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.

A Couple Songs Featuring Efficient Usage of Modes

One of the reasons Modes is such a strong category is the versatility of the subject matter. There’s a whole range of roles that cars and other vehicles and driving and the open road can play in songs. They can be freedom, evoke nostalgia or say something about the kind of person their driver is or wants to be. Or they can be a project to be worked on, a status symbol, a place for religious experience or high school hijinks or just a means to get to wherever Friday night is. Without driving too far down the road of Modes in the abstract which I’ll save for a more comprehensive post on the category, I got the treat of hearing I Got a Car and That Ain’t My Truck back to back on my Spotify which reminded me of what a great category Modes is.

A great commonality in both songs is how the authors channel the power of the category to convey really the entire themes of the respective songs in just a few lyrics. In I Got a Car, a George Strait song off Love is Everything (written by Tom Douglass and Keith Gattis) and I think one of Strait’s best offerings in the last 5 years, the title line is used in different contexts throughout the song as a statement of unspoken opportunity.

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 above is just the end of the first chorus and in talking to a girl for the first time Strait doesn’t need to expound on the adventure or escape the car can afford them, he just needs to state economically that he’s got a car. Ditto for when the title line is used later on as a metaphor for the start of a life spent together and then a nostalgic rekindling of love. In each case Strait in fact specifically says he doesn’t know all of the things that might happen or that the characters might do together but instead allows the simple line of having a car do the heavy lifting, allowing the listeners – plural because in this case the listener is both the girl within the song and the audience outside of the song – to envision their own possibility.

Similarly in That Ain’t My Truck, co-written by the singer Rhett Akins (alongside Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters), it’s one line that conveys the whole theme of the song, here by channeling the idea of car (or truck) as an extension of self and place in the world.

That’s my girl, my whole world
but that ain’t my truck

The image of someone else’s truck parked in front of a house where your truck should be parked efficiently captures the range of complex emotions – loneliness, betrayal, sadness, etc – explored in the rest of the song, attendant to losing the girl the narrator loves. But it’s not necessary for Akins even to verbalize that his girlfriend has chosen someone else and that he’s no longer wanted, that another truck is in his space says it all.

There’s plenty more to like in both of these songs, but I particularly appreciate the less-is-more approach both sets of songwriters took in building up the respective stories (and in I Got a Car’s case, chapters) but then deferring to the powerful associations the listener can make with “a car” in Strait’s song or “the truck” in Akins song by just putting one simple lyric out there.

Suggested Set List for Pat Green’s NYC Texas Independence Day Concert

I’ve been fortunate enough to make it to Texas Independence Day at Terminal 5 in New York City each of the past 6 or 7 years. Minus one lost year when I was in Mississippi and one of those years attending only one of the two shows – that year TID being broken up into two shows. Pat Green’s missed at least one of those years too, so I figure Pat and I are even. In anticipation of this year’s show the date of which I don’t think has been announced, I’d like to suggest a set list just in case PFG happens to stumble across this post. (And if JAB, Randy Rogers Band, Casey Donahew Band or whoever else may also be playing so requests I’d be happy to put together set lists for them as well.) To be clear, this list doesn’t represent the 15 or so songs that I’d most like to hear. Choosing only among my favorites, which are hard to narrow down to 15 anyway, probably wouldn’t make for the best concert. Rather, I’ve tried to consider the following factors: (1) the songs Green seems to like to play in concert generally and at NYC TID shows in the past specifically, (2) the venue, (3) the typical NYC audience likely to turn out, (4) balance among the types and tempos of songs, (5) sampling across Green’s albums, (6) danceability, (7) singability and (8) the nature of the event.

1. Here We Go
2. Cannonball
3. Baby Doll
4. Girls From Texas

I think Here We Go is a strong choice to lead off the concert. It’s not only a nice chronological bookend being the first song off Green’s first album, it’s also a great rev up song to get the crowd going and a signal that, yeah, this is going to be a strong concert where we hear at least some unexpected old greats. This song will flow well into the similarly up-tempo Cannonball and Baby Doll, the latter of which is a good segue into Girls From Texas (which I don’t particularly care for, but does take us to Green’s latest album Home and seems to be a crowd pleaser particularly at a Texas-centric events like this).

