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).
New album release announcements seem to have slowed down for now, which means I’m in a comfortable position where I can finally start resorting to my backlog for potential singles to spotlight here. Anyway, onward!
Arlo McKinley feat. Logan Halstead, “Back Home” (written by Timothy Dairl Carr)
It’s about time I got to this, and by “this,” I mean both the pre-release tracks to Arlo McKinley’s upcoming This Mess We’re In album, and the artist behind the song itself, who released the pretty great slow-burn that was Die Midwestern in 2020 through the late John Prine’s Oh Boy Records label. Might as well kill two birds with one stone, then, and discuss this latest single, which was released as a duet with another artist I’ve been looking forward to talking about in some capacity – Logan Halstead, an Appalachian-based artist who has attracted a lot of buzz within certain independent country circles over the past year but hasn’t actually released much in the way of recorded songs or albums, making this a nice entry point, in a way.
And you know, despite this not really working as a duet and Halstead feeling more like he’s here just to appease certain indie country fans (their vocal styles blend together a bit too much), this is pretty great. Simple, all things considered – a tried-and-true country song where our character gets caught up in addiction and, as such, disappoints mama even worse than that one David Allan Coe song, where the details are terse but effective in sketching out the scene, all the same. I think there’s two other factors that weigh heavily in this song’s favor, though. For one, McKinley’s craggier vocal style (and, by extension, Halstead’s as well) fits the lived-in weariness of this song excellently, where he knows he’s past the point of return and is saddled with regret because of it. And there’s something to be said for how crushing that weight can feel, especially against a mix of barroom piano and excellent crying fiddle work that’s light but equally melancholic. Again, it’s the type of song that needed a unified perspective more than two vocalists coming at it from the same angle. But overall, it’s as great of a jumping-on point as anything else in McKinley’s career thus far – worth the listen. Boom.
And now, our whopping three new entries to this week’s top 40:
No. 18 – Luke Combs, “The Kind of Love We Make” (written by Dan Isbell, Jamie Davis, Luke Combs, and Reid Isbell)
I’ll save my inevitable preamble on Luke Combs and where he’s at in his career for that album review likely to come next week, but I’ll say this for now – for as much as I do generally like Combs, I wish he’d take more chances with his music at this point in his career. This upcoming album era will really determine whether he can sustain his unprecedented momentum or start to see a bit of a slowdown.
And despite this being one of the better sex jams I’ve heard to come out of Nashville in recent months, I’m left with the odd feeling that this sounds like a slightly watered down version of Brooks & Dunn’s “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You.” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Comb’s commitment to more organic tones as of late, and there’s some texture to appreciate in some of those guitar tones before the hook. I think what’s holding this back for me is writing that, while not especially essential for this theme, nevertheless feels generic in its construction nevertheless (there’s that infamous “keep doin’ what you’re doin’” line), and the fact that Combs is not a subtle vocalist who can sell a song like this effectively. Certainly still decent, all in all; it’s just not especially memorable, and that slightly worries me heading into this album era.
No. 36 – Cole Swindell, “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” (written by Ashley Gorley, Cole Swindell, Jesse Frasure, Mark D. Sanders, Thomas Rhett, and Tim Nichols)
I knew this was on its way; it’s the sole reason I even covered Cole Swindell’s last album. If you missed my thoughts over there, though, I’ll repeat that I am, surprisingly enough, a fan of this, despite not being a much of a fan of the trend this has stemmed from as of late. It’s another single to base its premise around an older country song – from the ‘90s, of course – although unlike similar songs, this sticks with just one, Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” and adopts the main melody of that song and bases its story around a bar hook-up/karaoke contest. Now, there are some obvious negatives – those being that Swindell is an inferior vocalist and that this song really only works because it’s copying someone else’s homework – but it’s a fun highlight that’s at least a bit more creative than similar songs in this vein. I think I just appreciate Swindell actually going out of his way to properly credit the influence rather than have it just stand as a meaningless reference point, especially when he’s a likable presence that can make this feel like an all around fun time. It cheats to succeed … but hell, I really can’t complain too much. Boom.
No. 38 – Jordan Davis, “What My World Spins Around” (written by Jordan Davis, Matt Dragstrem, and Ryan Hurd)
With a song title like that and the artist behind it, I expected another tepid boyfriend country song that’s a chore to both listen to and review.
And yeah, that’s exactly what I got here, right down to a first verse built around a checklist of things our character likes (fishing, beer, trucks, etc.), only for them to pale in comparison to his partner by the time we get to the chorus. I guess I appreciate the added muscle in the production, even if this isn’t really the right song for it, nor does the stuttered flow contribute anything beneficial in the way of a decent groove. Davis has always struck me as one of those C-list acts teetering on the edges of being someone better than what his material usually suggests, and I’ll gladly stand up for songs like “Buy Dirt” or even a few album cuts from him. But it’s a track like this that just makes me wonder how he hasn’t faded into obscurity with the rest of the faceless male acts performing this same song and dance in Nashville, because while this isn’t horrible, I’ll forget it in record time.
And now, this week’s throwback review:
Randy Travis, “He Walked On Water” (written by Allen Shamblin)
Leave it to Randy Travis to end things off with a good palette cleanser for the week. “He Walked On Water” isn’t quite the immediate and catchy banger that “Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart” was before it, but it’s a tender story song that brings together Travis’ warm, graceful tone and Allen Shamblin’s terrific-as-always writing. Speaking as someone who was particularly close to his grandparents, too, this hits pretty close to home, especially when it’s told from the innocent perspective of childhood – a time in our lives where we actually care to witness the finer details of the world around us with wonder and optimism, only to lose it all to the jaws of life and, hopefully, gain it back in old age. It’s what makes the connection here so special – the grandfather acts as a mentor figure to a child, and both parties have the time and patience to learn from one another and form a special relationship that impacts both of them and will certainly stick with the child, even after his friend is gone and the sense of wonder evaporates. To me, this is a quiet little gem in Travis’ catalog, and one where even the very specific framing can have a very big and broad appeal. Boom.