The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox – Week 24 (2021): (Zoe Cummins, James McMurtry, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band)

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.

We have five songs on today’s docket, most of which are good! And then we have the return of a certain … infamous band. Anyway, onward!

Zoe Cummins, “Your Side of It” (written by AJ Babcock, Kylie Sackley, and Zoe Cummins)

Similiar to how people took notice of Thirty Tigers last decade, I think folks are going to want to follow Torrez Music Group, because between housing acts like Gabe Lee, Triston Marez, LoneHollow, and more, they’ve been on a real hot streak in recent years. Let’s try and add another name to that list. Zoe Cummins has been active for a few years but has yet to release much beyond a few scattered singles. A self-titled EP in July looks to change that, and as for this first single, it’s fairly solid. The Morgan Wade comparisons have already been thrown around with Cummins for her slightly huskier tone. Unfortunately, it also comes through in overproduction that can clash with her delivery and lead to a song with definite heaviness to it in the rougher guitar tones, but not a lot of actual edge. I get the choice, though, given that this is a post-breakup track in which Cummins isn’t letting her ex-significant other have the upper hand or trash her. In terms of firepower, she sells it well. And I like how she continuously twists the hook to re-frame the story and add some ironic meta-text to the theme. For now, good, but not quite great.

James McMurtry, “Canola Fields” (written by James McMurtry)

Just like that, James McMurtry’s The Horses and the Hounds is my most anticipated album of the year so far, and I’m not sure whether or not I should provide context or not. I mean, McMurtry is a folk icon who’s been active for several decades and has delivered many excellent albums, but he hasn’t been active in recent years. His work really accelerated in the 2000s but somewhat halted in the 2010s, with 2015’s Complicated Game being his only release for the decade and one steeped in a more mature perspective, following on-the-nose releases like, say, 2005’s Childish Things.

His new single carries that theme of growing older and maturing, albeit with a brighter outlook than that last album. McMurtry is known more for his poetry, but he can rock with the best of them, too. But this is more wistful than anything else – McMurtry’s way of rekindling an old flame that didn’t really happen when he wanted it to, and only finds that spark upon a chance reunion with the other party. He’s never been a technically stellar singer, but he’s got the bite and enthusiasm to make up for it, especially when he’s supported by nice, gentle, breezy guitar tones and swell of organ for that huge hook. And I like that the song carries on familiar thematic arcs for his most recent work while still offering a fresh perspective – the relationship never happened, but the urgency in his voice tells him he really wished it had. Only, he’s older now, and just having that chance reunion is enough to bring him happiness. In other words, it’s thoughtful material fit for a veteran’s poise as well as this week’s Boom.

Brad Paisley, “City of Music” (written by Ross Copperman, Brad Paisley, and Lee Thomas Miller)

I’m hesitant to review this now, but I don’t see Brad Paisley returning to the top 40 again, not even with a song about Nashville that speaks to a love for country music. After all, it’s a love for its heart and soul, not its shady business practices. But for as hit-or-miss as Paisley has been in recent years, this is welcome return to form. The obvious criticism is that it’s a love letter to country music icons and tropes and sounds more like a stadium-ready rock anthem, even despite the copious amount of mandolin, banjo, and acoustics that leads the track before the driving percussion and slide guitar define the mix. But Paisley performs it with such convincing enthusiasm and energy that it’s hard not to like anyway. He’s honestly at his best when leans corny, mostly because he knows how to sell his material with an empathetic earnestness and won’t go for the obvious references like other artists. I mean, when’s the last time you heard a mainstream country reference Harlan Howard?

Yes, he approached this theme a decade ago with “This Is Country Music,” but whereas that single was a checklist anthem that felt strung together, this is more indebted to the overall feeling those bars and honky-tonks had on the legends that rose to prominence through them, told through a narrative of a football player and karaoke queen that go there together to make it themselves. Quirky, even for Paisley, but it works. It’s a song built on sweeping atmosphere and feeling, but that’s Paisley’s wheelhouse. Good to have you back, buddy.

We had one new chart entry for this week, and I’m not sure how to approach it.

No. 25 – Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” (written by Ben Simonetti, Jonathan Singleton, and Zac Brown)

It’s sad. This is a band that made one of my favorite albums of the last decade and was one I could usually count on for quality until around 2017 or so. But between Zac Brown completely shooting himself in the foot and throwing this band under the bus in recent years, I’m at the point where I just don’t care about new music from them. And considering this new single rips off the introduction to their own “Chicken Fried,” I still don’t, because this band just doesn’t care anymore. Between it and their pandering wedding song from last year, it’s obvious they’re trying to get back into country music’s good graces, but tepid releases like this won’t get them there.

The obvious positive should be that this band is returning to their old sound, with plenty of well-picked acoustics, rougher slide guitar and fiddle complementing the mix. But it all sounds forced, evidenced by everything being pushed to the front of the mix, the clunky groove, and plenty of moments where it feels like the song is going to open up more and just doesn’t. It’s more interesting than the content, which aims for generic “we’re all in this together” platitudes from an obviously looser perspective not meant to be taken that seriously. I just wish it was as fun as it’s trying to be As for the verdict, a big ol’ “whatever.”

We’re still exploring 1989 for our throwback review feature, and would you look at that? This week’s chart in time featured three women in the top five. Crazy to think now, right? Let’s discuss one of them, with the No. 4 song from this week in time.

Tanya Tucker, “Call On Me” (written by Gary Scruggs)

This is awkward. Tanya Tucker would have a really good run in the next decade, helped by her career resurgence in the early ‘80s that included a nice run of hits. This is fine, if tailor-made for Miami Vice and sort of forgettable in the greater context of her discography. I mean, this is quintessential ‘80s production in the brightly polished guitar tones, but I do like Tucker’s delivery a lot here, strengthened by a natural urgency that complements the feeling of yearning for a connection. It plays things broad as can be in the overall framing and dramatic stakes, but it’s fine enough. I don’t mind it.

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