5. Texas On My Mind
6. Whiskey
7. Don’t Break My Heart Again
8. Life Good as it Can Be

I really like Texas On My Mind and I think it’s appropriate given the nature of the event and a solid Texas back-to-back after GFT. This is only a semi-regular Green concert offering at least up north, so if Green wanted to substitute a Texas song he wrote I’d be OK with I Like Texas instead. Having been reminded that PFG can rock out and that he’s true Texas Country (and anyway we’re all throwing up horns tonight), I think it’s then time to slow things down with Whiskey (underrated) and then into an older and newer slow song. If time allowed and we can get in an extra song I’d add Threadbare Gypsy Soul in after Whiskey (Whiskey in my opinion is a better choice than Galleywinter which Green seems to like to play), perhaps with Casey Donahew coming out to sing Willie’s part of the duet. Although I like the juxtaposition of Life and Wave (see next grouping), I think Day One could be substituted here for Life although to go along with that sub I’d also replace Don’t Break with Temporary Angel.

9. Wave on Wave
10. Carry On
11. All The Good Things Fade Away
12. Just Fine
13. Southbound 35
14. Three Days

There’s nothing to pick up the tempo again better than Wave on Wave, particularly since this is the one song we can count on most of even the New Yorkers to be able to sing along to seamlessly. And I think playing this song earlier in the show clarifies (if there was any doubt) that PFG is more than a one-trick pony and avoids the predictability of waiting for this on the encore. The rest of the grouping represents core Green offerings both in terms of concert playing frequency and caliber of content, and I’d be particularly pleased with Southbound and Three Days ending the concert set proper. This is a nice chunk of vintage PFG songs that loyalists will be happy to sing along to but that newcomers would also enjoy. Reversing the order of the last two songs does have some merit since Southbound is a bit more up tempo to close out the show (pre-encore) but I give Three Days the nod because it feels more nostalgic and I think the repetition of the chorus lines allow more people less versed in Green to sing along going into the end of the show.

15. Lucky
16. Take Me Out to a Dancehall

Lucky was also a contender to open up the show (ultimately a Texas song got the call given context) but would make a fine choice to start the encore particularly given the excitable and familiar riffs the song starts with and the awesome lyrics blending patriotism, nostalgia and general optimism. Take Me Out to a Dancehall is probably Green’s most recognizable song besides Wave on Wave, fitting for the venue and an overall very upbeat song but one that ends on a calmer, romantic note appropriate for the end of the show.

In trying to put together this objectively optimal set list I think I’ve been pretty impartial. Personally I’d love to hear Rusty Old American Dream – which I’ve never been able to hear in concert and think is a sorely underrated song. I’d also love to hear Poetry and John Wayne and Jesus and George’s Bar is another stellar song omitted here. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t note that there are some absolutely rabid Down to the River fans who will be saddened if this song isn’t played. Plenty of other great PFG songs too, but unfortunately never enough time, and I think the set list I’ve put together would make for a very solid show.

Song Analysis: May We All – Florida Georgia Line

May We All is the second single off Florida Georgia Line’s new album Dig Your Roots, and a solid song.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with this album’s first single, H.O.L.Y. The gents at FGL are great vocalists, which if you didn’t know it before this song, is evident right from the first verse – despite and not because of all the auto tuning. But even in the context of professing love with religious metaphor – some of which lines are not bad, though also not original – the vocal effort and range seem out of place and at times ham-handed especially because of the auto-tuning and especially in the chorus (i.e. the “H.O.L.Y” aka “high on loving you”). There is something to be said for FGL’s change of pace in the song itself and in the act of releasing this as the first song off their new album. It is a new direction for FGL, one that feels more like adult contemporary than country, but on the other hand it doesn’t mention Fireball and avoids bro-country cliché. At the end of the day I think the OK lyrics of the verses and FGL’s vocal displays are undermined by the self-importance of the song, particularly of the choruses, and the vocal processing.

