through the great melody and instrumentals, in focusing attention on the plight of hard-working folks with good values with a strong measure of deserved indignation.

Let’s Burn a Country Music CD

Folks who’ve heard a bit of country here and there and are looking to get a little more involved have often asked me for country recommendations. I never got the chance to swap vinyls but I do remember sharing cassette tapes and then, the crown-jewel of childhood music sharing, mixed compact discs. There’s still something wonderful about a burned CD mix, especially with the song titles written in sharpie on the front of the CD. In the spirit of putting together a mixed CD for you dear reader and friend, I thought I’d share what I would now put onto a mixed CD as a country music primer.

At least for the CDs I’d make as a kid, you could typically get 22 or so songs to fit on there, so that’s the list I’ve put together. By way of qualification, I don’t mean to suggest that I think the below songs are the best or even my favorite 22. This isn’t the country mix I’d choose if stranded on a desert island with only my boom box and one CD. And neither is this a listing of the songs I think represent the country music canon. Rather this is intended to serve as an introductory flight of country songs – a tasting of different eras and styles, so a new listener can wet their beak. It’s for this reason I’ve intentionally omitted certain artists or songs, especially if they are more well-known or contemporary. For example, it’s hard to put together a list like this and not include a song like The Devil Went Down to Georgia or anything by Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks or Dolly Parton. Similarly, if we were (virtually) doing one of those data CDs you could get more songs on, I would surely have put something by Carrie Underwood, Patsy Cline, Reba, Hank Jr., and Tim McGraw on here. But anyway I’ve tried in my selections to put together a mix that reflects at least some songs and artists folks might not be familiar with already together with some classics, so a listener can decide what they like best and what country roads they’d like to further explore.*

1. Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
2. L.A. Freeway – Guy Clark
3. Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt
4. Lost Highway – Hank Williams Sr.
5. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – Willie Nelson
6. Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn
7. Forever and Ever, Amen – Randy Travis
8. Guitars, Cadillacs – Dwight Yoakam
9. Independence Day – Martina McBride
10. Me and Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson
11. Mountain Music – Alabama
12. Stand By Your Man – Tammy Wynette
13. Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ – Charley Pride
14. Copperhead Road – Steve Earle
15. Wide Open Spaces – Dixie Chicks
16. He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
17. Chattahoochee – Alan Jackson
18. I Can Still Make Cheyenne – George Strait
19. The Road Goes on Forever – Robert Earl Keen
20. This Time Around – Randy Rogers Band
21. Texas on My Mind – Pat Green
22. Colder Weather – Zac Brown Band

*This virtual CD is also presented with apologies, since I’ve not given credit to the songwriters or original recording artists in some cases, and instead I’ve listed the singers whose rendition I’d like to be on our CD.

Songs About Specific Things – Heartbeat Love Songs

One of the sub-types of Love songs that I really like are what I think about as “heartbeat love songs”. The connection between the heart and love is pretty obvious, and too many songs to name use broken hearts, heavy hearts, full hearts, etc as metaphors for feelings of love both good and bad, including at least two songs I’m familiar with actually called “Heartbeat” (a Chris Young-recorded song and Carrie Underwood co-written and recorded song). But the type of song I’m thinking about is where the rhythms and basslines of the song create a heartbeat sound that jives with the lyrics (and instrumentals) of love in the song.

Conway Twitty and George Strait are two of the masters of these types of songs. I’d Love to Lay You Down is a good Twitty example. The heartbeat rhythm is so prominent, particularly in the choruses, and I like the way it comes to a halt between stanzas almost as if the heart is no longer beating when Twitty is not professing his love. And it also effectively comes to a crawl when Twitty, a bit ominously, sings “when a whole lot of Decembers are showing in your face/ your auburn hair has faded and silver takes its place” but then comes back full force as the next set of lyrics start in “you’ll be just as lovely and I’ll still be around/ and if I can I know that I’d still love to lay you down” – the heartbeat rhythm coupling with the lyrics to affirm that the narrator’s love will still be there.

Maybe my favorite example of this type of song from Strait is Love Without End, Amen. The song showcases a couple different types of love: father and narrator as son, narrator as father and son and God as father and narrator as son. In each verse getting into a fight at school, trying a father’s patience and leading an imperfect life cause the listener to question whether love would triumph in that circumstance and the bassline becomes less prominent when the question is posed. Then when the chorus comes in the heartbeat rhythm picks back up affirming the triumph of love as the lyrics do the same. Two other nice examples are Strait’s Ocean Front Property and Fool Hearted Memory, in the later of which the heartbeat bassline is offset by an almost crying fiddle (and in the former some steel guitar), because of course these are hard times, heart break love songs. When Did You Stop Loving Me is another great, Strait heartbreak, heartbeat love song.

