The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox – Week 16 (2021): (IV and The Strange Band, Side Pony, Charlie Worsham, Thomas Rhett, Kenny Chesney, 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 singles, and a throwback tune. There’s only two possible ratings – Boom, for the good stuff, and Bust, for the stuff best avoided.

This was a weird week. We have a lot of new chart entries to cover, and they’re surprisingly decent. Anyway, onward!

IV and The Strange Band, “Son of Sin” (written by Coleman Williams)

Well, this is interesting – the son of Hank Williams III, Coleman Williams, is now making his own music and doing it without attaching himself to the family name and instead operating simply as IV … with his Strange Band, too, of course. Granted, that legacy is still important to his approach in sound, and while the blend of heavy metal, noise rock, and country on his debut single is fairly familiar to his father’s own style, the execution is slightly different. It’s not performed with that same sort of reckless abandonment; it’s a bit more developed in its approach, and I wasn’t surprised to see the Melvins listed as an influence, given the thunderous drums and sludgier tones added to the electric axes and the soft-loud dynamic that makes this sound like it would kill live. And since this is a mixture with that sound and country music, it helps that the fiddles have the same sort of ragged punch and swagger to them. Of course, another thing it takes from the Melvins is the muffled vocal style that, sure, can work for that specific style, but can sound a little distracting when the fusion with country means the lyrics actually matter here, and the vocal mixing is my one huge issue here. But I like the wry self-awareness that comes through in acknowledging the cliché of being another “son of sin” in a long line of them and just getting that out of the way so he can do his own thing. Again, the studio version is a bit wonky and I think this would be a much better live cut, and this feels more like an introduction than a true determination of his actual style. But this kicks ass regardless. In a weird week like this one, it’s this week’s Boom.

Side Pony, “Lucky Break” (written by Caitlin Cannon and Alice Wallace)

Here’s another fun surprise – a seemingly out-of-nowhere collaboration between Caitlin Cannon and Alice Wallace, both of whom have attracted a lot of critical buzz in recent years with their own solo works, and for good reason. Wallace is the sort of sheer vocal presence that’s absolutely stunning while Cannon is the type of charismatic presence that adds a realism to her works, and since they’ve got a debut album together reportedly coming in October, I’m excited. As for this first single … well, I do like the intent and approach, even if I honestly wouldn’t say I love it. Maybe it’s because I’m burned out on pandemic-themed songs that resort to generic platitudes instead of digging a little deeper, and I’m not much of a fan of sidestepping the bad here and just essentially noting, “we’ll get better just because.” With that said, I do like the acknowledgment that it’s a time period that’s put us all on an even level as far as a fear factor is concerned, and both vocalists sound as great as ever. But I’m looking forward more to those follow-up singles.

Charlie Worsham, “Fist Through This Town” (written by Charlie Worsham, Jeremy Spillman, and Travis Meadows)

I remember being excited when Charlie Worsham finally announced a follow-up to his debut album fours year after the fact with 2017’s Beginning of Things, and now, another four years later, that excitement is back. Granted, Worsham has been much more active behind the scenes in recent years as a songwriter and instrumentalist, and while I’ll forever be mad that he debuted in arguably the worst time period for country bros that didn’t suck, I’m happy that he’s been able to maintain that balance as a solo artist as well. Other than that this features a writing credit from the always-great Travis Meadows, there isn’t much information floating around about this song or Worsham’s plans for an eventual project. Granted, that might be the point, given that this is one of those songs of frustration reportedly aimed at Nashville as a possible cathartic, “burn it down and start over” moment. But to be blunt, this isn’t Caitlyn Smith’s “This Town Is Killing Me,” it’s not Charles Kelley’s “Leaving Nashville,” and it’s not Chris Stapleton’s “Nashville, TN.” It’s less detailed and more reliant on the shimmering atmosphere and Worsham’s delivery to sell it, even if “a place to sit and wonder why I don’t get paid to think” is a great little line. The fairly straightforward production feels lacking in greater punch or swell to support that hook and progression, and while this is cast as an angrier take on the subject, for as much as Worsham sounds good here, he doesn’t add that sort of muscle to his delivery. I mean, I do like it, and it’s always good to have Worsham back, but this isn’t one of his better cuts.

We have three new chart entries to discuss, and while I’m leery of every name I see, let’s approach them with caution, shall we?

