It’s tough to know what to ultimately make of the Hot Country Knights, which may be the point anyway.
Ignoring the obvious connudrum of COVID-19 threatening the music industry business model, it’s tough to know what to make of country music in 2020. It’s caught somewhere between a ‘90s revival and whatever “boyfriend country” is supposed to be. And then there’s the current biggest names at the forefront of the conversation – Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen – both of whom offer something a bit more substantial for mainstream country music, yet lack the true country credentials for your average Tyler Childers fan or the polished image for the celebrity side of the musical conversation. In a nutshell, country music is somewhere in the middle of all of that, and what with the aforementioned “boyfriend country” winning out in quantity right now on the charts (along with plenty of pandering quarantine singles courtesy of Big & Rich, Brad Paisley and Combs), we need something … different.
So yeah, what the heck – I’ll play along and welcome in “new” group the Hot Country Knights. In reality, it’s a side project spearheaded by Dierks Bentley adapted from a live show bit featuring his road band (which I’ve seen – it’s awesome), with Bentley taking on the form of alter ego Douglas “Doug” Douglason. And there just might be more to say about the band formation than there really is about their debut album: like how Bentley is using it to slyly insert his criticisms for modern mainstream country music’s lack of edge and unfair treatment of women on country radio (at least in his interviews, that is); or how a major label decided to actually recruit this band as a legitimate signee and what it says about mainstream country music’s current landscape; or that, in a timely turn of events, this is mostly Bentley’s way of recovering from artistic burnout from his own projects to focus on something that doesn’t require as much, well … intelligence.
That, of course, segues into other points and possible criticisms, like how Bentley wants to say something controversial about the industry without having those statements backfire on him. On the other hand, all of this may be overthinking what is – at its core – a fun way to pay homage to a very pivotal time period in country music history, and given that Bentley is all in on this project (you know, just as a producer), it’d be unfair not to give the band’s debut album, The K Is Silent, its fair due.
With the actual album, though, it’s still tough to know what to make of it. It’s a niche listen, for sure – made for those who grew up on ‘90s country right down to the production style, pulling more from the Brooks & Dunn, Garth Brooks and Tracy Lawrence side of things more than the Alan Jackson or George Strait one – and it won’t compete for any “album of the year” distinctions. But if you know what to expect, it’s a blast of riotous fun that’s unlike anything else this year thus far, and will likely stay that way through the rest of the year.
And it’s as much a love letter to ‘90s country as it is one long comedy routine, and if taste in music is subjective, taste in humor within music is an even tougher subject to discuss. Sure, penis and buttocks jokes are abound here, but they’re fairly subtle all things considered. And given how one of the influences cited for this project is Yankee Gray of all groups, you’ll know what to expect if you know the time period: fast tempos, instrumental blends of rough-edged electric guitars with fiddles and pedal steel for added groove, and lyrics that, when not aiming for an obvious innuendo, are endearingly corny.
Whether it’s all just satire or a replica of the style is something I still can’t quite figure out, though. “Pick Her Up” looks to be an obvious jab at how utterly stupid certain songs from the bro-country era could be, even if it’s kind of stupid all around itself; though that ending solo nodding to guest Travis Tritt’s ’90s cover hit “T.R.O.U.B.L.E.” is still a highlight. Speaking of, to reinforce the satirical argument, there’s references to specific ‘90s tropes and songs all throughout this project, like how they turn Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” into a Seinfeldian jab at lyrics that say absolutely nothing on “Then It Rained” (the consensus pick for the best track here, and I’d have to agree), or how “Moose Knuckle Shuffle” plays like a weird hybrid of Tracy Byrd’s “Watermelon Crawl” (which they outright reference) and Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” (along with the whole ‘90s dance craze in general). There’s even speculation that “Mull It Over” is a parody of Tim McGraw’s “Maybe We Should Sleep On It.”
I suppose my biggest criticism is that I would have preferred more subtly brilliant moments like “Then It Rained” or “The U.S.A. Begins With US” over some of the uptempo tracks, most of which are pretty fun, but do take up the majority of the project; meaning there’s a few throwaway cuts thrown into the mix like the title track and “Wrangler Danger.”
Still, even if they’re mining familiar territory for ass jokes, they manage to make ”You Make It Hard” with Terri Clark and “Asphalt” work incredibly well by being subtle about it and playing both tracks fairly straightlaced. There’s nothing quite asinine about “Asphalt,” really. And I was surprised how much heft and crunch the guitar work had on “Kings Of Neon” – this goes harder than a Brooks & Dunn song from that time period!
It’s fun, it’s harmless, it’s kind of stupid, yet it may even be a stroke of genius. Most of all, it’s all of those things, and it’s even a chance for Bentley to sit back and let his bandmates sing a few tracks, too. Some may wonder why he went to all of the fuss just to make a simple ‘90s country project, but part of the charm is the fact that it’s a legitimate project made from a not-so-legitimate source. Is it a great listen? In its own way, sure; but it’s also a refreshingly fun listen, and that’s nothing something I can’t say about a lot of other albums this year.
(It might be better than the “Watermelon Crawl”/10)