Plenty of other artists and songs get in on the heartbeat action, and most do so in a less obvious way where the heartbeat bassline is not quite so front and center. Alabama and Randy Travis are a couple more of my favorites. For instance, Travis’ Deeper Than the Holler is a wonderful song where the country boy narrator sings about the strength of his love, comparing it metaphorically to all of the country boy things he knows (“higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill”, “purer than the snowflakes that fall in late December”, etc). Behind these sweet lyrics, kicking in with particular strength in the choruses which are the parts of the song where Travis is really expressing his love, is the heartbeat bassline.

Somewhere there’s got to be an evolutionary biology study that tells us how of course we find the heartbeat rhythm comforting and associate it with love (listening to our own all day, mother clutching a kid close to show affection or protect, one lover putting their head on their mate’s chest, etc). But whatever the reason, when country songs combine this back beat with lyrics and instrumentals that team up to sing out the sub-themes of the type of love the song’s dealing with – heartbreak, nostalgic love, family love, romantic love – we get some songs that I think are really moving.

Good Sunday Songs

Each day of the week is almost like a mini stage in life attached to certain activities and emotions and I like country songs that speak to this. Songs like George Jones’ “Finally Friday” and Garth’s (and Jones’) “Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)” – neither written by Jones or Brooks – and Steve Azar’s “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘til Monday)” – co-written by Azar – are great Friday songs.  They’re about checking out of work and blowing off steam from the week maybe with some beers.  The feel of a day like Friday or Monday or Wednesday is more straightforward, but Sunday has its own, less obvious, feel: basically collecting from the past week/end and the Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It-bosses and all of those George Jones six packs, reflecting with self, God and family and resting (and gearing) up for things to come.

Zac Brown Band’s “No Hurry” is one of the great Sunday songs. It’s great for a lot of reasons, but in terms of lyrical content really hits the Sunday vibe.  ZBB explicitly ignores of the boss calling on the telephone, household chores that need to be done and bills to be paid in favor of relaxing retreat:

There’s nothing wrong with an old cane fishing pole / and the smell of early spring
Sit down in a fold-up easy chair / on a quiet, shady river bank
Let the world go on without me / wouldn’t have it any other way,
cause I ain’t in no hurry today

The song takes the Sunday concept a little further, as a broader approach to life, and also focuses on getting right with the Lord – faith a core of the Sunday reflection and improvement themes.

Toby Keith hits the same themes in “My List”. This is fine song, not written by Keith but delivered well.  The narrator starts off crossing lots of weekend chores off the to-do list, but then comes around to those more important things in life to take care of.  The strength of this song (in addition to the direct but soft rhymes) is the really nice things on that life list:

  • like go for a walk, say a little prayer
  • take a deep breath of mountain air
  • put on my glove and play some catch
  • wade the shore and cast a line
  • look up a long lost friend of mine
  • sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss
  • raise a little hell, laugh ‘til it hurts
  • put an extra five in the plate at church
  • call up my folks, just to chat
  • stay up late, then oversleep
  • show her what she means to me
  • start livin’

Listing activities turns out to be a pretty effective means of conveying the Sunday theme. By sort of aggregating the feelings associated with each individual listed activity set in context, we get a sum total of Sunday.  Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” does it the same way, listing out church-going and family BBQ imagery in particular along with other typical Sunday activities.  My favorite verse is:

I stroll to the end of the drive / pick up the Sunday Times / grab my coffee cup
It looks like Sally and Ron / finally tied the knot / well it’s about time
It’s 35 cents off of ground round / Baby cut that coupon out!
That’s what I love about Sunday

The wedding announcements are a nice Sunday tradition, and it’s also the vivid routine of lazily and leisurely walking down to the end of the driveway to grab the paper. And it’s especially, in the context of the love- and family-oriented song, the family-driven and romantic love with which we imagine the narrator pouring over the coupons with his wife.  The music videos and album artwork associated with these songs are consistent with the themes: the narrator being outside communing with nature (even holding church outside), creating lasting memories with kids (of course weaving in baseball, what could be stronger father-and-song bonding?), retreating with and protecting family or laying on a couch looking up to God in the middle of a wide open field.

