I don’t know if you look at the Hot 100 a lot, but something odd has happened recently and it involved country music. There were, for the chart dated September 17 2022, an absurd quotient of tunes made in Nashville dominating the US charts.
Unsurprisingly, Harry Styles was enjoying a thirteenth week at number one (three behind One Sweet Day, six behind Old Town Road). Morgan Wallen has two songs in the Top 20, while Luke Combs’ The Kind of Love We Make is a place ahead of Beyonce. Cole Swindell’s She Had Me At Heads Carolina is ahead of Doja Cat, and Tyler Hubbard, Jon Pardi, Zach Bryan, Bailey Zimmerman and Jelly Roll mix with Bad Bunny and Ed Sheeran.
In at 54 is Truth About You, the lead single from Mitchell Tenpenny’s new album in which our narrator threatens to tell people what really happened in response to his ex telling lies about him. The song has just hit number one on country radio which, yep, still exists in an era of streams and TikTok. So do albums, as Morgan Wallen has proved in the last 18 months by gaming the system with a 30-track album and a leaked video which proves all publicity is good publicity in Nashville (he’s CMA nominated).
Mitchell, who has been in Music City for years, has a rasping voice that matches the moment. In the last year alone he put out an eight-track mini-album and a Christmas record, so he’s been allowed to be prolific after the pandemic shutdown. This accounts for the 20 tracks (19 plus an intro, really) on this album, all written with Mitch in the room along with the typical A-List names and produced by Jordan Schmidt, who has been studying the sound of country music in 2022. Fun fact: Jordan is from Duluth, the Minnesota town which will forever be known as the home of Bob Dylan.
Ashley Gorley does add his stardust to the rapid-fire love song Always Something With You, while Jesse Frasure turns up in the room for the happy-sad Miss You Cause I’m Drinking (‘I ain’t drinkin’ cos I miss you…’). The father-and-son team of Rodney and Brad Clawson joined him for Sleeping Alone, which provides a novel way of asking if someone is still single (with their ‘sweatpants on’). The Warren Brothers Brad and Brett helped him on the closing track That’s How She Goes, which has the album’s most interesting bridge.
Devin Dawson, Seth Ennis, Chris DeStefano and Laura Veltz are there too, as are the sibilant producers of the new Breland album Sean Small and Sam Sumser, who help out on Elephant In The Room. The track features pop vocalist Teddy Swims and sounds completely inorganic and ‘in the box’, which is what happens when Nashville tries to be like Los Angeles.
Bucket List first appeared on the 2021 mini-album Midtown Diaries. It’s a carpe diem song in which Mitchell promises to ‘cross one off, put two more on it’ and make life better without thinking of the ‘what ifs’. Good Place has our narrator singing of being ‘a midtown mess’ while a dull, MOR track buzzes behind him. There’s a swear word in the chorus of More Than Whiskey Does which is completely at odds with the safe production, while Mitchell offers his shoulder on Cry Baby, which is almost offensive in its dullness.
As you’d expect from an album targeted at young adults between 18 and 34, there’s plenty here about matters of the heart. We Got History (‘I know we don’t have a future any more’) is a fun spin on a mournful track about an ex, who elsewhere is Happy and I Hate It, says Mitchell. Do You is a triple-time tune where our narrator namechecks The Lumineers while bemoaning the nature of love.
Lululemon gets a plug (and hopefully Mitchell’s wife got some stock) on the snaptracky Still Thinking ‘Bout You. There’s a song of fidelity called Long As You Let Me which drowns any sentiment in production gloop. Obsession has some massive guitars to underline how Mitchell has fallen in love with a new lady, while Now We’re Talking is a smooth meet-cute with a strong melody that hints at ‘doing more than talking tonight’.
There is even a song about a dive bar called Losers which ‘made a winner’ out of our protagonist. Perhaps this album will be heard in Lower Broadway’s bachelorette party places. I understand that the production is there to appeal to pop audiences, but I would suggest Mitchell records these songs with just guitar and voice, as there is plenty of decent songwriting here buried under mounds of studio wizardry.
I doubt any listener will put the whole album on in one sitting, which explains its sonic homogeneity: tracks merge into one another, with lyrical tropes (drinking, heartbreak) popping up on most songs. It is Functional Country, the sort that Jason Aldean pioneered. It sounds like commercial country made in Music Row.