The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox – Week 3 (2021): (Parker Millsap, Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, Blake Shelton, etc.)

The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox is a weekly series where I cover new entries to the top 40 of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, standalone oddities, and a throwback tune.

Well, the good news for this week is that it’s actually filled with new reviews – shocking, right? The bad news is that it was a pretty lackluster week overall, with our new arrivals coming from big debuts that left little impact on me. Before we address those, however, let’s start with something a bit more pleasant to the ears:

The Other Side

Parker Millsap, “The Real Thing” (written by Parker Millsap)

I’ve yet to discuss Parker Millsap on this website, a damn-near child prodigy who’s been cranking out rock solid folk-inspired projects over the past decade – and if you need one reason to check him out, I’d argue it’s “Heaven Sent” – but also has slightly drifted away from that scene, too. I’d argue his foundation is blues-based overall, free to experiment with slightly different tones and sounds, which is reportedly what he’s aiming to do on his upcoming project, Be Here Instead. And I say all of that because, when it comes to lead single “The Real Thing,” it’s the sort of pleasant-sounding tune that feels familiar without being an outright copycat or generic. Heck, the generally rich, warm mix and production that emphasizes the pluckier acoustics, echoing drums and dreamier, hazier synthesizers and strings alone reminded me of, say, Bobbie Gentry’s darker brand of folk music from the ‘70s, or even some of the dreamier pop-country of the time. Granted, that’s not surprising, given how Millsap has counted ‘70s icons as a big influence for this project, even if he references different ones. It’s a pretty basic lyric of wanting your significant other to be there for you and promising them you’ll do the same, and if played differently from someone else, I could see it being pushy. But it’s a moment where a good performance and backdrop can add an air of mystique to the message, too. I’m not sure I love it, but it’s pretty nice, and is enough to make it this week’s Boom.

Radio Stars

No. 19 – Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” (written by Tyler Hubbard and Chris Loocke)

… OK, fine, I’ll try to set my cynicism aside for a moment. But really, can you blame me? I didn’t love “7500 OBO” from McGraw’s latest project (or that latest project at all, really), but I wish they had pushed that instead of swapping it for this. I suppose I’d rather have a mainstream country song try to say something over just another mindless rehash of bro-country (because apparently it’s one or the other these days in Nashville, unless you want to cut boyfriend country, that is), but this, on paper, just screamed as a disaster waiting to happen. It’s not, but I wouldn’t say it’s memorable, either. It helps that Tim McGraw, one of the genre’s current strongest emotive presences, is helping to sell this message. But charisma and charm can only take a song so far, and while Tyler Hubbard is surprisingly not as obtrusive as I expected he’d be, I wouldn’t say he’s adding anything, either – especially with his nonsensical verse. But that’s opening up another can of worms altogether with the writing, and look, I don’t disparage a call for unity (especially this week), and I do like that it supports practicing empathy. But that’s the thing, this is just a bunch of Hallmark clichés and platitudes thrown together into a big melting pot, where the only specificity comes at the beginning with a mention of a kid named Billy being bullied, and even that feels like a stock photo for something that could have been more. Neither McGraw nor Hubbard bring any sense of lived-in detail to the sentiment. If it inspires hope and warmth and all that, great. But I know I’ll forget it as soon as this piece publishes. I’m not cold-hearted enough to call it this week’s bust, but it’s close.

No. 35 – Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” (written by Corey Crowder, Jesse Frasure, and Nicolle Gaylon)

Hey, speaking of predictable, here’s that supposed song that sparked outrage on Twitter, and here I am knowing full well it’s not worth it to get that hot and bothered over a Blake Shelton song. Honestly, I don’t even mind it. The piano and percussion lines are heavier than expected, but not to the point of ever sounding obtrusive. It’s trying, ultimately, to support a big hook that isn’t all that special, but there’s also a punch and sense of urgency that’s been missing from Shelton’s material for far too long that I do appreciate here. Nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary, but solid enough to where I like the bedrock. But it’s also loud to the point of suffocating Blake Shelton in the mix, who sounds more like he’s trying to fight against the production than utilize any sense of charm or charisma. Even as one of Shelton’s harshest critics over the years, I will say he’s one of the genre’s liveliest performers at his best. And the writing is all over the place, where even though I like that Shelton is approaching a familiar “love is worth more than money” theme from the perspective of an aspiring songwriter going nowhere, you need that lived-in detail in the vocal performance or writing to further support it, and this has neither. It’d even be one thing if it opted for lightweight humor, but again, the tones are a bit too dark for that and Shelton is a surprisingly flat performer here. Plus, I’m not even sure what some of these sentiments are supposed to mean, like “you could make a six-pack on the carpet taste like a million dollar bill.” Huh? Not bad, just too messy and haphazard to have much staying power with me.

Finally, for this week’s throwback tune, I’m taking a look at the No. 3 single from this week in 1991.

Carlene Carter, “Come on Back” (written by Carlene Carter)

Well, it’s not a track I’ve discussed already – that’s a good starting point. Though I must admit ‘90s country is my one surprising blind spot that I’m still working through, and while I’m familiar with Carlene Carter’s material through my Best Hit Songs feature, I haven’t gotten the chance to dig deeper into my thoughts on her material. It’s mostly bubbly, breezy pop-country that, while hardly essential, is often performed incredibly well and has the melodic structure and hook to support it anyway. And that’s where I’m left with “Come on Back,” which is mainly bolstered by its huge hook, solid groove and generally punchy presentation and is great without being overly flashy. Now, it is the sort of clingy “come back to me” track that I’d generally find grating, only when it’s presented with as much heart and sincerity as it is here and not taking itself that seriously, I can sympathize with someone who just wants a second chance at love. And now it’ll be stuck in my head for days, though that’s not a complaint.

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