This is why Big Loud didn’t cancel the contract of their cash cow. The label continues to spend their Wallen money wisely by giving a platform to traditional country sounds. By this stage we know the deal: Joey Moi produces, staffers like Ernest climb aboard and a new name hits the ears of millions.
Here, the name isn’t new to all. Jake Worthington finished second on the 2014 iteration of The Voice, where he auditioned with a Keith Whitley song. He’d failed on his first attempt but it worked for him the next season because TV loves a trier. Predictably, after a bit of bickering between Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, along with some compliments for Shakira, Jake chose Team Blake.
He put out a self-titled EP back in 2015, another five tracks in 2017 and by 2021 had featured on the track Jonesin’ on Hardy’s second Hixtape, another Big Loud release. This full-length album, also self-titled, was slipped out on Good Friday; Jake wrote 12 of the album’s 13 songs. The cover has him in a big black hat standing on a front porch with a Wallenesque mullet; even the font used for his name seems classic, and classic is making money in 2023. Just ask Jon Pardi’s accountant.
Rather interestingly, Jake will tour Texas in May and June to promote the album, which might reflect how Big Loud want to get into Red Dirt music now they’ve had a pop number one and have monopolised country music with Wallen this year. Jake will delight folk in Texas with his traditional voice, and I am sure Craig Wiseman will say it is ‘strictly business’ that the label has pivoted hard from Florida Georgia Line to Texas Red Dirt. I don’t reckon the likes of Josh Abbott or Randy Rogers will mind; indeed, Jake opens up for Randy in a show this month.
State You Left Me In opens the set, where Jake’s vocals are self-consciously a mix of two Georges, Strait and Jones, as well as Randy Travis. There is a key change, some pedal steel and some harmonies on the chorus. The fact that it’s over five minutes long is almost laughably against the current trends of sub-three-minute tunes across commercial country.
Heaven Can’t Be Found is the album’s attempt to reference the Good Lord, albeit delivered like most of the album in a honky-tonk style. Jake is now ‘a believer’ because to ‘one little kiss…brought me back to life’. Everything about it sounds like 1995. In fact, pay attention to the tracklist and tell me if this doesn’t look like, say, a Joe Diffie or Alan Jackson album.
The lush She Ain’t You (though ‘she ain’t bad’) is driven by fiddle and some brushed snare drums. Single At The Same Time has a fiddle solo, while there’s a twangin’ guitar passage in the middle of Without You, one of those heartbreak songs that country music has always done and will always do, regardless of pop trends muscling into Music Row. Pop Goes The Whiskey is another, a waltz where Jake’s narrator tells himself to move on. It was written by Ernest, who pops up to give his fellow Big Loud stablemate a hand.
I Ain’t Goin Anywhere is a delightful love song with the album’s best melody. Conversely, on Ain’t Got You To Hold Jake’s narrator is delighted to be rid of his former beloved, and he namechecks George Strait for good measure. The song was written with a guy called Joel Brentlinger who goes by Joe Denim. He also wrote a great song called Pray For You which was a hit for Jaron Lowenstein in 2009 (big up Jewish country stars!!), and this new song is a rewrite of that old one.
The pair of Next New Thing (the other album preview) and Honky Tonk Crowd (where Haggard and Whitley get namechecked) open the second half of the album with maximum twang and not a processed drum loop in earshot. Night Time Is My Time once again reminds listeners that at 5pm the workday ends and it’s time to ‘come alive when the sun goes down’. The musicianship is the best that Morgan Wallen’s earnings can buy and it reminds me of that adage that on a typical major label 10% of acts fund 90% of the others.
Only One Way To Find Out is equally toe-tappin’ and comes from a room which had both David Lee Murphy and Jessi Alexander in it; Wallen’s earnings can also attract A-List writers. Soon it’s Closing Time, as Jake copies his heroes and sings a tremendous barroom lament even though ‘it ain’t close enough’ to leaving. As Trigger from Saving Country Music has said plenty of times recently, everybody can see that country music is back in fashion, which is good news for the genre and for people who got into it via Alan, Reba and Brooks & Dunn.
And good news for the profits of Big Loud, who are the biggest game in Music City in 2023. Never forget that they couldn’t drop Wallen after he Said The Word, because then their plan to roll out traditional acts like Jake and Charles Wesley Godwin couldn’t come to fruition. Like I say, strictly business.