Ka-Ching…With Twang: Bailey Zimmerman and Callista Clark

Bailey Zimmerman – Leave The Light On EP

There was a piece written by the critic Chris Molanphy this month about Bad Habit by Steve Lacy, the number one song in the USA. He concluded that the charts of 2022 are being dominated by acts who succeed on TikTok with direct and emotional songs which spoke to the target market.

Nashville became aware of TikTok and, having made Priscilla Block a star, is proceeding to do the same with Bailey Zimmerman. Elektra, that great label of punk and folk acts, has enlisted the services of one of many young things who sang short songs on the Chinese-owned app.

Eight of them are on his debut EP, including the number 31 Hot 100 smash Fall In Love. It’s a song about how a new flame ‘don’t know you like I did…cos love’s a smoke ring wrapped around your finger’, the chorus is set to four very familiar chords and contains some woahs. There’s a massive guitar solo too. It is a Top 10 country radio tune after only four months of airplay, proving that country radio follows the market these days. How many fans of Bailey care if he’s on country stations?

After an unnecessary spoken word intro, Never Leave opens the EP. You can hear instantly why Bailey has a record deal: his voice has a Morgan Wallenesque quiver and the lyrics are direct (‘I’ll fight for you, I’ll fight for us’). The production is as bland as possible for maximum TikTokage.

On Waiting, he wants to hear from his beloved, with dustings of fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin over the Don’t Stop Believing chord sequence. House On Fire, already the title of a Mimi Webb pop hit, is a ballad which rhymes ‘fire and gasoline’ with ‘back to you and me’. There is violin here too, so at least Bailey is working with traditional instruments rather than loops, but the songs don’t reinvent the wheel in spite of his pleasant voice.

Rock and a Hard Place, a throaty acoustic tune where ‘rock’ refers to a wedding ring, was the second biggest country song in America at one point and charted at 24 on the Hot 100. Popular music has always been driven by things other than the music – dancing, image and celebrity to name three – and it is hard to know how much of Bailey’s success is the result of looking good on a tiny screen or the songs themselves.

Where It Ends, which ends the collection, was co-written by Joe London, a pop producer who may have had an influence on the radio-friendly pop-rock track. Amazingly, its chorus uses more or less the same chord sequence as Fall In Love, although this song is about falling out of love, with red flags and ‘too much pride’ to repeat old mistakes.

From the Fall is a four-chord loop with a lyric about ‘hanging on by a thread’ and, crazily, ‘writing these letters’ (can’t he put it in an email?). Trainwreck is another heartbreak song and it does not surprise me in the slightest that it’s a Morgan Wallen co-write; it has the sort of delayed guitars that Creed or Nickelback had in 2001, proving once again Tom Petty’s adage that country music is ‘bad rock with a fiddle’.

Doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep selling. If Bailey can parlay his voice and face into a career, with the help of Music Row, it proves that the old talent system is alive and well regardless of where the talent is discovered.

Callista Clark – Real To Me: The Way I Feel

On the other hand, as Callista Clark has done, you can sign to Taylor Swift’s old label and fill a Taylor-shaped gap in the market.

I suppose it works for a new artist like Callista to release an album in two parts, the first five songs from which were included on a 2021 EP called Real To Me.

The five new songs, which form The Way I Feel, include Gave It Back Broken, which was written with Lauren Alaina’s friend Emily Shackleton and is a heartbreak ballad fit for Lauren herself. ‘It’s all on me for expecting some honesty’ is a good line, and the song is placed at track two on the album to emphasise that Callista isn’t just the poppy It’s Cause I Am gal.

As you would expect from an album released on Big Machine, Callista has been teamed up with some of the best writers in town. Worst Guy Ever, written with Emily Weisband, obviously recalls those heartbreak songs written by Taylor Swift in about 2008, or Kelsea Ballerini in 2014 (there is a template for young girls in country). Yet it’s from a smart angle, with Callista imagining that she was the guy letting down a girl.

Brave Girl (written with Ben Johnson) will appeal to other teenage girls who are afraid to be their true selves, while Wish You Wouldn’t, like the track Real To Me, has an MOR pop production with some bluesy chords. It underscores a lyric about how Callista is tempted by ‘the sound of you and me together’ and ignores any risk of getting hurt when an ex calls. It’s pop music in the Maren vein and should do well.

Maren has in the past benefitted from the golden touch of Jimmy Robbins, who helps out on Sad, the fifth new song released as part of Callista’s album proper. It has a magnificent chorus on which she asks why she isn’t gloomy about breaking up. I also spotted the phrase ‘hard-to-forgetter’.

I do wonder if Taylor Swift would have been as successful as she was in the mid-2000s if she had come up now. For a young singer like Callista or Bailey, music is almost secondary to the personality which comes across on TikTok. Both Elektra and Big Machine need a return on their investment, so expect to hear a lot of Bailey Zimmerman and Callista Clark in the next year.

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