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.
With no new chart entries to report or much in the way of new single releases (from acts I haven’t yet covered for this feature, that is), this is one of those “quality over quantity” sort of weeks, folks. And judging by one single here, that is absolutely fine with me. Basically, it’s a sad-bastard-country week.
Vincent Neil Emerson, “Learnin’ to Drown” (written by Vincent Neil Emerson)
Vincent Neil Emerson is one of those artists I was vaguely familiar with but hadn’t yet had the chance to really delve into for lengthier discussions of his music. That will hopefully change on June 25, when he releases his self-titled, sophomore release. As for what you need to know right now, though: It’s produced by Rodney Crowell, Emerson is the sort of deft poet who knows how to craft stories with vivid imagery through his work, and while the lead single to this newest project doesn’t quite aim for that, it’s heavy in a much different way. Really, if there’s any criticism I had with his 2019 debut, it was that the generally loose, ragged feel could feel lacking in overall punch at points, but with Crowell at the production wheel, this isn’t a single that emphasizes atmosphere so much as it knows how to best serve the song and cultivate it naturally. So while the extended introduction and closing moments of bass, absolutely gorgeous, bright piano, and mandolin carries a beautifully defined if loose tone before giving way to a well-balanced, warm acoustic melody that reminded me of Train A Comin’-era Steve Earle in a great way, it’s meditative in a way that works, rather than feels gratuitous.
Really, too, you need that gentler touch before giving way to the content itself. To his advantage, Emerson has grown into himself as a vocalist since that debut, both on a technical level and an emotive one. So when he discusses his father’s suicide and the lingering despair it’s carried for the people in his life left to live with that – not to mention the subtext that speaks to the lingering feelings of neglect, blame, and depression that creates an unfortunate domino effect for those left – it’s an exercise in grief that explores what comes next. And what gives it its impact is that it doesn’t let up, because sometimes we can’t see that upside of how time heals all wounds; sometimes it just doesn’t exist. Excellent, powerful stuff. Boom.
Ritch Henderson, “Lithium” (written by Ritch Henderson)
I didn’t find much from exploring various potential singles to review for this week, but this was the lone nice surprise and exception. For context, Ritch Henderson is a Marine veteran and self-described Appalachian storyteller with an album on the way this year, with this acting as the latest single. Granted, for independent country, the generally lo-fi aesthetic isn’t stylistically reinventing the wheel, and we have no shortage of sadsack dudes in country music. But between the sharper electric axes with real weight and groove behind them balanced against the fiddle, it’s loose and ragged in a Cross Canadian Ragweed kind of way. And I like that the general tone is reflected in Henderson’s equally ragged yet still expressive vocal tone. With that said, for a song about – to borrow from another song here – learning to drown, the actual details behind what’s driving those demons outside of an implied faded relationship are pretty unspecific, and I wish the lyricism had the same sharpness as the rest of the track, especially with that oddly abrupt ending. Still, it’s likable and solid, and I enjoy the style enough to want to hear more.
We’re exploring a new year for this month, so I’ve decided to examine chart entries from 1997 for the month of May, starting with the No. 1 single from this week in time.
George Strait, “One Night at a Time” (written by Roger Cook, Eddie Kilgallon, and Earl Bud Lee)
Well, this is a good start to the month (and year, technically). Of course, George Strait has the sort of massive discography where it’s sometimes hard to know how to lead into his singles in an interesting way. I wouldn’t say “One Night At A Time” is one of the most essential cuts in his discography, but I remembered that melody as soon I saw the title before I even revisited it – melody has always been Strait’s secret weapon. And really, pleasantly nice and easy-going is what’s contributed to his consistency and longevity, and while this is essentially his take on a sex jam, there’s a little more to it. For one, it goes beyond that one night to discuss how the two partners would like to make the relationship work together outside of that and make it last, and that’s a mature take I do appreciate. Plus, the supple Spanish-flavored acoustics and generally breezy blend of liquid keys and fiddle is really enough to sell this on its own. It’s just a nice listen. Again, perhaps not an essential one, but I like it anyway.