Turning back to the song at hand, for important starters this song rings true as sung by FGL, which means something for any song not written by the artists themselves but particularly so for a song like this which is so nostalgic. By contrast Luke Bryan, one of the singers the primary writer Rodney Clawson initially considered for the song (i.e. as a potential purchaser), would not have been as good a fit at this point in his career. Maybe after Bryan co-wrote the small-town great Rain Is a Good Thing, but as Bryan’s career has staked claimed firmly in bro-country, I think this song would have come off as pandering rather than genuinely wistful.

The nostalgia hits home right from the start of the song with the prayerful “May we all” introducing the thesis of the song: getting to grow up in “our red, white and blue little town”. Most of the lyrics in this song are good, to just take a look at the annotated chorus:

May we all know that nothing ain’t cool ‘til you wear the new [off] [A few of the lyrics sites I’ve found online hear the last word of this line as “one”, an oversight that sorely misses any message at all that this song has. But the line itself hits the old is good motif and converse repudiation of all things new being automatically better pairing nicely with the overall nostalgia of the song.]

The sound of a quarter rollin’ down a jukebox [This is probably the best line in the song – we can all remember those diner/ bar jukeboxes (even as we listen to this song on our phones) and what a great auditory image. It’s not the jukebox itself or even the song playing out of it, but the sound of coin clink chunking its way down the coin slot.]

Play the Travis Tritt right above the Tupac [Here I visualized the flipbook pages of that diner jukebox where 8 or so tracks were listed vertically with the corresponding entry numbers next to each selection and making the selection for Tritt, which happened to be located alphabetically above Tupac (with Tupac mentioned for timing/ generational context). In an interview with Tyler Hubbard he suggested this was a throwback to the sort of diverse combination of music CDs he had at that age. Notwithstanding hardcore country fans’ sure objections to this reference, I say I don’t love it but fine. The reference to Tritt is a solid musical inspirational throwback on its own.]

[Before] you get lost down some road [Note: most of the lyrics I see online hear the first word here as hope, but I hear this as “before” which I think is better. In either event ain’t no hurry to get anywhere, it’s just driving for the sake of driving, this guy imagines perhaps with some friends from the jukebox diner in the back seat and then of course the girl riding shotgun mentioned a couple lines later.]

Slow rolling with the top off the back of a Bronco [Still no hurry to get anywhere, in contrast to the fast-paced big city or modern world. And despite use of the term “slow rolling” I don’t think we have a bro-country hook here.]

Buy a cold sixer with a cashed-in lotto [Again I think this steers clear of introducing any bro-country, just the solid enjoyment of a good six pack on a couple fortuitous extra dollars.]

She’s smilin’ with her hair blowing out the window [Some pleasant summertime happiness and carefreeness here, always good.]

Where you ‘bout to go? Yeah, you learn to fly and if you can’t then you just free fall [Here, I get a little lost. I don’t understand what this line adds to the song. It’s hard to think of freefalling without Tom Petty coming to mind but this doesn’t seem to be a reference, and in general I don’t appreciate the link to the rest of the song. But I don’t think this lack of apparent synchronicity does lasting damage to the song, and of course it’s a nice slow rhyme back to May we all.]

To focus in on a few more lyrics:

Coming in after the opening line of RW&B little town, “Kinda place you can’t wait to leave but nobody does/ ‘cause you miss it too much” is a nice lyric encapsulating the tension explored in so many country songs between hometown love, growing up and nostalgia versus the desire to leave and explore for bigger better things.

