Premiering a new single at the CMA awards show is not necessarily a fast track to making that single a hit – but it certainly gets the song mass exposure. High profile launches we remember include George Strait and Alan Jackson’s attack on pop-country, ‘Murder On Music Row’ and Jackson’s intense response to 9/11, ‘Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?’, both of which were intended as one-off performances which took on lives of their own and became modern classics. But for every song that hits the audience like a hammer blow of truth, other songs launched at the CMAs have gone on to flop when exposed to radio.
Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley, and our own Spotlight Artist this month, performed this ode to what country music can do for its listeners at the latest awards show. But such a high-profile launch tempts fate as well, and there has already been some unfavorable comments from those who see this song as self-congratulatory or pandering to a thoughtless sense of pride in country music. Initial signs are that this is indeed one of the songs which genuinely sparks fans’ interest, as the studio version has been rush-recorded for release earlier than we might otherwise have expected, given that it does not appear on Brad’s just-released hits collection and his next album must be a fair way away from completion. You can also tell it’s struck a chord because there are already cover versions up on YouTube.
I think this song is perfectly sincere and appears to represent Brad Paisley’s approach to his music. I think it also mostly works as a composition. If it is not exhaustive, it still bears witness to an important part of what country music can offer at a level deeper than entertainment – expressing sometimes difficult individual emotions in universal terms. Not every song is going to speak to everyone all the time; but whatever the problems in your life, there is almost sure to be a song somewhere in the recorded repertoire of country music which will act as your own personal soundtrack. And even fluffy party songs represent reality to some degree. It is of course not an original idea, most recently tackled in Trace Adkins’s ‘Songs About Me’ a few years back, but it is one worth approaching again.
It fails to include the broken-hearted (in romantic terms) in its litany of those country music can speak to, and that’s a major failing. There’s nothing wrong with songs about “tractors, trucks and little towns and mama”, and they are indeed a solid part of country music as a genre, even though they have dominated at radio more than they deserve in recent years, and sad songs are so integral a part of the genre that it makes the song feel incomplete. Religious songs, drinking songs, and ‘Take This Job and Shove It’ all quite rightly get included, but there is nothing for struggling in financial hard times or the pain of broken families, which might have as strong a claim to be remembered. (I can’t say I’m sorry Brad omits the beach or high school, though.)
The song actually ends with a roll call of iconic songs, starting with ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. It is perhaps unfortunate that each of the songs referenced is a markedly better song than this one, but maybe that is unavoidable with a tribute of this kind. I would have liked this part of the song to nod musically towards the songs referenced, rather than drowning them in excessively loud guitar
Musically I think the melody of the chorus is too ambitious, and Brad struggles to hit the high notes vocally. The showy guitar playing is too prominent at times. It works best on the emotive third verse, where a hushed Brad empathises with those bereaved:
Are you haunted by the echo of your mother on the phone
Crying as she tells you that your brother is not coming home?
Specifically this is linked in with a patriotic message, but I think it is expressed broadly enough to include others as well. And that, I think, is the underlying message I come away with listening to this. It is a brave attempt at conveying the breadth of country music.
Listen to the single here.