No. 26 – Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” (written by Thomas Rhett, Ashley Gorley, and Zach Crowell)

Yes, I see the obvious joke in the title. But I’m surprisingly hesitant to go for the obvious punchline with Rhett, the sort of artist who was absolutely insufferable on his first few albums until he released “Marry Me” and kind of redeemed his entire career. I’d struggle to call what he does country, though, and while I’ve always hoped he would return to the same well of quality that spurred that aforementioned cut, he hasn’t convinced me since. So I’m not as intrigued when I hear he’s planning a “back-to-his-roots” project (a double album, because that’s all the rage these days), knowing that an agreeable sound can still be utterly lacking in every other department – just look at “What’s Your Country Song.” Still, it can help, and I do enjoy this new single more than I ever thought I would. The immediate positive is that there’s a surprising amount of warmth and diversity added to a fairly organic mix. The percussion is a little overmixed at first only to even itself out later on, but the fiddle gets its own solo, the pedal steel is surprisingly prominent, the bass guitar has that same sort of echoed pulse that reminded me of a country song from the ‘70s, of all things, and Rhett is surprisingly sincere trying to sell that feeling of losing himself on the road to stardom. Sure, the turn of phrase in the hook is a bit corny and on-the-nose in fabricating an authenticity that I still don’t buy much coming from Rhett. But I do buy the sentiment of shifting priorities that comes with growing older and settling down that, for once, finally, is less about his wife and more about his own changing point-of-view. He’s always been a likable presence that’s simply recorded some awful material in the past. I’m not saying this is the start of something great, but it’s surprisingly solid.

No. 39 – Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” (written by Adam James, Brett James, and Kat Higgins)

I seemed to be less enthused about Kenny Chesney’s recent project than others were, but I do think there’s a general sense of maturity that’s naturally coming through in his works, even if I’d struggle to always call it interesting. This seems to be the most talked-about single from that album, and surprisingly enough, I didn’t mention it once in my original review for the album. I don’t know, maybe it’s because this feels like a lesser rewrite of “Anything But Mine” that doesn’t give me much to work with otherwise. It’s a decent ballad lacking that track’s same sense of urgency to depict a supposedly wild past relationship that’s not overly detailed here. Chesney’s production has also never had much muscle to it. I do like the wistfulness he adds to his performance here, and he’s always been a convincing balladeer. And it helps that this can look back on the past without ever clinging to it or being framed as overly obsessive and clingy. It’s Chesney reflecting on a moment for only a moment that he knows is long gone yet can’t help but remember with fondness, and that’s a more likable attitude than other tracks in this vein. Overall, it’s fine. I do support this direction from Chesney; I just want to hear something more interesting from it.

No. 40 – Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” (written by Russell Dickerson, Casey Brown, and Charles Kelley)

The less said about Russell Dickerson’s output thus far, the better. He’s the sort of faceless artist Nashville loves to prop up even when the buzz isn’t there, further reinforced by a sophomore project that dropped in December of last year that I couldn’t be bothered to check out or care about. This is the newest single from it, and it’s honestly not that bad. The bright, spacious piano riding off the handclaps and buried mandolin reminds me of High Valley in a good way, even if that duo would perform this better and this feels overblown for what is Dickerson’s umpteenth love song. I do appreciate the brighter energy, though, even if it’s overblown. The content is mostly relegated to stock images of building the perfect family life that, granted, certainly has an urgency to it, but is a familiar topic not made all that interesting here. It’s boyfriend country that doesn’t put me to sleep, but that’s about it.

We’re still exploring 1975 for our throwback reviews, this time with the No. 3 single from this week in time, and … wait, that’s the single I get to review this week?!? Oh, heck, yeah!

Gary Stewart, “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)” (written by Wayne Carson)

I’ve written about my love for Gary Stewart’s work numerous times already on this blog, so I’m not sure what thoughts to add to what is arguably one of country music’s greatest songs. In that case, let’s reinforce what we already know. I’ve always described Stewart’s style here as a mix between Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams, where he’ll surely ride that hook with a vivacious energy that would forever cement it as a bar room staple. But it’s also a frenetic energy – one masking a very real, dark pain that only subtext can truly reveal. It’s an anxious delivery that, while, again, is indebted to those influences, takes on a unique form in Stewart’s hands. Even when he was having fun, he wasn’t really having fun, you know? Plus, that hook is a true all-timer. He never once got the credit for interpreting pain in the same way that, say, George Jones did, but this is one of those late-night benders that’s only aged better with time, and reminds listeners of how Stewart was an underrated gem that faded too soon.

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