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).
Ronnie Dunn, “Broken Neon Hearts” (written by Matt Willis, Ronnie Dunn, and Thomas Perkins)
Ronnie Dunn’s solo career has been something of a scattershot mess since Brooks & Dunn ended over a decade ago, where even though Dunn debuted with very thoughtful, mature material on his debut album, his pivot into hard-rock and pop on later projects just felt like a weird fit for him as a vocalist; actually, it wasn’t even so much the genre choice as it was the material – him covering Ariana Grande in 2016 was strange, to say the least. But when I heard him sing along Triston Marez on last year’s “Where the Neon Lies,” I started hankering for a new project from him, and lo and behold, “Broken Neon Heart” sounds like it could have fit on one of those old Brooks & Dunn albums and is all the better for it. It’s not so much a retread as it is a return to roots that finds Dunn playing well to his strengths … even if this is a slightly lesser “Where the Neon Lies” as a whole (but is that such a bad thing?). Granted, it’s also playing closely into “Neon Moon” territory, albeit with a fiercer kick in the guitars and drums that I appreciate to complement Dunn’s expressive yet still haggard delivery. It reminds me so much of John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night,” and while this feels fairly familiar as far as country songs go, when it’s this great and well-performed, it hardly matters. Boom.
And now, our lone new entry in this week’s top 40:
No. 40 – Conner Smith, “Learn From It” (written by Daniel Ross and Conner Smith)
New week, new male mainstream country act I’ve never heard of prior to today, and aside from him being immersed within the industry through familial ties since he was a kid, the story is about the same: TikTok is doing the heavy lifting as far as promotion goes, and his debut country radio single is the safe filler choice not catching traction over there; the country music business, in a nutshell. Granted, “Learn From It” is still pleasantly decent. I appreciate the attempt at southern-rock swagger in the presentation, even if this is a country radio-centered single and, as such, neuters any attempt at groove to be catchy or all that memorable. And that brings us the writing, where aside from a good one-liner here and there (the “dad – basement fridge” line made me chuckle), I actually like the general conceit of growing up and moving on from lessons learned … even if those lessons include your typical country buzzwords and clichés from crashing trucks, drinking underage, and losing at young love. For now, this doesn’t really do a lot to stand out from the pack, but I hear some potential in Smith overall.
And now, this week’s throwback review:
Kathy Mattea, “She Came From Fort Worth” (written by Pat Alger and Fred Koller)
Sadly, this looks to be the only time we’ll discuss Kathy Mattea for this particular feature, and that’s a shame, because while “She Came From Fort Worth” isn’t one of her best efforts, it’s still worth the examination. The thing is, despite not writing it, this is the type of country-folk song that fits right into her wheelhouse – calming, perhaps even a bit sleepy, but comforting and easy to listen to nevertheless, like an old Don Williams song. The acoustics are warm and so are the gentle backing vocals, and though the story is pretty straightforward – girl caught in dead-end job meets guy of her dreams, and proceeds to follow him wherever he goes – I think that’s part of the entire point. The concept of chasing down a better life offers an exciting prospect, and though this paints in fairly broad strokes, it’s the thought of dreaming that works well with that calming atmosphere this song offers. Boom.