Other songs get at the same theme without such explicit listing. Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is also a great Sunday song.  While the tempo of the song is clearly in the “I’m in a Hurry” vein of the title, the content repudiates the rushing mentality and messages a slow down.  Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” – one scarcely imagines being sung by anyone other than Johnny Cash – is another great example.  The song starts with the fallout from (and a bit of continuation of) the previous Saturday night and quickly turns to introspective reflection with the narrator taking in the Sunday sights, sounds and smells – kids playing, church songs and bells ringing, frying chicken – and engaging with God in thinking about the course of his life.

The feeling of Sunday is multi-faceted and hard to dig into and meaningfully capture, but I think there’s really a huge payoff in the form of such nice music when songs put this task in focus and are able to execute successfully.

Songs I Don’t Think Are Particularly Good Songs – “Grab A Beer”

Although I generally prefer to focus on songs I think are good songs, I’ve recently been nagged by “Grab a Beer”, a Dierks Bentley song that has started popping into one of my Spotify-created playlists. It’s not new song, in fact it’s from an extended play album called Country & Cold Cans that Dierks released in 2012 shortly after Home and a couple years before Riser, and written by Jaren Johnston.  Anyway, this is not a good song.

The gist of the song is an articulation of a number of scenarios in which grabbing a beer would be appropriate with Bentley as narrator encouraging the listener to do so. There’s certainly nothing objectionable about a celebration of beer drinking, a generally enjoyable activity.  Billy Currington’s Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer, for example, hits the same theme in a hokey and thoroughly enjoyable manner.  But in Dierks’/ Johnston’s song the beer-grabbing scenarios are unpleasantly cliché and the narrator’s rock-and-roll encouragement of partying, replete with faux feedback from a supposedly enthusiastic crowd, are contrived.  And I find particularly unpleasant the geographical references “From New York City down to Little Rock, I said everybody grab a beer” and “the East Coast baby all the way to LA, I said everybody grab a beer” which strike me as just random rhyming filler.

One of the saving graces of a particular class of juvenile (often) bro-country party songs is that the narrator will sometimes give a few winks and nods to the listener, letting them know the song is to be taken at least partially in jest. As just one example, Toby Keith’s Red Solo Cup is another song I don’t think is a particularly good song.  But that the lyrics and delivery are selfconsciously silly establish the song’s purpose as a bona fide diversion, rather than pretending to be something more (i.e. a serious country music song, even if it’s one about light-hearted subject).  Grab a Beer takes itself too seriously even as a good time party song.  The one lyric I thought might be going in the right direction is the use of the word “plural” because it is a funny word to be a country song.  But in context the song doesn’t express any awareness that this might be kind of funny.

Baseball & Country Music: Part 2 – Country All-Stars

There are some baseball players with truly great taste in country music, and there are also some truly great players with a taste for country. And then of course there are those most special of cases where the two come together.  My listings below of players and their associated songs do not necessarily represent current music choices.  In some cases it was more fun to look at songs players have chosen within the last couple of years, including when there was a real gem a year or two ago but their more current choice was less exciting.  These listings necessarily reflect my imperfect information, in many cases drawn from local sports reporting, and if I’ve misstated any player’s preferences I’d be happy to talk the confusion out over a game of catch.

Player performance combined with choosing country songs that align with my music preferences are the main drivers of the rankings below. Also weighing in were my feelings on what would be an appropriately motivating walk-up song and my desire to present more fun examples of player music choices which resulted in my not duplicating players across the various lists.  For example, Dillon Gee’s choice of an RRB song would clearly have put him towards the top of Players Who Like Great Modern Country, but his incongruous other choice of Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang made him a more fun entry onto the weird combos list.  These rankings also evidence my favorable disposition towards more unique music choices (e.g. God’s Gonna Cut You Down is an awesome and intimidating song for a dominant relief pitcher, but it loses a little something each additional guy that picks the song).  On the flip side I’ve given short shrift to even great players who like relatively common artists or songs.