May we all do a little bit better than the first time / Learn a little something from the worst times / Get a little stronger from the hurt times
May we all get to have a chance to ride the fast one / Walk away wiser when we crashed one / Keep hoping that the best one is the last one

These lyrics are OK. The tone with which they are delivered suggests there is something meaningful behind the lyrics. Interpreted in the context of the music video as about a car race and attendant literal crash they certainly don’t mean anything and I think trivialize what in the generality of the lyrics could be interpreted as significant. The generality of the lyrics by themselves at least admit of the opportunity for the listener, having just been made nostalgic for their hometown or other small town America, to graft their own experiences onto doing better than the first time, learning from the worst times, etc. The lyrics themselves (i.e. out of context) are nice. The trajectory of the song could have culminated in the nostalgic narrator returning to the small town he was once ambivalent about with wife and 2.1 &c. Or we could have just had another catchy verse about small town America and left it at that, without trying to overreach and make the song about more than face value. But as is, I don’t see a link here to the rest of the song and so am a bit frustrated at the apparent intention to impart a message without giving it substance.

This song is most successful where, and because generally, it doesn’t try to do too much. When the song embraces nostalgic references, it does so in just the right way. Most of the song is content being about nostalgia for nice small town America, and it does so simply and without pretension, by listing nice small town Americana. Listing things can make for a good song (see, e.g. I Love this Life). The pace of the song is really nice. The verses are a bit slower then the chorus picks up the tempo so that the rhymes rhyme perfectly and segue one into another. The bass line of the choruses avoids being oppressive and combined with the catchy rhyme scheme reaches just the right head bob along level. May We All doesn’t have the sustained catchiness of Cruise or achieve the significance of message of Dirt, but it finds a satisfactory home somewhere between the two.

The 9 Categories of Country Music: The South

At least at first glance “The South” seems like the easiest of the 9 Categories to identify in songs and draw boundaries around for purposes of categorization and this identification. It probably is, but this is more a feature of the complexity of the other categories rather than this category just being a simple one. At the core of this category are songs about the south generally, or about specific southern states and cities. Songs like Alabama’s Song of the South and Dixieland Delight, Brad Paisley’s Southern Comfort Zone, Hootie’s Southern State of Mind and Southern Style, Hank Jr.’s If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie, Tim’s Southern Voice and The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down don’t focus on southern locations or a specific southern custom, they’re just about the American South.

Songs about particular southern states (and cities) are too numerous to name exhaustively so I’ll just mention a few nice examples. Alabama’s weight is probably more than carried by Sweet Home Alabama alone (Georgia too with Devil Went Down to Georgia), but also boasts song’s like Paisley’s Old Alabama and Tracey Lawrence’s Paint Me a Birmingham. Mississippi, my adopted southern home state, gets some love in Faith Hill’s Mississippi Girl, Johnny and June’s Jackson and to segue west Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man sung by the lovable Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn. To its name Louisiana and its cities have songs like Louisiana Saturday Night, PFG’s Louisiana Song, REK’s Hello New Orleans and Garth’s Calling Baton Rouge.

At least among my favorite artists, Texas is far and away the leader in inspiring country songs, like Strait’s All My Exes Live in Texas and Amarillo By Morning, Terry Allen’s Amarillo Highway, Waylon’s Luckenbach, Texas – sorry, there are just too many songs about Texas that I really like and want to mention – Aldean’s Amarillo Sky and Texas Was You, Jason Boland’s Somewhere Down in Texas, Kevin Fowler’s 100% Texan, Josh Abbott Band’s My Texas and She’s Like Texas, Alabama’s If You’re Gonna Play In Texas, Little Texas’ God Blessed Texas and so many Pat Green songs like I Like Texas, Texas On My Mind, Somewhere Between Texas and Mexico, West Texas Holiday and Way Back Texas. Oklahoma has some nice songs as well including MH’s iconic Okie from Muskogee, EYB’s Oklahoma Girl and Carrie’s Blown Away. And to cover at least some of the remaining field let’s also mention Take Me Home Country Roads (one of my all time favorites), Aldean’s Country Boy’s World, Wagon Wheel (always), PFG’s Virginia Belle, Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, Shooter’s Gone to Carolina and Carolina (Eric Church or Parmalee, take your pick).

