The short version: Casey Donahew fans will find a lot to like with ‘One Light Town.’ For everyone else, while it does show slight growth from him, the album is held back by equally bad production and writing.
- Favorite tracks: “Still Ain’t Made It Home,” “One Light Town,” “A Cowboy’s Prayer, Promised Land”
- Least favorite track: “He Ain’t A Cowboy”
- Rating: 4/10
- Recommend? – Only to Casey Donahew fans.
The long version: Not to get all philosophical on you all, but have you wondered why we like certain music?
While, of course, it’s an interesting question to ponder, I’m laser-focusing my sights on country music, especially when it’s so heavily fragmented these days. On one hand, mainstream country fans couldn’t really care less about critical analysis or depth, hence why we call Thomas Rhett an A-lister. So we look toward alternatives, as music fans.
While the Texas/Red Dirt scene is but one of many alternatives, in truth, it’s got its own set of issues. On one hand, it does offer refuge for country music fans seeking lost instruments like fiddle or steel guitar (even if the tides are turning in the mainstream), and keep in mind, calling it a mere blast to the past is underselling all that it really offers (for example, artists like Jason Eady and Jamie Lin Wilson are part of this scene, yet their music is much more thought-provoking and modern than they get credit for).
Still, that’s an element of the scene that can’t be denied. Heck, beyond garnering impressive sales in their own right, that’s the reason Aaron Watson and Cody Johnson have found slight success at radio (though nothing to write home about, if we’re being honest). This brings us to Casey Donahew, an artist who, like Watson and Johnson, found himself gaining a grassroots fan base all while touring and putting out one studio project after another, independently. Yet Donahew never caught that same break, playing more to a young college-aged crowd in the same way Koe Wetzel is doing now (to a much more extreme degree, though).
While we’re being honest, however, it’s also a good time to point out that Donahew has never exactly looked to make music that’s critically acclaimed, instead just looking to please his fans and no one else. So I’ll admit I had no interest in covering this project until I heard from fellow critics that his new album, One Light Town, represented a step toward a more mature direction for him.
As for the verdict, while One Light Town is one of Donahew’s better offerings, that maturity on display is counterbalanced by songs with flimsy production and writing that’s just as bad as some of Donahew’s previous worst offerings. If it wasn’t for one song here, I would have skipped covering this altogether, because One Light Town is a bloated, inconsistent mess of an album as a whole.
Since this review has already gone downhill, let’s start with a neutral area – Donahew as a vocalist. He’s fine in this regard, if not all that expressive. He’s always reminded me of a younger Gary Allan with the rougher edge to his voice, only without the character or weight to support his delivery. Even when he does go for a more intimate sound and delivery like on “Bad Guy” or “Drove Me To The Whiskey,” he’s too loud in the mix to come across with any sort of warmth.
Of course, it also doesn’t help that he often has to fight over the instrumentation and production to be heard, either. Granted, Donahew’s music has always had a commercial-oriented focus to it with hints of that aforementioned throwback sound (to 2000’s country, if anything), but that doesn’t excuse its worst elements. Sure, there’s something infectious about the chorus of “Let’s Make A Love Song” that works in this vein, but between the percussion and drums that are way too loud in the mix and almost clip it to the stuttered guitar effects on “We Ain’t The Sun,” this is a record that just sounds bland and overdone. It’s easiest to just run down the list of elements that don’t work: the fuzzed-out tone of “Southern Girl” that tries to aim for bright and shimmering, yet ends up sounding cold, the processed tones of “Burned Out” that go for misguided bombast, if anything, the processed vocal effects on “Drinks Well With Others” or the slicker, unfitting tones driving “Thank God It’s Raining.”
To be fair, there are some moments here with real bite to them, but they’re few and far between. The opener, “Queen For A Night,” actually has a meatier electric guitar to drive a pretty potent groove with it, and between the supporting fiddle and piano, it’s a nice, rollicking moment to start the album. “Fiction” and the title track both go for something a bit darker and swampier, and that’s because they appeared on Jeff Hyde’s (one of the writers) Norman Rockwell World album from last year, a writer known for collaborating often with Eric Church, hence the weirder tones. While Donahew admittedly does a fine job with the title track, especially when there’s a warmer focus with the gentle brush of acoustics and mandolin throughout, as someone who has heard the Hyde versions, it’s hard not to see these as lesser versions of those originals.
But the closer, “A Cowboy’s Prayer, Promised Land,” is another good song tackling faith and looking through the lens of a dying cowboy with humanity and grace, serving as a fitting, stripped-down chance to let this album breathe for once.
But what turns One Light Town from harmless and forgettable into outright bad is its lyrical content. Again, just like with the instrumentation and production, there are a few saving graces here. Once again, I’m going to turn to the two Hyde covers as highlights, and “Still Ain’t Made It Home,” while opting for bombast more than I’d prefer, is still a shockingly good look into the effects of PTSD.
Like I said before, though, there’s one reason I covered this album. As I also said before, Texas Country has its own problems, and beyond somehow boasting an even greater male-to-female ratio disparity than mainstream country, it’ll also sometimes copy its worst tendencies in other ways. This year, we’ve had no shortage of artists telling us how country they are, from Chris Young to Easton Corbin to Luke Bryan and more, and it all smacks of personal insecurity rather than grounded authenticity.
But “He Ain’t A Cowboy” is on a whole other level, taking the ugly city vs. country perspective and somehow making it worse, especially when it’s revealed later on that Donahew is only bringing up this debate to try and stop a woman he likes from going home with some other guy. Donahew even admits he’s probably not the best option in general, but hey, at least he has Chris LeDoux blaring in his truck! It’s an awful song that will rightfully challenge for one of the worst of the year, come December.
Sadly, that ugly framing is what marks plenty of songs here, like “Queen For A Night,” where all signs point to this chance hookup working out for the better … at least until Donahew admits that his only goal is to have a one-night stand. Lovely.
I shouldn’t even have to explain what “Southern Girl” is about, but beyond the resurrection of the city vs. country debate, it never explains why southern girls are better than other
girls women other than through clichés you’ve heard a million times before in bro-country; The same comment extends toward “We Ain’t The Sun.” Even “Bad Guy,” which by all intentions is a more serious moment here, tries to cast Donahew as a victim of his actions without ever once trying to admit he’ll change. It comes across, instead, as him telling his significant other that it’s just how it is and she’ll have to accept it, which is always charming.
There are some tracks, however, that shouldn’t have to be explained, like “Wishful Drinking” and “Drinks Well With Others” where, yes, the songs are just as corny as their titles imply, or how, just one song after claiming to be a “real country man” on “He Ain’t A Cowboy,” he resorts to his stabs at overblown rock on “Burned Out.” And that track is another pity party without any sort of stakes to it, where Donahew is at a party trying to cheer himself up with alcohol and freely admits that, should he see his ex-girlfriend at the party with another guy, he’s going to knock that guy out. Casey Donahew himself is not an asshole, and the fact that the conversation surrounding his support for the admirable “clear the lists” campaign is drawing more attention than his actual album is proof of that. But he couldn’t make his characters more unlikable if he tried.
And at 15 tracks, this isn’t just an album featuring “filler,” it’s an album where at least one-third of it is downright bad, with maybe three tracks in total saving it. Again, though, Donahew has never made music for critics, instead focusing on his fans, which I do respect to some degree. Still, when Donahew’s album is this bloated and inconsistent, you start to question who it’s really for, because there’s very little to praise on One Light Town.
(Light to decent 4/10)