5 Elite Players Who Like Country:

5. Buster Posey – Hell on Wheels (Brantley Gilbert)
4. John Lester – I Use What I Got; Gonna Know We Were Here (Aldean)
3. Corey Seager – U Turn (Chase Rice); Night’s on Fire (David Nail)
2. Zack Greinke – Runnin’ Outta Moonlight (Randy Houser); Anywhere With You (Jake Owen)
1. Kyle Seager – Life is a Highway (Rascal Flatts cover); Night’s on Fire (David Nail); Wild Ones (Kip Moore)

Top 8 Players Who Like Great Modern Country:

8. John Danks – Should’ve Been a Cowboy (Toby Keith)
7. Mark Reynolds – Country Boy (Aaron Lewis); Barefoot Bluejean Night (Jake Owen); Cruise (FGL)
6. Josh Osich – Right Where I Need to Be (Gary Allen); American Outlaws (Whiskey Meyers)
5. Dan Uggla, Colin Rea – Homegrown (ZBB)
4. Aaron Hill – Knee Deep (ZBB plus Jimmy Buffett); It’s a Great Day To Be Alive (Travis Tritt)
3. Bryan Flynn – Freight Train (Aaron Watson)
2. Charlie Morton – Gin, Smoke, Lies (Turnpike Troubadours); Palmetto Rose (Jason Isbell
1. Brock Holt – Ragged as the Road (Reckless Kelley), My Hometown (Charlie Robison), Dance Her Home (Cody Johnson) [Editor’s Note: Mr. Holt’s music choices, only some of which are listed here, evidence fine, fine taste indeed. And he’s a heck of a ballplayer.]

Top 10 Players Who Like Great Classic Country:

10. Cody Allen – God’s Gonna Cut You Down (Cash); Outsiders (Church)
9. Wade Miley – Thank God I’m a Country Boy (John Denver), Backwoods (Justin Moore)
8. Kevin Gregg – A Country Boy Can Survive (Hank Jr.)
7. Alex Wilson – Snake Farm (Ray Wylie Hubbard)
6. Daniel Mengden – Long-Haired Country Boy (Charlie Daniels)
5. David Robertson, Kendall Graveman – Sweet Home Alabama (Skynyrd)
4. Lucas Harrell – When the Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash)
3. Devin Mesoraco – Fishin’ in the Dark (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)
2. David Ross – Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler) (Alabama)
1. Mark Lowe, Adam LaRoche – Copperhead Road (Steve Earle)

Top 7 Elite Baseball Players Who Like Great Country:

7. Mark Buehrle – The Wind (ZBB)
6. Matt Holliday – Chicken Fried (ZBB)
5. John Lackey – Friends in Low Places (Garth Brooks)
4. Jake Peavy – Ramblin’ Fever (Haggard)
3. Adam Wainwright – Song of the South (Alabama)
2. Matt Carpenter – Long Hot Summer Day (Turnpike Troubadours cover)
1. Madison Bumgarner – Fire on the Mountain (Marshall Tucker Band); Simple Man (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Top 5 Weirdest Country Combos:

5. Bryce Harper – Wagon Wheel (Darius Rucker cover); Flower (Moby); Boyfriend (Bieber); The Best is Yet to Come (Sinatra)
4. Andrew Cashner – Chillin’ It (Cole Swindell); How to Be the Man (Riff Raff)
3. Paul GoldSchmidt – It’z Just What We Do (FGL) and We Went (Randy Houser); One Step Closer (Linkin Park)
2. Matt Cain – She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy (Kenny Chesney); Hillbilly Deluxe (Brooks & Dunn); Men in Black (Will Smith); Team (Iggy Azalea)
1. Dillon Gee – Shotgun (Randy Rogers Band); Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang (Dr. Dre & Snoop)

There are plenty of very good players with very good song choices that I haven’t mentioned in the lists above. These players are probably the core of baseball country: significant baseball talent and above average country music choices.  See, e.g., Ross Ohlendorf/ Brent Morel/ Matt Wieters (Barefoot Bluejean Night), Joe Blanton/ Jeff Clement (Hillbilly Deluxe), Joe Paterson (How Bad Do You Want It), Chris Owings (Sunny and 75), Andrew Benintendi (I Love This Life); Billy Butler (Chillin’ It, Drunk on You); Gordon Beckham (Chicken Fried); Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Eight Second Ride); Paul Janish (Ain’t Going Down till the Sun Comes Up); Travis Wood (You Can’t Hide Redneck).  The good taste of baseball talents like these perk our ears up when we least expect it and let us rock out to 15 or so seconds of a nice country song when we’re already living life pretty good at a baseball game.

Baseball & Country Music: Part 1 – An Introduction

One of the fun traditions in going to an MLB game is hearing the music that each player chooses for his walk up to the plate, or in the case of relief pitchers when they are coming into the game, in particular in search of fun country songs.  Sometimes this stuff is referred to as entrance or intro music which is appropriate for relief pitchers, but I prefer the terms walk-up for batters and walk-on for relief pitchers. I guess for starting pitchers qua starters, warm-up music is the best term.

