Ka-Ching…With Twang: Jordan Davis – Bluebird Days

Almost a century after commercialism took the hillbilly sound and stuck it on to discs to sell a lifestyle back to its people for profit, what is the sound of country music in 2023?

Well, it’s many things to many people, so long as it reflects either a past or present idyll of life in rural America. Its performers sing with twang and grit, and they are familiar with the many styles of music present in the genre today: ballads, heartbreak, party music, love of hometowns and alcohol.

Jordan Davis, whose new album ticks off all four of those topics is from Louisiana and has been a staple on country radio in what I suppose we should call the post-Stapleton Era which begat Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, who are dominating Q1 2023 with new music. Like those three blokes, Jordan is familiar with catchy melodies: Singles You Up, Take It From Me and Almost Maybes have helped him be successful enough to follow Dan + Shay to the Country2Country main stage.

That analogy is apt because he shares producer Paul DiGiovanni with them. So much of the success of country music is about production which works on country radio, as it had been in the 1960s Nashville Sound which begat the Urban Cowboy movement of the 1980s which begat the neo-traditional sounds of the 1990s, which begat Stapleton.

At which point I should reiterate the chestnut that no more than 19 per cent of music is sung by women on radio. Many more imbecilic critics will ask, ‘Where are the women?’ but that ship sailed 20 years ago when Natalie Maynes convinced country radio programmers to drop the music of the Dixie Chicks. There’s a reason that Morgan Wallen has been able to succeed commercially in the aftermath of his controversy and the Chicks never hit the peaks of their early-00s success. It’s also why four voices in every five on radio belong to men.

MCA Nashville think they can get a return on their investment, by packaging songs to be delivered by a swarthy, bearded bloke. Jordan spent 2021 on the road with Kane Brown and is now a headline act, with his second album Bluebird Days following 2018’s Home State. Between these releases were two EPs, the latter preparing fans for the new LP by including the Luke Bryan duet Buy Dirt, one of those songs where an older person advises a younger person to live, to coin a phrase, a country way of life. It became Jordan’s biggest hit, landing just outside the Hot 100’s Top 20, and he now has a CMA Song of the Year to impress his two young kids. Impressively, those kids’ uncle Jacob also had a hand in writing that song and six others on the album.

I often try to imagine boardroom conversations, where the artist and his/her manager meet with the suits – marketing, finance, digital, promotion – and plot a project that needs to sound good on air and onstage. Buy Dirt increases Jordan’s brand recognition, which was also improved by a People Magazine cover story about his marriage, and the song marked him out as a contemporary country star. Jordan is a songwriter as well as a singer, in the modern post-Stapleton fashion, so has he written an album of songs – there are 17 of them – which can stand up without the fluffy production? Mostly, yes.

How about that album title, referencing the globally famous listening room where Garth Brooks heard Tony Arata sing The Dance? There’s even been a documentary about the café. The title track comes near the start of the second half of the album: it’s a triple-time tune not about the café but about growing up with divorced parents, how ‘the lie never outlives the truth’. It’s a simple, direct lyric – ‘two hearts fell in love and two hearts grew apart’ – which will chime with many listeners.

Opening track Damn Good Time reminds me of Party Mode, the opener of Dustin Lynch’s last album, but sung by Drake White. Brooks and Dunn, inevitably, get a namecheck on the song. The melodic breakup song Tucson Too Late (‘heaven knows I let her slip away’) tries to mimic those Brooks and Dunn tunes but Jordan’s voice will never be Ronnie’s. At least it has a proper middle eight, or a middle four.

There are at least five other break-up songs on the album, which is probably too many. You’ve Got My Number (‘I’m still hung up on you’) has a punchy guitar solo in the middle, while Midnight Crisis is a plodding duet with The Voice winner Danielle Bradbery. What I Wouldn’t Do is another song in my favourite genre: the alpha-privative, which regular readers will know is a song that just puts a list of phrases in the negative to emphasise the song’s point of view.

What’s the best way to get over lost love? Alcohol!! One Beer In Front of the Other opens with ‘cold sweats’ but sees our narrator take comfort in alcohol, perhaps encouraging the listener to do the same. Whiskey Weak, which might well be a Sam Hunt homage, has another catchy melody which contrasts with the sombre lyric that transposes a dead relationship to the bar (‘rock bottom’s gonna be a long way down’).

What My World Spins Around, the big single, is a perfect encapsulation of country radio: a two-chord loop and a Mumford beat beneath a processed acoustic guitar riff, sung-rapped verses and a wide-open chorus where Jordan is ‘wrapped round your finger like this ring I’m wearing’. It’s anonymous and perfect for an 18-34 demographic, as well as a reliable set opener.

Jordan’s recent setlist shows that he is sprinkling, or soft-launching, some of the new songs including that new single: Next Thing You Know is one of those songs that condenses a whole life into a song, like A Guy Walks Into A Bar or Wide Open Spaces; Fishing Spot is a version of Drink A Beer, as our narrator remembers his grandpa and namechecks Jesus and Hank Jr; Part Of It is a reminiscin’ song of the type where Jordan’s dad tells him to ‘live and learn’ from love that goes wrong. There’s also a reference to his grandpa’s will, which is a smart lyrical turn, and another middle eight that proves Jordan knows how to structure a song. He may have learned this from his uncle Stan, a songwriter who had success in the 1980s.

The gentle and philosophical Money Isn’t Real, which opens at a funeral, is an outside write from Jordan’s fellow radio-friendly bloke Jameson Rodgers among others. No Time Soon is another Combsalike, especially the throaty chorus to match the dedication in the lyric (‘tonight I’m like a freight train’), while Short Fuse is one of those songs where our angry narrator is pacified by a lady’s sweet love and affection.

Sunday Saints shows Jordan’s local pride, as the boy from Louisiana references the New Orleans gridiron team while acknowledging ‘we’re Saturday sinners’. It just comes across like a Luke Combs pastiche, a ‘good ol boys’ song, albeit with some rapid-fire rapping in the second verse. I won’t spoil which gospel song Jordan sings as a coda to the song, but you can guess.

The album is about three tracks too long and cements the singer as a reliable new star. I hope it’s not too damning praise to say Jordan Davis is going to be an ACM and CMT Award winner rather than a CMA Award regular.

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