The last time we were together, I wrote about Willie’s Roadhouse and Outlaw Radio, two Sirius Satellite radio stations I’ve listened to for a couple of months. Soon thereafter I received an email from a reader questioning my interest in current mainstream country music. After lifting my jaw off the ground – a reader actually writing me (okay, it was one of my Popdose colleagues) – I reviewed my first four columns and indeed, they had little to do with what’s popular today. In fact, I may have even come off as critical of country radio and Nashville.
My criticisms of country radio have nothing to do with the music. I think that radio in general has been on life support ever since corporations were allowed to buy up multiple stations in different markets. I don’t want to get into that right now, but I will say that the LA country station, Go 105, is independently owned and they seem to play a little more variety than the Ventura station I sometimes pick up on my radio, as well as the Sirius mainstream station, the Highway.
I do like a lot of today’s popular country music. Since my family has returned from an extended vacation and all I hear in the car are the same JT, Macklemore and P!nk songs, whenever I turn on Go 105 I’m very excited about the music they play.
My reader (whose actually a good friend, so it was a nice email) also challenged me to run down the current top 10 on the Billboard Country Charts and analyze the songs. I don’t feel qualified for an analysis of the music, but I’ll gladly offer my views on these songs. So without further ado, here is the top 10 Hot Country Songs for the week of August 10, 2012. A playlist of these songs appears at the bottom of the column.
Rucker has a radio friendly voice and a friendly, down home delivery. But we’ve known this since the days of Hootie and the Blowfish. “Wagon Wheel” is a cover of an Old Crow Medicine Show song (co-written by Bob Dylan). Rucker’s version is a former number one single and it’s a catchy, singalong song. I imagine it goes over well in concert and seems fit for an outdoor venue. For all I care, it can remain in the top ten a little longer just so the asshole who Tweeted “@dariusrucker Leave country to the white folk” can suck it a little longer. This song features one of my favorite bands, Lady Antebellum, on harmonies. What impresses me about Rucker is that he decided to approach his country music career as if the 90s never happened. When his first country album came out in 2008, instead of riding on the laurels of the gazillion dollar selling albums he released with Hootie and the Blowfish, he chose to be the “new guy.” He went out on tours as an opening act and proved that he was dedicated to the genre and not just dipping his toe into country’s waters to make an extra buck (yeah, Jon Bon Jovi, I’m talking to you!).
“See You Again” is another pop country power ballad from Underwood, the former American Idol champ who has carved out a nice career for herself. In addition to her innate ability to get to the heart of her material, I’m impressed that she had a hand in co-writing “See You Again.” It’s a poignant number about moving forward after losing a loved one. In the wake of Sandy Hook and the Oklahoma tornadoes, the song has additional power, especially since Underwood hails from Oklahoma. Underwood is a great singer, as far as I’m concerned, and one of the things I like about country music fans is that they embrace talent, no matter how they’re discovered. Although her music is a little slick at times, Underwood works hard and delivers the goods. I predict that this song will continue to climb the charts and may become her next number one single. You will note that Underwood is the only female artist in the top ten.
Despite his left wing politics, you find Bruce Springsteen’s name popping up all of the time in the conservative realm of country music. Kip Moore has spoken many times about the influence the Boss had on his decision to become a musician, and you can hear the Springsteen influence all over this lovely ballad, especially in the piano part. I like Kip Moore a lot; I have since I reviewed his album back in May 2012. While many of the songs on his album fall into the standard “let’s hang out and guzzle beers” category, he has a tenderness and passion to his voice and songwriting that hints of great things to come. There are some artists whose songs pop up on Go 105 and I let them drift into the background. Whenever Moore comes on I sing along.
When I began this trip into country music, “Don’t Ya” was a part of a Academy of Country Music new artists CD I was given. It’s one of two tracks I returned to over and over. “Don’t Ya” is a fine country song, and by country, I mean it’s not a warmed over pop song with banjo and fiddle flourishes thrown in to make it “country” (Jovi!). Eldredge has a great voice, the song’s rhythm is unique and the music really engages you. The singer/songwriter’s first album comes out in a couple of weeks and I look forward to hearing more from him.
