Country Jukebox Jury LP: Justin Moore – Stray Dog

I imagine Justin Moore is a very nice fella, but he’s not going to be remembered as a country music titan.

It’s interesting going back through time and seeing who hit the top of the country charts. Has the casual music fan ever heard of Earl Thomas Conley? He had 18 number ones and I have heard zero of them ever played on radio or in a country playlist. I know Janie Fricke by name but we hear none of her nine number one hits anywhere today; ditto Mickey Gilley (17), T.G. Sheppard (14) and Gary Morris, who had five. Razzy Bailey had five chart-toppers and I had to look up whether Razzy was male or female (he’s a he). Did you know Anne Murray had ten of them, after she shifted across from the pop charts?

The point I’m making is that so many acts are just there. They sing songs about rural life on record and on tour, and they make money for their label. Then they make another album about the same themes with slightly updated production and do it all again. In recent years, Justin Moore has filled that role.

He’s on Valory Music, the same imprint as Thomas Rhett, and has just released his seventh album. His sixth, 2021’s eight-track Straight Outta The Country, flopped, barely scraping into the Top 40; its only single was the down-home We Didn’t Have Much. Admittedly it became his seventh radio chart-topper and his biggest Hot 100 hit, charting at 41. The lead track from the eight-track Stray Dog, the soft-rock meet-cute With A Woman You Love, became his eighth. Scott Borchetta produced it and it sounds like money.

If you want to know about Scott, the man who built Taylor Swift into a megastar then gave away her masters, have a look at my four-part essay on the guy. He’s the son of a radio guy and has ensured that TR and JM – I don’t think Justin has a cool nickname – are radio-friendly unit shifters. I liked the fluffy pair of Point At You (his regular set opener) and the recent Why We Drink, as well as the hooky Somebody Else Will.

Otherwise Justin’s music is throwaway and very pandering. His first hit, ferchrissakes, was Small Town USA, which is his entire pitch: he’s a man in a hat singing country songs. One of them is about heaven being far away, another about the ones who didn’t make it back home: spiritual and military matters make money in the South. So does rubbish rock music: Justin also sings Motley Crue, having had a hit with a cover of Home Sweet Home.

Eschewing Nashville as a place of residence, Justin has stayed in Arkansas and considers himself a ‘dark horse’. He’s had Arkansas governor and former Trump apologist Sarah Huckabee Sanders on his podcast, which is about to hit 100 episodes. Other interviewees have included Carly Pearce, Jon Pardi, Travis Tritt and Kip Moore, but not yet Dwight Yoakam, Justin’s favourite artist.

He has, however, welcomed label mate Riley Green to the pod, who pops up on album opener Everybody Get Along. Its retro sound recalls Waylon & Willie: the former gets a namecheck and so does Hank Williams Jr, and in the outro the pair quote a song called The Conversation which I hope they paid for. The song is a bit of hokum where the two vocalists blend in with each other. It’s not as bad as that McGraw/T-Hub song Undivided, but it’s just as dull. ‘I like this and I like that’? Come on, you’re better than that.

The current single is You, Me and Whiskey, which features Priscilla Block. Horribly overproduced and grafting the voices on top of the other with little chemistry, it dwells in the Valley of Blah. Elsewhere, Better Slow is a Country Bingo opportunity to mark your card with aspects of rural life. Justin realises that hugging mama and the sunrise ‘are worth soaking in’. This site is called A Country Way of Life and I dig this sort of thing.

There is zero surprise that Randy Montana was in the room, and he was also there for Stray Dogs, where our narrator prays to ‘the Good Lord’ and is a ‘wild and free’ character who sounds like most country singers from about 1991 to 1999. I can imagine a horse bolting across a prairie in the music video; indeed the chorus contains a comparison to ‘a dark horse’ so it would be an obvious pitch.

That Wasn’t Jack (‘that was all me’) is a typically Moore-ish bit of country-rock written with David Lee Murphy. The second verse is about three bars long so we can get back to the chorus extolling Justin’s pick-up skills. Casey Beathard is a veteran of the Music Row writer’s room and he brings some groove to Country On It, whose opening line is ‘my grampappy was a happy hillbilly’ and that’s all you really need to know about that. Justin sells a slight song well thanks to his twang, and the production surrounds the vocal with organic instruments like a pedal steel.

Album closer Get Rich Or Drunk Trying, which has a chunky outro, is another one of those songs where the narrator hates his boss and hasn’t got any money (unlike Scott Borchetta’s signing Justin Moore) but heads to the bar where songs like Get Rich Or Drunk Trying will be playing. I bet it’s gone down well on his tour. I don’t expect JM to follow TR to the UK but it’d be nice to have this down-home country fill our arenas some time.

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