Moving outward from the core of this category, it makes sense to at least consider what else could be included in the category of “The South”. Not within the name of category, but consistent with its spirit are songs like Reckless Kelly’s Arizona Skies and Idaho Cowboy, Strait’s I Can Still Make Cheyenne and Ocean Front Property and even Kid Rock’s All Summer Long that find their inspiration a little further west (or north). So too for songs like Flyover States, REK’s Out Here In the Middle and Strait’s Heartland that are non-specfically more about the great middle west states of this great country, rather than specifically southern states. It might be stretch to go so far as to include songs like PFG’s and CDB’s respective Californias, but in this correspondent listener’s opinion I’d include at least references to western and heartland states here.

I feel still more comfortable including in this category songs about topics identifiable with the South, without specifically naming southern locations. When we hear Hank’s Jambalaya (on the Bayou), Billy Currington’s Good Directions (sweet tea, turnips greens, etc) or even Kacey Musgraves’ Biscuits, this transports the listen to the south just as much as hearing a specific location, even more so with songs mentioning non-city southern landmarks like Alan Jackson’s Chattahoochee, REK’s Corpus Christi Bay, A Country Boy Can Survive or PFG’s Southbound 35, ZBB’s Toes (GA clay) or CDB’s Stockyards. (So too for songs like Chris Ledoux’s Western Skies, Brooks & Dunn’s Red Dirt Road and Toby Keith’s Should’ve Been a Cowboy, taking us west). Because I plan to write a separate post about this, I won’t analyze here the small town, rural and farm motifs as satisfying this category other than to say that under the right circumstances I think there’s a solid argument that they can (e.g. Where the Green Grass Grows, JAB’s I’ll Sing About Mine, ZBB’s Homegrown and Hal Ketchum’s Small Town Saturday Night), given proper context.

At the end of the day, for this listener, it doesn’t take a ton of The South to get credit for hitting the category. Simple references like Blake Shelton’s “If you’ll be my Louisiana / I’ll be your Mississippi and Canaan Smith’s metaphorical kissing “slow as the Mississippi” get us there. I don’t think it can just be songs like Take Me Home Country Roads that are explicit celebrations of particular locations that get credit for hitting this category, though arguments about the breath and inclusion of this category should not distract from the recognition that depth and meaningful engagement with this, or any other category, can make a song great on its own and it’s not just about checking the category boxes. Songwriters have the opportunity to write about anywhere under the sun and set their stories wherever they please, and I really enjoy hearing songs set all across America.

Songs About Specific Things: Being Thankful That What You Wanted to Happen Didn’t Happen

One of my very favorite specific topics that some country music songs are about is being thankful in retrospect for things that didn’t happen. In particular, things that at one point the singer/ narrator very much wanted to happen. A couple fantastic songs are great examples:

Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers” – Garth recounts how he wanted, and would pray every night, to spend his life with a particular woman, but then upon running into the woman years later realizing that despite those feelings at the time he was very much meant to be with his wife and not that other woman concluding “I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all” and reflecting: “sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers” and “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”.

Darius Rucker’s “This” – Hootie goes through a number of these unanswered prayers: the girl that turned him down in high school, the college he wanted to attend until he got a rejection letter, his mother passing away and many other “misses”:

For every stoplight I didn’t make / every chance I did or I didn’t take
all the nights I went too far / all the girls that broke my heart
all the doors that I had to close / all the things I knew but I didn’t know
Thank God for all I missed / cause it led me here to This

It’s not a celebration of these things specifically but a recognition in retrospect that “nothing’s a mistake” and “it all makes perfect sense” because everything led to up to the great life (in this case, baby sleeping, wife laughing in his arms, rain on the rooftop and the football game about to start) he has now.

