While promoting his first album Yours in the UK, I was very impressed by Russell when he played both Nashville Meets London and Country2Country. I loved Blue Tacoma the moment I heard it, even if it had the same chords as his soppy ballad Yours, with its ‘boat stuck in a bottle’ image. I loved his debut album which included the poppy single Every Little Thing, and I like the fact that his wife Kailey is part of his team.
His second album Southern Symphony came and went, lost during the pandemic (and fatherhood) but driven by the radio hits Love You Like I Used To and Home Sweet (which stalled at 10 on radio). It allowed him to play the main stage at C2C in 2022, opening for Miranda Lambert.
His friends BK and T-Hub from FGL (Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line) are working on solo projects; Russell has been out on the road with Tim McGraw, who also does romantic rural music with a poppy edge and, like Russell, is from Tennessee.
RD’s third album is self-titled and was trailed by the impact track She Likes It, a completely blah Tiktokable duet with its co-writer Jake Scott that of course is being spun on country radio. The key lyric is ‘she likes it when I oooooh’. There’s no point in complaining about this: Russell’s face fits, as does his voice and his haircut, but he’s an independent act signed to Triple Tigers, which is also home to Scotty McCreery and Cam. That, I think, would be a perfect night of country music: Russell brings the party and the ballads, Scotty brings the ballads and the party, Cam is a woman.
Russell starts with an MOR ballad, Blame It On Being Young, a reminiscin’ tune which mentions ‘fake ID’ and ‘TP’ (toilet paper) in the first stanza. As a sort of thank you for taking him out on the road, he even namechecks Tim McGraw just before the final chorus. I Remember is the same song but with a cumbia beat (the one from Despacito); he even quotes Semi Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind in the second verse, which is one step down from what Cole Swindell does on She Had Me At Heads Carolina, which I’ve still not gotten over.
His other uptempo or party songs sound like FGL from 2015. Sorry (‘for kissing you in front of everybody’) sounds like every other drum-heavy perky tune sung by a bloke, be they Mitchell Tenpenny or Dustin Lynch, but that’s the market imperative. All The Same Friends says nothing in a melodic manner and Big Wheels (‘back roads and cold beer’) comes and goes inside two minutes.
She’s Why was written with LA pop writer Sean Douglas and Josh ‘Need You Now’ Kerr. Russell croons about how his lady is like a heatwave, ‘the reason why God made jeans’ and ‘TK Maxx, no Gucci’, while there’s a muted guitar part that is fresh out of LA. Another pop writer, Ilsey Juber, was in the room for 18, another pop song where Russell wishes he had met his wife far earlier than he did. Over and Over would have been better as an acoustic outro to the album; it’s insubstantial and another song perfect for young couples who are the album’s target demographic.
Russell started as a songwriter in town and was also the useless (by his own admission) guitar tech for contemporary Christian singer Chris Tomlin. God Gave Me A Girl is his nod to CCM (contemporary Christian music), with the sort of production Carrie Underwood has used throughout her career and a lyric that is yet another addition to Russell’s stack of wedding ballads. There is no surprise that Ashley Gorley is involved in this song, which does its job impressively and ends the first side of the album. Ashley was also in the room for Drink To This, a song that stretches a moment from present to future. It includes a coda full of woahs which will bring out the cameraphones.
Russell has also drafted in some Nashville A-Listers. The great Jon Nite was in the room for I Wonder, a philosophical breakup song with an enormous guitar part: ‘Will I ever love like I loved her?’ is the narrator’s conclusion. On Beers to the Summer – produced by Zach Crowell who is the king of the track (ie the production or the ‘record’ element of a song’) – he at least calls the sky ‘sapphire’ to distinguish it from other midtempo tunes about nothing. Just Like Your Mama is a Lori McKenna co-write which Russell played on his recent visit to the UK. It celebrates his daughter and wife much like Brett Young does on his song Lady, except with the lyric ‘no bull and no drama’.
I Still Believe is a load of images strung together by a credo: ‘the best songs go oh-oh-oooh’, sweet tea, gridiron, calling mama, John 3:16 and that’s country bingo. It’s basically Most People Are Good by Luke Bryan or any number of other songs of that ilk, but with a throbbing guitar solo in the middle of it. Perhaps they’ve got one bloke churning these out every day on Music Row as punishment for putting a polysyllabic word into a narrative epic in 2018.
Kudos to Russell for co-producing the album in a country-pop manner which will appeal to his international fanbase. He’s basically a clean-shaven Thomas Rhett, or Kane Brown with a designer haircut. Either way, he’ll still get played on the radio and people will stream this album.