Quick Draw Single Reviews is a recurring feature where I cover multiple new country airplay singles and standalone songs in a gauntlet style format, in order from best to worst.
This edition features thoughts on new singles from Caylee Hammack, Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney, Cam and Sam Hunt.
Caylee Hammack – “Small Town Hypocrite” (written by Caylee Hammack and Jared Scott)
Sadly, this isn’t actually an official single yet, but I’m covering it here because someone requested it. So, while I was lukewarm on Caylee Hammack’s debut single, if there’s any justice in the world, someone on her team will make “Small Town Hypocrite” her next single. The production is much better this time around, with a rich mix of thick, warm acoustics at the front with organ for low-end support. Sure, the fake, blocky drums do get a bit distracting, but when the song also brings in mandolin and piano for added melodic support, it’s forgivable. This is also a much better fit for Hammack’s voice, which features a lot of seething, broken (but subtle) anger to compliment the lyrical content. She does lose a pinch of her tone and power on the verses, which push her into her lower range to an ineffective degree; but like with “Family Tree,” when that chorus hits she shines. But what wins me over most is the writing, which flip the cliché of finding love in a small town on its head by delving into the more complex issues with the fairytale. Hammack’s character and her significant other had that chance to leave, and they certainly weren’t going to listen to anyone still stuck in a dead-end town, or their own wayward peers who they didn’t fit in with anyway (I particularly like the line “a one-horse town with a stable for two”). Yet that self-awareness only comes later on, when she slowly comes to terms with how she’s forever stuck in that town since she believed that young love might blossom beyond the moment, and Hammack pulls no punches in the framing or execution of how broken she is now. An excellent track all around, and again, considering “Family Tree” is now done at radio, there’s no excuse to wait on this as the next single. (Light 9/10)
Willie Nelson – “First Rose Of Spring” (written by Randy Houser, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson)
It’s a new year – of course there’s going to be a new Willie Nelson album. And Nelson’s new album, slated for release in April, looks to be more of a collaborative effort, or, at the very least, collaborative in terms of who’s involved behind the scenes. For example, the title track to that new album, “First Rose Of Spring,” written by Randy Houser (who’s finding his own artistic second wind), Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson, that’s as solid as anything else in Nelson’s late-career catalog. Sure, it’s fairly low-key, and Nelson has lost some of his vocal edge over the years, but he makes up for it with added warmth and natural wisdom that comes with growing older. And that’s an important distinction to make for a track that looks back on an entire love story, with the ultimate focus being on how someone can make a jaded person find happiness again. The seasonal imagery is pretty effective, and the hearty mix of warm acoustics, harmonica, organ, piano and pedal steel blends everything in quite well. We may go through new Nelson music faster than some people go through shoes, but when he’s still this excellent, we shouldn’t take that consistency for granted. (Light 8/10)
Kenny Chesney – “Here and Now” (written by David Lee Murphy, Craig Wiseman and David Garcia)
It sounds weird to say, I know, but considering Kenny Chesney’s stature in mainstream country music, “Tip Of My Tongue” barely scarping the top ten doesn’t seem like a positive rebound for him; and that’s when considering it was the commercial repercussion from “Better Boat” floundering on the charts, sadly. “Here and Now,” however, sounds more akin to what one might expect from Chesney, for better or worse. The guitars have a surprising amount of punch, as do the drums, but I wouldn’t say they’re doing anything interesting. It’s a basic country-rock approach that’s trying to bolster Chesney, who maintains a wooden flow and has virtually no charisma in this tale of loving life and living in the moment. And that brand of escapism is a crutch Chesney has leaned on for plenty of singles in his career, which doesn’t help this song stand out in any way. Plus, when Chesney’s idea of a “hard-bitten” past includes visiting a bunch of islands and traveling around the world, the ultimate message gets kind of lost (who wouldn’t want to reflect on those memories?). That’s not to mention, too, that when Chesney aims for this sentiment, as he does here and on “Live A Little” and “Reality” (as well as more songs I’m likely forgetting), it’s never as effective as when he slows down to reflect on a moment, like on “When I See This Bar” or the aforementioned “Better Boat.” Not bad by any stretch, but not memorable either. (Decent 5/10)
Cam – “Till There’s Nothing Left” (written by Cam, Hillary Lindsey, Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker)
Like with Caylee Hammack’s “Small Town Hypocrite,” there’s no indication yet that this is a single meant for country radio. Of course, with Cam it’s more of a curious case, who is still with Sony’s RCA imprint, but not based out of its Nashville division anymore. It’s ultimately country radio’s loss – especially when “My Mistake” and “Mayday” deserved so much better – but Cam’s new single, “Till There’s Nothing Left,” is punching well below her potential – country, pop or otherwise. The production is fairly limp and boring, featuring little more than reverb-saturated instrumentation and a drum machine that gives this track a surprisingly dour atmosphere. Of course, that’s not a compliment when it’s aiming for bigger pop stakes and feels like an odd tonal imbalance overall. The backing vocals are distracting, and lyrically, you’d think a by-the-numbers love song focusing on passion and devotion would have more of a pulse than this. Cam is still an exceptional vocal talent, but she can’t do much to save an all-around boring track. (Light 5/10)
Sam Hunt – “Hard To Forget” (written by Sam Hunt, Ashley Gorley, Josh Osborne, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, Audrey Grisham, Mary Jean Shurtz and Russ Hull)
This is certainly a free pass for country fans to warm up their pitchforks, but despite the controversial background for Sam Hunt’s new single, “Hard To Forget,” I’m just struggling to care.
Is it good to hear Webb Pierce again? Sure, but not when he’s purposefully higher-pitched just to suit the song’s oily atmosphere. Truthfully, though, sampling Pierce’s “There Stands The Glass” might actually be a slight saving grace for this song, considering it offers the most decent melodic structure one of Hunt’s songs has ever had. It also doesn’t feel as distracting as it could, mainly because it has nothing to do with Hunt’s actual single in question, making me question why it’s here at all. I’ve never found Hunt’s style innovative or compelling even by pop standards, and this fusion of old and new wasn’t effective when Keith Urban ripped the “Mama Tried” riff for “Coming Home” – so no, I wouldn’t call this “edgy” either. But alright, looking past the obvious elephant in the room, again, there’s a decent country melody underneath the production gunk; though I wouldn’t say a clash of drum machines and chintzy, watered-down guitars with fiddles and dobro makes for a particularly pleasing sound. Other critics, too, have already noted the obvious thematic comparisons to “Break Up In A Small Town,” and while Hunt isn’t as leering or self-obsessed here as he was then, the brighter tones certainly don’t fit the subject matter well at all. Hunt sounds jubilant and carefree, and that’s only reinforced by the backing vocalists toward the end opting for a sing-along. Truthfully, “Hard To Forget” isn’t one of Hunt’s worst singles, but it’s definitely one of his most bizarre, and not for the right reasons. (Decent 4/10)