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 singles, and a throwback tune. There’s only two possible grades – ‘Boom,’ or ‘Bust.’
Another packed week, folks – I told you this feature would even out eventually. Anyway, onward!
Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall, “In His Arms” (written by Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall)
So, if you’ve read my latest Sunday Morning Paper feature, you know I’m excited for the prospects of this upcoming collaborative effort between Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall. I think what surprises me is the timing. Lambert is on the cusp of a slight commercial rebound, and while I wish it was with literally any other album of hers than Wildcard, it’s telling that this new single pivots in almost a completely opposite direction from that album. Granted, if you’re going to channel the wide open Texas air, best to make sure this sounds like the sort of campfire tune that picks up every crackle in the mix. Which is to say it does, admittedly, have a bit of a demo feel to it, and it’s the sort of song meant only to highlight its vocalists – which, here, is basically Lambert – and its content. It works, to an extent; I’ve always enjoyed the fiery, hell-raising side of Lambert, but she’s never gotten enough credit for her emotive subtlety that carries depth and complexity. And I like that this taps into that archetypal “wandering troubadour” mold of searching for a kindred spirit, with Lambert knowing she won’t find him again because both parties were meant for moving on. Now, it’s mostly built around questions asked and not really an actual story, and while that ambiguity can work for the theme and sound, it does end a bit abrupt for my personal tastes. Plus, while this is nice, I’m not sure how an entire album like this will sound just yet. Still, for now, it’s good – looking forward to more.
LoneHollow, “Not Today” (written by Rylie Bourne, Damon Atkins, and Will Jones)
I stumbled upon this duo by happy accident, and then found that I’ve actually heard of one of its members before – Rylie Bourne, who released an excellent album in 2015 that’s worth all of your time, for the record. She’s been teamed up with Damon Atkins for a few years now as LoneHollow, though, and both are planning a self-titled EP together for release later this year. And this new single builds off what I liked about Bourne’s work before, or, to put it more accurately, what I liked about this duo from digging through its backlog. It’s a murder ballad that isn’t afraid to be both dark and, thanks to Atkins, kick a little bit of ass in the heavier, more pronounced groove – what’s not to like? Granted, I do wish that Bourne’s vocals were a little more emphasized in the mix, and it’s the sort of track that’s built more off swagger and attitude than actual story. But when Bourne is the sort of husky presence that can nail the sinister delivery and the track itself snarls to echo that, I’m completely on board. Boom – I’m looking forward to more.
The Steel Woods, “All of Your Stones” (written by Jason Cope, Wes Bayliss, and Jamey Johnson)
There’s the part of me that would love to open this by telling you all that the Steel Woods delivered two excellent albums in the 2010s that are among the best of that decade, and that I’m willing to bet they’ll deliver again this decade. But those in the know are already aware that this comes just mere months after band co-founder Jason Cope’s passing, and while this upcoming album was written and recorded before that, it’s still going to linger, sadly. With all that said, I will admit “All of Your Stones” isn’t among my favorite cuts from the band, mostly due to a played-out theme of judgment and condemnation and the ensuing revenge that comes with it that they’ve handled with more convincing firepower and snarling heft before (though it is nice to see Jamey Johnson’s name again). This does get there, but subtly, and through a build-up that never quite matches the venom spit towards the listeners. Granted, when the guitars do snarl, they’ve still got a lot of crunch in their progression to make for a pretty compelling ending and remind me why this is one of the best bands working in southern-rock today. And I like that they’re leaning towards a more defiantly country sound in the overall melody line. As it is … look, this is a band well-worth supporting anyway, and while this feels more like an album closer or deep cut than a lead single, I’m still looking forward to that album.
We had two new entries to the top 40 this week, one of which I’ve already covered, and one of which I feel like I’ve already covered.
No. 35 – Luke Combs, “Forever After All” (written by Luke Combs, Rob Williford, and Drew Parker)
Oh, hey, it’s that huge Luke Combs song that debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100 late last year and was written after he and his wife bought a house together. I’m not even slightly surprised to see it here as a proper single. But, look, coming right off “Better Together,” this is essentially the same song with just a brighter punch in the overall tones used. Sure, I like this somewhat better, but even as someone who’s been willing to give Combs the benefit of the doubt for a while now for being a clever songwriter and likable personality, there isn’t much to this. The composition and melody are basic even for modern mainstream country standards, and while I like the interplay of piano and organ that crops up occasionally, this is production meant to soften any edge it can to deliver its message. Which, for the record, is built around generalities and checklist examples of things that don’t, as you might imagine, last “forever after all.” In other words, it’s not the first time I wish Combs strengthened his own story rather than build around it. Granted, he’s still a likable presence, and that middle-of-the-road delivery is what’s made him appealing thus far. But I keep hoping he’ll aim a little higher. Not bad, just pretty forgettable.
No. 40 – Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” (written by Lee Brice, Brian Davis, and Billy Montana)
I reviewed this last December, and while it has grown on me some over time, I still can’t help but feel it’s just trying to copy the “Rumor” formula rather than trying to tap into some of that supposed darkness. It would have made for a better song – just sayin’.
We’re still stuck in the year 1991 for our throwback reviews, and since last week’s selection of Mike Reid’s “Walk on Faith” took on a tumble on this particular chart, we’re looking at the No. 5 single – “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” by Pam Tillis.
Pam Tillis, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” (written by Harlan Howard and Max D. Barnes)
Fun fact: This was Pam Tillis’ breakthrough hit and was originally recorded by Marty Stuart. But, no offense to Stuart, this just works with Tillis. Granted, it’s not her most well-known or even most well-liked song, and I would agree it’s missing the distinctive voice that would mark her classics for this decade. But there’s also something to be said for capturing the fiercely independent spirit that would dominate female-led country songs of this decade well before Faith Hill or Shania Twain came along. And in terms of a pure presence, of course Tillis is going to give this the urgency and passion it needs in the hook to let that significant other know he’s stuck with her for life. It’s enough to underpin it with a tinge of sadness and self-awareness to let it ring, but also to keep it from sounding clingy, which this could in lesser hands. Plus, given that this has a surprising amount of snarl in the electric guitar pickups and still sounds beautiful against the fiddle and piano, it was a nice (technical) first step for Tillis – and paved the way for so much more.