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 ratings – Boom, for the good stuff, and Bust, for the stuff best avoided.
This is probably the best week we’ve had for this feature yet. There’s a lot of great stuff here. So … onward!
Alan Jackson, “Where Have You Gone” (written by Alan Jackson)
I’ve noted before that Alan Jackson is probably my favorite country music artist, even if I haven’t given much stock to that sort of ranking. But even I’m not surprised it’s taken six years for him to release a follow-up to 2015’s Angels & Alcohol. You get the feeling that Jackson, like George Strait and Reba McEntire, became increasingly aware that his radio days were fading and coming to a halt as the 2010s rolled on. That genuinely sucks, but I bring it up to frame the conversation around the most-hyped single from his to-be-released Where Have You Gone album, the title track that laments the death of traditional country music. For as much as I want to get behind it … come on, it’s 2021. This type of country music is still popular in the right circles. With that said, I also get framing it around the mainstream conversation, especially when the majority of country airplay songs are lacking in an organic sound and just suck regardless. Plus, I don’t expect Jackson to really be aware of the underground anyway. But I also can’t help but feel like this track is a little too overly serious in its execution even if the generally weathered presentation keeps it out of cloying territory, and that he did this song much better when it was called “Murder on Music Row,” featured George Strait, and had a bit of a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware rollick and kick to it. It’s not even so much a protest song as it is a personal eulogy. As it is, it’s fine, and I predict this will go over huge with his target demographic, but I’ve heard better in this vein.
Alan Jackson, “Things That Matter” (written by Michael White, and Robert Keith Stegall)
See, now, this? This is what I love about Jackson’s music. Ironically enough, it’s one of the few songs on his new album he didn’t write, but it also spotlights how much I’ve come to enjoy his voice over the years. Embracing traditional country music throughout his entire career means that middle age has always been a natural fit for him, and he’s always been a liquid smooth emotive interpreter and warm, charismatic presence behind the microphone. And age has only deepened his tone, adding a warmer richness fitting of a veteran’s poise. Against the minor acoustics, fiddle, and great, full piano tones, he’s excellent at conveying the broken promises and misspent expectations spelled out here. I would say the technical writing is a bit lacking – this needed a third verse or something to hammer it out – but leave it Jackson and the warm yet burnished production to do the heavy lifting here. Of the Jackson tunes here, this is easily the best of the bunch, and this week’s Boom.
Alan Jackson, “Way Down In My Whiskey” (written by Alan Jackson)
This is emblematic of what I also have always loved about Jackson’s work. He’s never made outright “cool” music, but there’s something oddly timeless about his work, and I think that’s what’s contributed to his career longevity and explains how he ascended to A-list territory a full decade after his debut. I’d hesitate to call it outright “comfort” music, given that it’s style with substance, but there’s something familiar and warm about his work that just hits. “Way Down in My Whiskey” is a pretty conventional “drinking to forget” song, all things considered, but the overall presentation is still warm and inviting against the gentle acoustics and emphasized, drawn-out cry of that steel guitar, and Jackson is still able to emote heartbreak just as well after all these years. I will say, though, coming off this third single, that I hope the entire project isn’t this downbeat and weathered throughout, given the monstrous track list that also features the hopeful yet still somewhat somber “The Older I Get” from 2017. On the other hand, this also sounds like a veteran settling in for the style of music he wants to make and fully understands that he can do it without commercial expectations these days. On that note, it’s a solid start for the album.
Mae Estes, “Roses” (written by Mae Estes, Autumn McEntire, and Eric Wikman)
Mae Estes is a new name on my radar as one of many artists to leverage TikTok to her advantage, what with the pandemic and all. I’ve generally avoided opening up that can of worms, but this whole exercise is all about finding stuff that cuts through the noise, and this absolutely does. Her main influences cited are Lee Ann Womack and Keith Whitley, and I hear that in the traditional melody and lyrical structure that still has a really beautiful polish to it in the lush, airy feel, solid bass groove and melodic steel guitar accompaniment that’s provides one of my favorite little repeated instrumentals in recent memory. But with the contemporary production flair, it’s also not a throwback, and I love that the song emphasizes Estes’ clear, cutting delivery that’s cleverly understated in its playful bitterness. Now, that is to say that it’s a cheating song familiar to the genre, but it’s one where she’s going to string her significant other along and let him think he’s made up for his mistakes. Or, as she puts it, “a ribbon tied around your mistakes in a pretty vase … but we’ll just call them roses,” an excellent hook where she soars and basically lets that frustration show. Next to Alan Jackson, it’s another Boom for the week.
Graycie York, “Texas Rain” (written by Anthony Enriquez Ricardo and Chase Hatla Garrett)
I swear I’m stumbling upon more new artists by happy accident than ever before lately, and I’m not complaining! Sadly, there isn’t much information floating around about Graycie York just yet, but her 2020 single “Patsy Kind of Night” garnered enough momentum for a debut EP and follow-up singles like this one, which is an absolutely fantastic cover of an old Seven Miles South / Shotgun Rider song that works excellently here. York’s tone is noticeably rougher and lower, so I like that the electric guitar tones have a bit of added smolder to match it and the generally weary, damn-near-burnt-out appeal of the track in general. And that’s reflected in the general tone of the content, which, now from the female perspective, finds York exasperated by her significant other’s flighty, scattershot nature and wishing they could find a general resolve to it all, flipping the script of the original. But that doesn’t happen, and that “texas rain” sounds more like a storm about to come on through. Again, it’s a cover, but a really damn good one.
We only had one new entry to the Billboard Country Airplay top 40, and it’s one of those train wrecks you hope doesn’t actually happen, and then does.
No. 40 – Jimmie Allen and Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was a Highway” (written by Jimmie Allen, Ash Bowers, and Matt Rogers)
Ugh. Look, I didn’t exactly love Jimmie Allen’s Bettie James EP from last year, but did they really have to release the lukewarm bro-country retread to radio that barely belonged on the project to begin with? For as much as I do generally enjoy Allen and Brad Paisley, this is an embarrassment for both artists, especially for the latter, who delivers one of his stiffest, most unconvincing verses of his entire career. Plus, when you’re trying to sell nostalgia, it doesn’t help that the age gap between the two performers doesn’t work to frame this as a unique, cohesive experience – I don’t buy that you were listening to hip-hop songs in your day, Paisley! If nothing else, go with the Tim McGraw collaboration that’s at least a better version of “Undivided” or say “screw it” to country radio altogether and find a way to make the Mickey Guyton duet explode. Because, this? This sucks. Bust.
We’re entering a new year for our throwback reviews, so let’s kick it on back with the No. 1 song from this week in 1975, Merle Haggard’s “Always Wanting You.”
Merle Haggard, “Always Wanting You” (written by Merle Haggard)
I mean, it’s Merle Haggard. Enough said, right? Actually, this single is a bit trickier to discuss – Haggard’s unrequited love letter to Dolly Parton that carries a backstory that leaves me with more to say than the actual song itself. I mean, outside of that context, Haggard has always been a convincingly great emotive interpreter, and it helps that this is more of a showcase of him letting it all out there, rather than a suggestion of his plans to act upon his feelings. He’s got enough reserve to realize they live in different worlds, and it just makes this all the sadder as a result, honestly. Not quite the most immediately recognizable Haggard classic, but it’s endured because of its pure power.