The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox – Week 15 (2022): Mary Gauthier, Kelsea Ballerini, and Ronnie Milsap

The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox is a weekly feature in which we review one single – either a standalone entity or one from an upcoming album that interests us – as well as anything new to Billboard’s Country Airplay top 40, and a throwback single (currently exploring No. 1 country singles of the ‘90s). Also, be sure to follow our playlist of favorite new country songs, updated frequently!

Mary Gauthier – “Amsterdam” (written by Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris)

I have Andy to thank for introducing me to Mary Gauthier last year, especially seeing as how she came up alongside other ‘90s writers like Gretchen Peters and Kim Richey and generally employs the same folk-like simplicity to her poetry and prose that I love. She’s set to release a new album, Dark Enough to See the Stars, on June 3, and though “Fall Apart World” is the single off of it gaining traction right now, I want to use this feature to highlight “Amsterdam.” At its core, it’s a piano ballad and mid-tempo slow burn with enough burnished edges in the production to hit my musical sweet spot, even if it’ll likely be too “coffeehouse folk” for some. But you know, I’ll take quaint and low-key for a track aiming to be quietly reflective and celebratory yet grounded in reality. It’s yet another song to feel emblematic of the past few years, and I’d call it almost checklist in its construction. But Gauthier’s specific imagery manages to frame it all as just snapshots of the titular area described that our character inhabits and is thankful to reside in with someone they love. It’s weathered, but also warm and comfortable, and that’s the point. With the weather in my area finally starting to clear up, it’s a nice little song to finally greet spring with, and I am, indeed, feeling alright. Boom.

And now, our lone new entry to this week’s top 40 at country radio:

No. 24 – Kelsea Ballerini, “HEARTFIRST” (written by people who need to stop putting song titles in all caps, because it’s annoying Alysa Vanderheym, Karen Fairchild, and Kelsea Ballerini)

Her albums tend to be a different story, but for the most part, I’ve been a bigger fan of Kelsea Ballerini’s brand of pop-country than certain other writers out there. And I’ve also enjoyed her take on a more mature role as a writer and performer in recent years. But I braced myself for something upbeat and generic coming off “half of my hometown” … and you know, I’m conflicted on this single. I wouldn’t call it country by any stretch (that pedal steel feels tacked on, at best, sadly), but as a lightweight pop song heading into summer, there’s a fair bit to appreciate that I’ve always liked about Ballerini’s work. It’s light, breezy, and surprisingly bouncy in its melody and hook, and as always, I think there’s more to the writing than Ballerini will get credit for, jumping into a short-term fling knowing it won’t last and that she could get hurt, but wanting that rush regardless for now, especially when there’s that tiny chance it could lead to something more. There’s a bit too much polish to the vocal production for my personal tastes, but as a breezy summer song, this is fairly good; it’s just in the wrong format.

And now, this week’s throwback review:

Ronnie Milsap, “Stranger Things Have Happened” (written by Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah)

Looks like we’re sticking in pop-country territory, and from an artist who doesn’t get enough credit for his commercial run (including from me, admittedly, given that I’ve yet to write about him). I’m not sure this is the best place to start, though, given that we’ve got another case of a veteran artist barely crossing the ‘90s finish line with one last hurrah, and not with one of his better records, to be frank. Granted, I’ve always preferred Milsap’s more upbeat records (more like “Stranger In My House,” am I right?), and this has a bit too much synthetic ‘80s polish creeping its way in for my personal liking. But for a song about the strangeness in trudging through the aftermath of a breakup, this is a pleasant-sounding piano ballad that’s a bit too tepid to get the job done effectively, even if I think it comes around to hit a glorious high by that final chorus. It’s still pretty nice overall, though, and another welcome addition to this decade.

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