When you go into a clothes store, you always see mannequins modelling the clothes to give an impression of what you, the buyer, will look like wearing those clothes. Likewise, when you flick over to a commercial country music station, in between adverts for cars and alcohol you will hear songs where husky-voiced men sing about cars and alcohol and girls.
Country music is a business. As the shop window, radio has been the dominant way of getting music to consumers for almost a century. Radio airplay sells albums, which sells concert tickets, which sells beer and cowboy boots and merchandise. It’s a business, you see.
Dustin Lynch is the latest in the production line which brought us Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean and Brooks & Dunn. Starting out in the early 2010s, the man known as DL has mixed wholesome songs like Cowboys and Angels, dedicated to his grandparents, with sex jams like Where It’s At, Mind Reader, Ridin’ Roads, Hell of a Night, Good Girl and Seein’ Red. Sex jams do well at radio, you see.
His last album Tullahoma included tracks called Dirt Road, about how the ‘six-lane city’ is ‘a long way from little bitty’, and Workin’ on You, which contrasted the daily demands of farming with how he’ll keep working hard to satisfy his beloved. Rural loving, DL style. Importantly, I believe what he’s singing.
This is the DL brand. It makes money. It will keep making money until the public decide it doesn’t want to buy DL any more. This is why Jason Aldean still has a career: people want to show up and bellow Big Green Tractor and She’s Country. The important thing to note about Aldean is that he has had extraordinary success at radio because his songs fit well next to the aforementioned adverts. Even the ballads are powerful.
Ditto for DL: after Small Town Boy became the biggest song on radio in 2017, his song Momma’s House spent over a year being promoted and clambered to the top of the Airplay chart. His eighth chart-topper was his collaboration with MacKenzie Porter, Thinkin Bout You, a multi-week number one across 2021 and 2022. It also became DL’s biggest Hot 100 hit across all genres, reaching number 30.
A version of the song featuring Lauren Alaina was on Tullahoma, but due to Lauren’s presence on a Jon Pardi song it was decided to replace her vocal. Heaven forfend listeners would hear Lauren’s voice two songs in a row. Sensibly, the new version is high up the tracklist on the new album, although Stars Like Confetti uses exactly the same chord progression but up a key, which lessens its impact on the album.
Blue In The Sky builds on the DL Brand which he has grown across a decade. He seems like a nice guy, always smiling, and he has never been in trouble with the law or has boasted of political views which create clickbait-y stories. DL is a squeaky-clean country star who makes wholesome music for a country radio demographic, a cross between McGraw and Aldean. He will never be a superstar but he’s a reliable unit-shifter for Broken Bow Records, for whom Aldean is the prize bull.
In the Nashville way, DL gets a smattering of credits among the outside writers drafted in to provide him with songs. He co-writes Break It On A Beach (‘I never thought you would bury me in the sand!’) with the A-List trio Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps and Zach Crowell, who produced the album. Poor DL can’t even drink pina coladas, such is the memory of heartbreak by the water.
More happily he’s drinking Tequila on a Boat with Chris Lane, an equally anonymous radio favourite. The goal of this song is to make the listener feel good and to sing along with the tune. Expect this to be a future single. Having recorded a song called Party Song, we’ve now got new single Party Mode, a bit of fluff which took as many people to write as there are chords in the song (five). The guitar sound is decent and I like the line ‘There ain’t no future in lookin’ back’.
Summer Never Ended, however, just sounds like by-the-numbers filler and deserves to be treated as such. Eric Church’s mate Jeff Hyde helped DL with Pasadena, a midtempo reminiscin’ tune on which DL and his girl, ‘with a flower in her hair’, have a brief fling in California. He goes ‘back there all the time in my mind’. It’s one of the album’s better tunes.
Tennessee Trouble (‘You walked in like a neon smoking gun’) and Huntin’ Land had Hunter Phelps in the room too. It’s a tribute to the Peach Pickers tunes which document rural life in country songs: DL complains about how his girl dislikes all the stuff he does but ‘her daddy’s got huntin’ land’ so he persists. Riley Green, another anonymous radio favourite, pops up with a verse on that song, which means that aside from four beats in the middle eight there are as many vocalists on the song as there are chords (two). Doesn’t mean it’s not catchy and smart.
Jameson Rodgers had a hand in Back Road TN, which makes it a hat-trick for the Gormless Radio Favourites. It’s one of those songs in which the singer ticks off places in the USA but concludes that nothing is as wholesome as Tennessee because there’s ‘the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen’ next to him. Commentator Grady Smith will wince at the mention of the moon, which dominated the last album Tullahoma.
The two deep and meaningful tracks are the type that country music has produced since time immemorial to show that you can live a country way of life (hmm, nice phrase). Somethin’ That Makes You Smile is one of those carpe diem songs like Humble and Kind that no English songwriter would dare write; it is Hallmark Country that reminds the listener that we’re ‘only here for a little while’. The first line is about drinking Coca-Cola, which is code for buying stuff. At least it makes you happy, as does fixing a car, going fishing, heading to the bar or watching some American Football.
DL has already sung album closer Not Every Cowboy on the stage at the Opry, where he was honoured with membership in 2018. It was, incidentally, co-written by Conner Smith; it’s a love song which includes the lines ‘silhouette Stetson’ and ‘there’s parts where the movies got it wrong’. It’s one of the three or four tracks that will make DL’s greatest hits set; it’s his Drink A Beer or Neon Moon. They’re known as career songs and it may well win some awards.
Country music needs stars like DL to keep the genre going. As long as he avoids getting stuck in Aldean territory, making the same song over and over again, DL will be fine.