These song choices are small windows into players’ personalities.  For some of the players I’ve heard about, song choice is motivated by the preferences of children or other family members or the actual or perceived preferences of fans (David Wright sometimes lets his brothers choose his songs and a few years ago opened his walk-up music up to a fan vote.)  In some cases I’ve read about players being apathetic about the music played when they come to bat, but extremely rare is the player who has chosen to come on to silence (see e.g., Brian McCann).  In most cases though, I think players are choosing songs that represent their music tastes or that they think will motivate them in their performance and that’s pretty interesting to hear.

Of Simple Man, Jacob deGrom’s said: “I never picked anything in the minor leagues. I would always just tell them, ‘Play whatever.’ But then I didn’t really like the song they were playing when I got called up. So I just decided to change to ‘Simple Man.’ I like slower music like that. It kind of calms me down, I guess. I don’t want to get too amped up going into the first inning.” Cody Allen, one of the Country All-Stars I’ll talk more about in Part 2 of this post, said of one of his choices – Outsiders by Church – “I’m a big country music fan and it’s just an awesome song. I used to listen to it every morning on the way to the gym. It sounds good over the speakers, especially a certain part right in the middle of the song. I had a good year last year, so I rode with it.”  Awesome.  Allen definitely sounds like the kind of country guy I wouldn’t mind throwing back a few Lonestars with.  And Joe Beimel, one of a number of closers aptly choosing Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down, recounts facing Lance Berkman three days in row and then the “last day I got him out, and on the play I had to run over and cover first. After the out, he looks at me and says, ‘What is your entrance music?’ I told him the song and the next year, he started using it when he came up to hit. I was like, ‘Really, dude?’ But I’m sticking with it. I’m more likely to change my socks than my entrance music.”

There are a couple sites that purport to track the songs each player chooses. None of them are great.  MLB.com is the most official listing, but based on my familiarity with Mets’ players’ music and sports reporting on the music selections of other players, this listing is not so accurate.  Relying on this data (I believe for the 2015 season) Baseball Prospectus says 411 players had only 1 song compared to 145 with more than 1, but I think in reality a great many more players than indicated have multiple songs.  Even if the underlying data is outdated or incomplete, there are still some super interesting statistics that can be run, e.g. on the interaction between genre or song choice and on-field performance.  MLBplatemusic.com seems to take a wikipedia-like approach letting readers update entries for players and has the virtue of being searchable by artist, but the presentation doesn’t distinguish between current and outdated walk-up choices and isn’t comprehensive.  Getting perfect data here is a tough enterprise, particularly accounting for the ability of players to add and subtract the number of their picks and change those picks themselves and the frequent influx of minor leaugers into the MLB in season.  Plus, added to this, is that at least a couple of players I’ve read about seem to have performance-related triggers around their (warm-up) music (imagine God’s Gonna Cut You Down feeling awkward after a 6-run first).

Focusing in on the New York Mets for a moment, country fans include Curtis Granderson – Tim McGraw’s Indian Outlaw, Eric Campbell – Eric Church’s Broke Record and Jacob deGrom – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man (not quite country, but close enough to mention). And from first-hand observation Jonathan Niese (no longer, of course, a Met), David Wright and Zack Wheeler have also chosen to come on to country music.  So just by way of example re: the reliability of the data discussed above, MLB plate music only reflects deGrom and Wright’s country choices and MLB.com gets Campbell, deGrom and Granderson right (but for Granderson failing to mention that he only choose Tim no more frequently than every third song).

In any event, depending a bit on the season and more on how narrowly we defined other categories of music, country comes in about third or fourth place in terms of genre over the past few seasons. Hip hop/ rap take the number one slot, followed by latin music/ reggaeton and then a pretty close competition between rock & roll and country.  At the top of the country heap are Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church and Lynyrd Skynyrd (more rock or country depending on the song), with MLB.com putting each of these artists in the overall Top 20 with Aldean tied with Drake for the top spot with 15 players choosing Aldean songs. Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, Zac Brown Band and Florida Georgia Line also do well.

Overall Eric Church’s The Outsiders, Jason Aldean’s The Only Way I Know and Lights Come On (and My Kinda Party and Just Gettin’ Started Tonight, but surprisingly not Dirt Road Anthem), Brantley Gilbert’s Kick it in the Sticks and Hell on Wheels, Cole Swindell’s Chillin’ It, Florida Georgia Line’s People Back Home (and assorted other selections from FGL), a few scattered Luke Bryan hits, and Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down, are most of the most common country selections.