Walt Wilkins’ “Trains I Missed” – Wilkins similarly goes through loves lost, bridges burned, rivers never crossed, roads not taken, maps not read, attempts to get away from God and other hard times. And at the end of song Wilkins reflects that “the hell and the hurt” led him to finding his way and celebrates the good things in life “and the moments I find myself right where I’m supposed to be”, toasting the trains he missed.

I really like this topic. These songs have the character of the “everything happens for a reason” reflection and thanking God figures prominently into each song. (What beautiful lyrics: “just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care / some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”). They serve as a nice “take it easy” reminder that the stoplight turning to red right in front of you isn’t what’s important – or a big deal. Everyone’s had life experiences that didn’t turn out the way you hoped at the time, which is why hard times is one of the essential 9 Categories of Country Music. Maybe, like Garth, it was someone you would have done anything for, who you loved and prayed that God would let you spend the rest of your life with but that you didn’t end up with for one reason or another. Or any other unanswered prayer or metaphorical missed train. We can all consider our own life experiences in the context of Garth’s prayers, Hootie’s winding road and Wilkins’ litany of missteps and empathize with those singers, or even graft our own life experiences on to their words and melodies and hear the song as if it were written about us. Songs like this turn the hard time on its head by celebrating all those even better things that never would have happened but for that hard time, turning the initial sadness into wonderful optimism.

Some Thoughts on the 2016 50th Annual Country Music Awards

The Country Music Awards are awesome. If there is any group of celebrities I actually want to celebrate it’s country music stars, particularly because these are pop culture folks, yes wearing tuxedos and fancy dresses on the red carpet but at the same time hokey and one imagines comparatively humble and kind.

As in recent years, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were the perfect MCs, witty but not trying too hard and topical but not political. Their routines are always creative, and funny in just the right way – we’re not laughing at anyone and if we even feel like we’re laughing at jokes we feel like we’re just laughing together because the routines are purposefully silly.

From a production perspective the CMAs bring everyone into the fold. The show opened with a wonderful (if far too short) tribute to the late, great Merle Haggard, and nice medley that featured Charlie Daniels’ fiddle positively smoking, and a reminder that any song Carrie Underwood sings (in this case Stand By Your Man) becomes hers for that moment. Of the performances delivered, my favorites were Brooks & Dunn with Brand New Man, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s snippet of Jackson and I don’t care what anyone else says: Beyoncé fit right in on that stage. Daddy Lessons is a country song and a nice one at that, and Beyoncé’s performance was great – upbeat and enthusiastic, and of course with her impressive vocals – strong horns and harmonica giving the song a nice New Orleans feel. I also enjoyed Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam’s rendition of Seven Spanish Angels (more so than Stapleton’s Tennessee Whiskey performance of 2015). I’m also a big Reba fan and her 9 to 5 Dolly Parton tribute cover was spot on. Also appreciated were fun appearances by Peyton Manning, Olivia Newton John and Matthew McConaughey.

Focusing in on the awards themselves, the first live category of Best Single was disappointing. There were actually two songs in this category I felt were arguably deserving of the award: Chris Stapleton’s Nobody to Blame and Maren Morris’s My Church, but the award went to what is in my opinion the worst nominated song Thomas Rhett’s Die a Happy Man.

The CMAs had a chance at redemption but My Church didn’t make Song of the Year either, arguably an even more appropriate award for this song. Note to Reader: this award is a favorite of mine since I don’t think songwriters get nearly enough recognition. Lori McKenna, this year’s winner is a fine and deserving songwriter, though I don’t think Humble and Kind is her best effort. My Church features fine lyrics (co-written by Morris) beautifully delivered, with religious redemption serving as a nice metaphor for country music and importantly and more specifically listening to country music on the freedom of the open road on the radio, and attendent features of religion serving as a nice delivery vehicle for references to country music legends. I was pleased that they at least gave Maren a bit of stage time for the song, and what a wonderful accompaniment of Preservation Hall Jazz Band (!), and Morris was definitely the right choice for New Artist of the Year. Looking back to some of the legends who have won this award in past years, I think Morris was the only credible choice among the nominees. I have some nice things to say about Cole Swindell, which I hope to get to one of these days perhaps in a post about Pop Country, but with Chillin’ It, Hope You Get Lonely Tonight and Ain’t Worth the Whiskey from Swindell’s 2013/2014 album I don’t really think of him as a new artist any longer.

