01. Florida Georgia Line ft. Nelly, “Cruise”
Or, “Accidental Racist” if Brad Paisley hadn’t tried to be so damn thoughtful about things. After all, what unites Southern boys better than big trucks and Southern girls? (Note that Nelly, in his verse, explicitly calls himself a country boy, aligning himself with both his co-performers and his country radio listeners.) Nelly had already crossed the all-too-real country color line in 2004 with the marvellous Tim McGraw collab “Over and Over,” and here he shows yet again that rap and country need not be the awkward fit that Jason Aldean and Ludacris, Cowboy Troy, or Snoop Dogg suggested it should be. Because what’s great about “Cruise” is how little race or genre matters: this bounces like a country party song or a St Lunatics jam and it’s barely perceptible when Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard’s vocals end and Nelly’s sing-rap begins. Smart writing to tell overheated commuters what to do — “I got my windows down and my radio up” — but the ebullience from everyone involved disarms even that mercenary tactic. Nelly and co. think this stuff is so fun that they’re even excited about the transition from sweltering Florida sunshine to baking Peach State heat: “Whippin’ cross the border/ Florida into Georgia.”
02. Luke Bryan, “Crash My Party”
The secret here, apart from the piano and the “call me, call me, call me” hook is in how Bryan turns a romantic sentiment into something dark and almost sinister. The lyric features a man telling a woman that he’s putting her (or, at least, sex with her) at the top spot on his agenda: “this is a drop everything kind of thing.” But the purple arrangement and dread in Bryan’s voice suggests he’s not happy with the way things have turned out: this is a man who knows he’d probably be better off raising hell with the guys. Like Brand New’s Jesse Lacey sang, you can sin or spend the night alone.
(n.b. to Taylor Swift fans: there’s a 2 a.m. in this song. No day specified though.)
03. Cassadee Pope, “Cry”
I gave this one of the highest scores as part of an almost universally disapproving Jukebox panel, and I was still ungenerous. One of my favorite Fall Out Boy–affiliated also-rans went solo to sing country songs on The Voice, and if nothing else, it resulted in this take on a Faith Hill song that gushes out the goop in quantities even the original couldn’t manage. “Asinine martial snare points up just how young Pope sounds: in her hands, ‘cry just a little for me’ sounds like the meanest yearbook inscription,” Brad sniped (no shots!). For me, that’s exactly the appeal.
04. Tim McGraw ft. Taylor Swift & Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
It’s a quite nice Tim McGraw tune, I said, and it is: nice enough to include a “hey-I-can-play-guitar” Keith Urban solo and a fictional Taylor Swift chorus made real from the performer herself, finally paying back the namedrop that was her first single. “Highway Don’t Care” echoes Dierks Bentley’s “Settle for a Slowdown" in the way it measures emotional distance in interstate miles, wrenching relationship minutiae from the very act of driving, something that’s all minutiae. I like the way it bestows upon the man-made open road — that beacon of freedom for so many, including perhaps the subject of McGraw’s song — the qualities of indifferent nature.
05. Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
It received an awful lot of attention for its progressive incorporation of sexuality and drug use, the kind of attention that squeezes out its other positive qualities: its modest and lilting chorus, at least as comforting as its lyrical gestures. Note also its all-inclusive take on country life: there is no reason this can’t be for church pew–sitters, promise ring–wearers, and tee-totallers, as well as promiscuous, gay stoners — or any combination of the above.
06. Brandy Clark, “Stripes”
One joke, but it’s a good one, and, planned or otherwise, its arrival coincided with that of watercooler premium TV hit Orange is the New Black. Give credit to its bifurcated presentation of feminine power: “Don’t think hard time would be that hard on me,” Clark warns — chilling from a woman with her hand in the trigger — before revealing the source of her composure: “I don’t look good in orange.” Guess what prison-yard pattern she also hates?
07. Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs”
The further into noir Underwood is dragged the better she sounds. “Two Black Cadillacs” tamps down on the anger of “Before He Cheats” and its goofy cousin “Last Name” for something that genuinely, thrillingly seethes. The genteel luxury cars of the title match the uteruses-before-duderuses unity of the narrative. The men are all on the outs here: the brother who said he was a good friend, the preacher who said he was a good man, and the cheating son-of-a-bitch being lowered into the cold ground himself. Meanwhile, the women are trading on mythologies of feminine mystique to put themselves at the centre of the story.
08. Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
From the Jukebox: Lambert enjoys accentuating the dramatic in rural life — the arson in this song is, for once, metaphorical — but “Mama’s Broken Heart” doubles down on the caricatures of “Only Prettier” to create what is practically a small town burlesque, from its gossiping “barflies and Baptists” to its evocations of Jackie Kennedy “when Camelot went down in flames.” This is a performer who has always understood the importance of appearances far more often than she has evinced an interest in maintaining them, and her relationship advice in this chorus is draconian: “Go and fix your make-up, girl, it’s just a break-up.” The punkish rockabilly arrangement makes the gothic touches more delicious.
09. Taylor Swift, “Red”
We can talk all you want about whether Taylor is still country — my response: what do you think teenagers in the suburbs of Atlanta and Dallas are listening to? — but Nashville still loves her, so whatever. Unlike “22,” admittedly the better song, this went number two on the Billboard country chart, and yeah it does have a mandolin instead of Max Martin. The color motif is very country, but the inspired part is the Rawss-ian opening line: “Loving him was like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street.” Country no longer belongs to George Straits forty-eight albums deep into a career; it’s for the 20-something-multimillionaires.
10. Jason Isbell, “Stockholm”
I underrated this at the Jukebox; I was not prepared for how consistently welcome I would find the sound of Isbell doing the Jayhawks thing.