But for me the most fun comes when we get to some of the more unique country selections, the players that choose songs I really like and the players who choose country who are also great at baseball…so stayed tuned for Part 2!

Album Review: Gotta Be Me – Cody Johnson

Writing something about Cody Johnson is long overdue having looked down at my phone so many times to see that a song I was thoroughly enjoying was a Cody Johnson. I decided it made the most sense to consider CJ’s newest album to stay current, etc and expected to find almost exclusively great things to say.  But on a closer listening at just the material off Gotta Be Me, the story is a bit more mixed.  There are some great moments on the album but there are also some wide misses and a number of songs middling about somewhere in between.

Leading off the category of wide misses, Kiss Goodbye starts off unpleasantly with some spoken-word, country-rap type lyrics.  I had brief hopes of redemption after the start of the second verse “I turn off my radio as I turn off your county road/ to pick you up just like I’ve done at least a thousand times/ the gravel underneath these tires/ half mile stretch of ol’ barbed wire”, but this verse didn’t lead anywhere and the rhymes in the song could be seen coming a mile away.  CJ’s vocals are solid, but (thankfully) this song doesn’t come off as authentic for Johnson and my primary takeaway is that, artistically and financially, this song could have been more profitably farmed out to a Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean.  Ditto for Billy’s Brother.  We can see the rollicking Ain’t Going Down ‘Til the Sun Comes Up kind of fun CJ is going for here, but bro-country emptiness overwhelms.  I could see this song playing a bit better live.

In the forgettable category, I’d put I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song) and I Ain’t Going Nowhere Baby.  There’s nothing wrong with these songs, and in the modern pop country realm they stack up favorably, but they are just too cookie-cutter.  I Know My Way sounds like a mash-up between Uncle Kracker (on account of the opening chords) and then I want to say Easton Corbin or Brett Eldredge (I can’t quite put my finger on why).

Somewhere above forgettable but not quite good is Gotta Be Me, the album’s title track, which has plenty of Texas twang and some great harmonica and steel guitar action.  The theme’s a fine one, but the content comes off as superficial (including the cringeworthy rhyme “I had a girl/ her name was Pearl”). Half a Song sounds like a slightly better version of a Blake Shelton song I’ve heard before.  It’s not original and at times the vocals are overproduced, but it does make for easy listening.

In the good category I’d first put Chain Drinkin’, solid primarily in the straightforward simplicity of the song.  Right from the outset the song establishes itself as good old fashioned feel-good, toe-tapping, upbeat and up-tempo country western swing.  And so the song succeeds. Wild as You succeeds for a similar reason: a familiar motif of wild beauty is packaged inside a sweet delivery and taped up with some fitting fiddle, the song doesn’t break any new ground but neither does it try to do too much.  In the same category, Grass Stains, not written by CJ, opens up nicely with some steel guitar and two good verses with lyrics like “This white v-neck that I got on/ as clean as a whistle, bright as a day/ I got new spit shine on my old boots/ starched these wranglers just for you, yesterday”.  But the roll into the first chorus feels contrived.  The choruses themselves bring to mind Paisley’s Ticks, but whereas the tongue-in-cheek chorus deliveries in Ticks allows the listener to play along for some hijinks not meant to be taken seriously, Grass Stains doesn’t display the same self-awareness.  Nevertheless I’d rate the song pretty good especially on account of the pleasantly twangy delivery and upbeat tempo and instrumentation including some solid fiddle.

In the great or near-great category I’d put With You I Am, a nice simple love song.  The authenticity of the lyrics forgives a delivery that is a bit too intentionally smooth and pop country.  The lyrical contrasts of what the narrator isn’t or wasn’t (e.g “I ain’t no Patrick Swayze”, “that guy with the big ol’smile as wide as the Rio Grande”) paired with the deceptively simple title lyric, towards the end with the right amount of electric guitar to match comes together for a very good song. Every Scar Has a Story is another substantive contribution off the album.  The song evokes and maintains a cowboy grittiness while tackling the topic of emotional scars from a love lost.  I like the contrast of the physical hurts with the emotional, and I like that the nature and timing of the love lost is not made explicit because it absolutely doesn’t need to be.  It doesn’t matter the details of the loss, we’re more concerned with the fact of the scar and the lingering hurt and the nostalgic lyrics and tone of delivery almost summon up that these details are omitted because they are too painful and are trying to be forgot. Walk Away is a great song too, notably co-written by Randy Rogers – the purveyor of so much awesome and original material.  Walk Away is an original spin on the timeless hard times intersection of love and cheating with the narrator sitting down on a bar stool next to his love’s cheater in crime and addressing the ballad to him, there being no ambiguity that the narrator is prepared to give his love a second chance.  There’s no monkey business around the instrumentals or the vocals, the lyrics don’t try to overdeliver and we’re just left with a wonderfully pure song.  Lastly, The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life) is my favorite song off the album.  It’s a traditional cowboy song that favorably recalls the best of George Strait or Casey Donahew Band, and the sentimental, nostalgic lyrics are original and heartfeltly delivered.

