Welcome to The Singles Bar, a review series focused on new single and song releases.
Wow. OK. So, this is the game we’re playing, country music. Fine. I’ll bite.
In the aftermath of hits like Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” Keith Urban & Carrie Underwood’s “The Fighter” and Thomas Rhett & Maren Morris’ “Craving You,” all bets are off. If you thought bro-country did ample damage to the definition of country, you were sorely mistaken–we’ve reached a crossroads. We can either continue down this highway, heading straight for the flaming fires of hell–or we can let the likes of Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Jon Pardi, Margo Price and William Michael Morgan actually teach us something. Songs such as “Tin Man,” “Good Ole Boys Club,” “Head Over Boots,” “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” and “I Met a Girl” deal in modernisms but never loosen their grip on ethos, conjuring up neo-traditional notions much like the Class of ’89.
“Country is using pop productions from like six years ago and calling it ‘country,'” posted B-Sides & Badlands friend and pop-rock duo The Score, in response to a series of tweets I blasted off last night. The accused is Walker Hayes‘ new single “You Broke Up with Me,” which clearly is a splintered remix of any Sam Hunt track (see: “Take Your time,” “Break Up in a Small Town”). Yes, it is being pedaled as country, because of course it is. Also, there are hints of Rhett’s “Vacation” and Jerrod Niemann here; both acts have done their damnedest to expand the reference points of country even further into R&B and funk–for better or for worse. Hayes’ latest follows his Capitol Nashville years, circa 2011-2013, when he released one full-length record, Reason to Rhyme, and other on-off singles, like “Pimpin’ Joy” and “Lake Erie Love.” If you go listen to that record, the signs were already there, but with a more Jason Aldean-stylized way of life.
Now signed to the relaunched Monument Records, a branch of Sony Music Entertainment (not Sony Nash), Hayes has already picked up more than five million streams of “You Broke Up with Me,” co-written with Kylie Sackley (Alan Jackson, Thompson Square). The label, helmed by manager Jason Owen and songwriter/producer Shane McAnally (Sam Hunt, Kacey Musgraves), also contains artist/songwriter Caitlin Smith (Garth Brooks, Meghan Trainor). “I am always drawn to projects and artists who are met with the question of, ‘Where does this fit?’ I believe that an artist who doesn’t seem to fit anywhere, actually fits everywhere. Monument will be the place for projects of credibility that need creative and unorthodox ways of getting heard,” McAnally said. “Walker Hayes and Caitlyn Smith are both impossible to compare to anyone else; they are true originals and originality is what we intend to build Monument on.”
Through the years, Monument has housed artists like Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Dixie Chicks, and was founded by industry icon Fred Foster in 1958. What a way to fall, huh? (This is not a barb to Smith, who is one of the most soulful and complex storytellers working today.) Hayes is the furthest we’ve ever gone from country.
So, let’s break down the song’s production: from the throaty beat-boxing to the airy whistling, it sets a cloying, millennial tone, aimed at the 18-35 crowd, unapologetically. I could forgive all that (I listen to plenty of pop music that taps into that #YOLO glow), if there were fiddle, token banjo or more prominent acoustic guitar driving the arrangement. But his thick, R&B-filtered voice leads the music, a classic trait of pop, supported with a Gym Class Heroes-groove. His age–37, in case you were wondering–is of no concern to me. I don’t care how old you are; the music needs to be good.
The song first appeared on last year’s 8Tracks, Vol. 1: Good Shit, and as the title suggests, he flickers between urban beats framed through acoustic guitar (as you’ll hear on “Beautiful,” Mike Posner would be proud) and other vocal-based work, from the twinkling, drop-down “Dollar Store” (Macklemore says “hi”). He even tips his hat to Ed Sheeran (“Say Sober”) and Charlie Puth (“Beer in the Fridge”). On the follow-up, 8Tracks, Vol. 2: Break the Internet, he breaks genres down even further, dabbling in piano (the Nicolle Galyon-assisted “Halloween”), snaps (“The Comedian”) and club fever (the title cut, especially).
“Well, I got some Coke in my bourbon / Surfin’ the room like Swazye / No, I ain’t drunk, I’m amazing,” he sings on “You Broke Up with Me,” already hazy on that drink in his hand, the room spinning. “Yeah, I got that laid way, way back, back in my swagger. ‘X-Factor,’ feeling no pain, I’m at the top of my game.” He’s got that Bieber-level swagger, that’s for sure. He slurs on the pre-chorus, “Darlin’, you can’t crash my party with your sorry’s and what are we’s / Don’t start raining on my Mardi Gras parade for a minute / I ain’t even fixin’ to listen to your guilt trippin’ / You’re forgettin’, girl, you made your bed and didn’t want me in it.”
The wordplay is admittedly clever, steeped in contemporary burns ala “Shape of You,” a massive force on the Hot 100. He takes it next-level on the hook: “Whoa, girl, simmer on down a notch / Ain’t nobody makin’ you watch me get my forget you on / No, girl, can’t touch my good as gold / I know it’s difficult to see me on a roll / But hey, you broke up with me / Yeah, what can I say, babe, you broke up with me.” He blends the pain of the breakup into a romper about moving on, in much the same way Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” felt the weight of pain–fueling him to get absolutely plastered.
“You Broke Up with Me” is a mixed bag, depending on the filter you are using (see below). As I was writing this review, it hit me like a bolt of lightning: I’ve been trying to nail down Hayes’ obvious and biggest influence…and it’s Macklemore. If Macklemore and his long-time partner-in-crime Ryan Lewis went country, this is what you’d get. Macklemore gets major flack for cultural appropriation and using the LGBT community to move records, but his music is infectious, at least. And he’s more than paid his dues at this point.
But damn. Do we really want country music to become so watered down? Sorry, not sorry, to be THAT GUY who is a big believer in using correct genre labels. Some consider it a tired, exhaustive argument, but it’s completely legitimate. Country music has always tangoed with pop and rock music through the years, ever since The Nashville Sound lured in record executives to woo the young kids. But Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Taylor Swift always, always, had a core rooted in country, either through the vocal or the lyrics. The moment we lose sight of that, that’s when the genre dies. Sure, you can seek out non-mainstream music, like such killer acts as Lillie Mae, Carrie Elkin and Jason Eady to cleanse your palette–but the headliners of mainstream country are what define how the genre is perceived out in Hollywood. This is a mess.
We need to do better. We have to do better.
Here is a rapid-fire round-up of final thoughts and grades:
Country Barometer: Disastrous, milky, waste of space, it is what it is, hey Macklemore, enjoy those royalty checks, yo!
Country Grade: 0 out of 5
Pop Barometer: Catchy AF, fits nicely on my gym playlist alongside Bonnie McKee, Karmin and Erik Hassle, breathy and fun
Pop Grade: 2.5 out of 5