On Album of the Year, I didn’t have strong feelings among the nominees but I think Mr. Misunderstood was a good choice (Storyteller would also have been a good choice) and appreciate that Church has at least co-writing credits on every song on this album (though Morris was in her own right a co-producer of Hero). For me the most conspicuous note here was the absence of ZBB’s Jekyll + Hyde from the nominees (also probably a contender for this award in 2015) – what’s going on here?

Miscellaneous Notes on a Few Other Awards:

The gents in Brothers Osborne do have solid vocals (re: Vocal Duo of the Year), though it’s hard to put them in the same tier as Brooks & Dunn or Sugarland. These guys combined do not have the pipes of Jennifer Nettles. The Vocal Group of the Year award was a travesty. Little Big Town has a couple things going for it, including the significant vocal contributions of all members of the band, but this award clearly should have gone to Zac Brown Band. Clearly. It’s hard to argue with Carrie Underwood as Female Vocalist of the Year – particularly in a year when Jennifer Nettles, Reba or Martina McBride didn’t make the finalists. Ditto for Chris Stapleton as Male Vocalist of the Year, though again I’m not sure how Zac Brown doesn’t at least make the nomination list for his individual vocals notwithstanding that he performs as part of ZBB.

Just a faint rumor of Garth Brooks releasing a new album would probably have been enough to garner him the award for Entertainer of the Year, and while I haven’t had the good fortune to see Garth live, the performances I’ve seen of his are obviously spectacular and combined with a strong first single from his new album, this fairly gets GB the win here.

The 9 Categories of Country Music

A few years ago my friend Dan and I discovered the 9 categories of country music. These subject areas and themes are the ones most frequently appearing in the best country music songs, crafted and defined to be broad enough to apply across the spectrum of country music and specific enough to capture the important topics covered in a particular song. Our theory was that, at least as a rule of thumb, the more categories a song hits the better the song. This certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule – Wagon Wheel, one of the unquestioned contenders for qualitatively best country song doesn’t stack up particularly impressively on our quantitative metric. It’s certainly true that by focusing lyrically on even just a couple of these categories a country song can be great. Nevertheless, our theory is that there’s at least a very strong correlation between the number of categories a song hits and how good that song is.

In no particular order the 9 categories are:

  1. Love
  2. Hard Times
  3. Raisin’ Hell
  4. Nostalgia
  5. Musical Aspirations and Inspirations
  6. God/ religion
  7. The South
  8. America
  9. Modes of Transportation

I can’t recall hearing a country song that did not hit at least a couple of these categories, and probably the average is around 3.5 categories. Of course, one of the key issues in analyzing country songs for the number of categories represented is how strict or loose a construction to put on each of the categories. I hope to explore each of these categories in depth in future posts and what I mean by the level of construction will become more clear. But just to give a bit of color on each of the categories by way of example, consider the following lyrics from the lone song that our analysis has uncovered as hitting 8 of the categories, Kenny Chesney’s I Go Back:

  1. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Love)
  2. And I go back to the loss of a real good friend/ and the sixteen summers I shared with him (Hard Times)
  3. And I go back to the feel of a fifty yard line/ A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine (Raisin’ Hell)
  4. After graduation and drinkin’ goodbye to friends (Nostalgia)
  5. “Jack and Diane” painted a picture of my life and my dreams (Musical Aspirations and Inspirations)
  6. So I go back to a pew, preacher and a choir/ singin’ ‘bout God, brimstone and fire (God/ religion)
  7. I go back to the smell of an old gym floor/ and the taste of salt on the Carolina shore (The South)
  8. Not represented (America)
  9. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Modes of Transportation)