No. 6 “Round Here” Florida Georgia Line
More on these guys later.
No. 5 “Boys Round Here” by Blake Shelton
Has any other song ever pandered to the fan base like “Boys Round Here.” The lyrics to this song are just about the dumbest I’ve heard and are full of country music/southern stereotypes. Shelton has had a long enough career and gained the admiration of the masses (thanks in part to the charming job he does on The Voice) that I feel he should be recording material with a little more depth than this song. Then again, Springsteen recorded “I’m Goin’ Down,” so who am I to judge. Ugh, it infuriates me to admit this, but damn if it isn’t one of the most annoyingly catchy songs of the summer.
Here’s a number that did nothing for me when I first heard it. Bryan’s thick southern drawl kind of bothered me and the lyrics felt like a hodge podge of love song and a good old boys tune. I think it was last week when the music finally got me. The drumming, in particular, is really well done and sometimes all it takes is that one thing to make me reconsider a song. Since then I’ve paid more attention to the lyrics and Bryan’s heartfelt delivery and “Crash My Party” has grown on me. Now I plan to dig a little deeper into the Luke Bryan catalog.
From what I’ve heard of Randy Houser reminds me of the kind of music .38 Special made in the 80s: a hybrid of arena and southern rock. In other words, music a little glossy, with just enough grit to make it popular in roadside bars. I liked .38 Special back in the day, which makes Houser’s music ring familiar to my ears. “Runnin’ Outta Midnight” is a solid tune, although I think I prefer his other song, “How Country Feels,” the title track of the album from which both songs come.
This young man (barely drinking age) is the latest country dreamboat, but the kid is loaded with talent. One look at his debut album’s credits and you realize that Hunter Hayes deserves his success. Hayes co-produced his debut album, wrote or co-wrote every song, played every instrument and sang every vocal part (except for two duets). “I Want Crazy” comes from the special Encore edition of the Hayes’ debut album. It’s an excellent song. His voice reminds me of Keith Urban, which is fine by me, and his songwriting on this track has a nice blend of country and pop. It doesn’t amaze me that this song was a smash hit. In addition to Hayes being extremely good looking, he has that kind of “best friend” liability that makes him cool with the guys.
THE song of the summer, if not the year. I knew this song was popular when my teenage daughter, who only listens to MyFM, knew every word to “Cruise” when it came on the radio. “Cruise” just set the record for longest number of weeks at #1 on the country charts, with 22 consecutive times ranking at the top. This single was originally released August 12 of LAST YEAR and it continues to perform. The guys in FGL certainly have the look of new country. Their hair is styled just right, they have tats and both wear wallets with chains that connect to the front of their ripped jeans. Their music reminds me of mainstream rock of the 80s: big drums, loud guitars and vocal harmonies. Aside from the twang in their voices, you might mistake the music of FGL for some Bon Jovi castaway (him again). This sound isn’t new to country, mind you. Shania Twain became a superstar with albums produced by Robert “Mutt” Lange, the guy responsible for Def Leppard’s biggest hits. Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, the duo that makes up FGL are certainly working it to become crossover sensations into the pop realm. In addition to the song moving up the pop charts, they have an alternate version of “Cruise” featuring Nelly rapping on it. The success of “Cruise” has propelled their other singles from their multiplatinum album, Here’s to the good Times, on to the charts (see this week’s number 6). To me, FGL are a shining example of what current country radio sounds like. With their success, coupled with the material Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood release, this polished style of country isn’t going anywhere. I don’t have a problem with that, as long as there’s still room for more traditional material on the radio, too.
Like any musical form, the more you listen to it, the more familiar the songs become. I think my attraction to those Sirius stations that play country music that falls off the beaten path (i.e oldies and alt country) is just my nature. I love getting historical perspectives on artists, searching out the roots and influences. I also enjoy hearing stuff that no else is listening to, just to know what’s out there. However, I’m a child of popular radio and still gain pleasure out hearing the hit songs and being able to sing along with the masses. As I said, I like a lot of the new country music, even if it isn’t what some hard cores consider “country.”