Overall I think the album is a great effort and it’s awesome to see this independent label album make it to No. 2 on the country charts and With You I Am break into the top 50. I don’t begrudge the desire for mainstream success, but as with this album I think Johnson can get there while keeping at least one tip-toe in Texas country territory.  This album doesn’t ooze Texas country like an album by Pat Green or CDB does, but the instrumentation and CJ’s authentic cowboy content does enough.  While the nods to or outright deviations into bro-country are not at all flattering, Johnson clearly has so much talent and really shines as a cowboy troubadour with the songs that are simple yet substantive.

The Early Years of Toby Keith

Listening to Pandora stations shuffled off Turnpike Troubadours and Spotify suggestions based on a history centered around artists like Pat Green and Reckless Kelly, Toby Keith songs don’t come on very often. But recently when one did, I was reminded that some of Keith’s material is actually pretty good.  There’s a lot of Keith material to wade through, so here and for starters I’ll just focus on the period between 1993’s Toby Keith and 1999’s How Do You Like Me Now.  These albums I think bookend a distinct period in TK’s career that I’ll call the Early Years.

His eponymous first album included Should’ve Been a Cowboy and Wish I Didn’t Know Now, which are the two songs I’d label great off that album, and two of three great songs from the Early Years. Cowboy is a nostalgic romp through an idealized cowboy life replete with references to cowboys in American history, movies and music culture.  Wish I Didn’t is a heartbreak love song recounting Keith’s discovery of his girlfriend’s cheating and wishing nostalgically that they could start over together or at least that he could’ve continued in his pre-discovery ignorance.  Keith wrote both songs, and both are great for me because they’re centered around classic themes with relatively novel but not over-worked lyrics and deliveries that are believable and true to the style that Keith establishes in this album and carries forward over at least the next handful of albums.

Bookending the Early Years is How Do You Like Me Now, which was Keith’s breakout album and a signal of a different career direction, with Country Comes to Town, How Do You Like Me Now (the third great song from the Early Years) and the underrated Blue Bedroom which wasn’t released as a single. HDYLMN is an upbeat and fun song with a bit of cheek.  It’s a celebration of the narrator making it in the country business, looking back on the crush of his younger years who wouldn’t give him the time and contrasting this celebration with the less fortunate path that crush went down.  In this song (as a this point in his career) TK’s made it.  He’s in your ear on the radio as he turns his glance back and asks how you like him now, you as spurning girl and directed perhaps at the audience as well.

In between Toby Keith and HDYLMN there was some material that was solid, fine and OK and plenty that was forgettable. Off Boomtown I’d put You Ain’t Much Fun in the good category, it’s funny and pretty original.  And I’d put Who’s That Man in the fine category.  Blue Moon was mostly forgettable, and Dream Walkin’ redeemed with a couple good songs, including I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying – written by Sting but delivered well by Keith – and the title track Dream Walkin’ whose vocals were extremely similar (in a good way) to Wish I Didn’t Know Now and whose lyrics were nice.

In the Early Years, TK was doing very well indeed. Four of his first five albums went platinum and his second four albums all cracked the Top 10 country charts, to be sure quite a feat for a new artist.  He also charted four number one singles, including the first release off Toby Keith Should’ve Been a Cowboy and the title track to HDYLMN, as well as 10 additional singles in the Top 10.  But chart success wasn’t automatic, as it would seemingly become in the Keith’s next period which I’ll call the Swagger Years.  Up until How Do You Like Me Now and Country Comes to Town, love was the predominant theme of Keith’s songs.  Most especially love songs with cheating, leaving, making mistakes, being replaced by another man, feelings of melancholy and loss, desperate, striving love and similar types of heartbreak and hard times love songs.  The minimal indications of vapid broiness in a few Early Years songs were more than offset by a broader corpus of thematically consistent songs with heartfelt lyrics, which it should certainly be noted were written or co-written in significant majority by Keith.  The next period, the Swagger Years, produced some of Keith’s best songs, but some questionable, wide misses too.

A ½ Bunch of Other Moments I Like in I Got a Car

The first moment I like – adding on to my previous post – is the conversation of the choruses. These vary a bit across the song but the gist is below. The matter-of-fact lyrics combined with Strait’s signature ballad delivery and the easy tempo of the song make this really nice listening. It’s like a great little taste of I Can Still Make Cheyenne in terms of delivery, though the content is more straightforwardly optimistic.

And I said, “well I got a car”, she said, “there’s something
At least it’s a start”, I said, “it’s better than nothing
“I ain’t in no hurry but I’m ready when you are”
And she said, “where do you think all this is going?”
I said, “there ain’t no way of knowing”
I guess I hadn’t thought it through that far
“But I got a car”

The second to last line of the chorus is arguably part of the dialogue, but I prefer to hear this as inner monologue, which I think makes the exchange more pure. I also really like, in the second chorus, the addition of the line “And I can’t promise you the moon and stars” after a variation of the aforementioned and contested second to last line of the above, which I think focuses attention on the simplicity of the “but I got a car”.

Second, I like verse below. One of the best vehicular escapism songs ever is Born to Run – perhaps a country song in another life – harnessing pent up energy (“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”), desperation (“‘cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider”), adventure and release (“Together we could break this trap / we’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back”), young love (“But I gotta know how it feels / I want to know if love is wild / Babe I want to know if love is real”) and some other powerful themes. Clearly Strait’s song is different in delivery but hits some of the same themes.

So we let the wheels turn and the windows down,
we let ourselves go all the way through town,
she never said stop and I never asked her why.
We drove into the night when outta nowhere
she said “I’d give anything to never go back there”,
and I kinda wish this day would never end.
She said, “I could use a change but I don’t even know where to begin”

Similarly in this verse I haven’t put quotes around the second to last line. Because the lyric is clearly “wish” I think this is intended to be part of what the girl is saying to Strait, but I prefer to pretend the word is “wished” and that this were part of Strait’s inner monologue, himself reflecting on and enjoying the experience too as the girl expresses her feelings. I also hear the first three lines and the next three lines as one ongoing, lightly-punctuated sentence each, which captures the cascading and unplanned adventure that’s being conveyed better than a bunch of short separate sentences.

Third, I like what is (for me) the ambiguity of the last verse:

We got lost in the miles, lost track of the days
‘til we finally found a stopping place
when the doctor said, “you know what’s on the way?”
And we found ourselves in a little white house,
one Sunday morning rain pouring down
She said, “I think it’s time but all the lines are out”
And her eyes teared up and she said, “what are we gonna do now?”

I understand this as separated into the following components. (a) “lost in the miles” and “stopping place” – continuing the car and driving metaphor – representing Strait and the girl continuing the relationship that started so auspiciously with “I got a car”, (b) a big time jump between the third and fourth lines of perhaps having raised multiple children and (c) finding themselves (Strait and the girl) alone again after their kids having left the nest (lines being out perhaps a metaphor for having cast their kids out into the world), and then nostalgically re-kindling their relationship going back to the car/ the original come on line where it all started/ the start of new adventures in life together. But it’s also possible (especially with “got your things in the back” in the next verse”), there’s no time lapse in (b) and the lines out in (c) are a more literal reference to something like phone lines and they’re just on their way to the hospital because “it’s time” for the baby. In fact, this second scenario is not only possible, it’s also how Strait interprets the song (see below). I heard the song in a different way, but I’m really OK with either version.

Third and a half, I like Strait’s (brief) reflections on the song that I heard online. Maybe I just need to get more plugged in to stuff like this, but I wish there were more interviews where singers talk about the songs they sing and/or write. He said “The car’s a metaphor for love, but it’s a vehicle to carry the song in”. Before even getting to this I like Strait’s genuineness in talking about what the song means. To me at least it’s important that even if someone hasn’t written a song, that as a listener I can believe the song means the same thing to them that it does to me. Usually that comes through (or not) in the delivery of the song itself and the consistency of the song with the singer’s body of work, persona, etc, and it did here. But it’s also nice to get a little extra-song confirmatory evidence that it’s not just that Strait is master at singing ballads – his own and others – but that he also relates to and appreciates this song. But anyway, I like what Strait said about the use of the car in song, because that’s how I see the song as well and I appreciate his showing insight into the song writing lens even more so, again, because Strait didn’t write the song.