Turnpike Troubadours and Ashley McBryde earn straight A’s.
The Watson Twins
Written by Chandra Watson and Leigh Watson
JK: The Watson Twins have always been something of a throwback, so it tracks for them that “Holler” sounds like the kind of social justice anthem that politically-charged artists were writing in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, the song’s lyrics are nowhere near as sharp as those of, say, “What’s Going On,” “For What It’s Worth,” or “Fortunate Son.” As calls for unity go, “Lookin’ for an answer / How to live this life / It just keeps on gettin’ harder / We just want to make things right,” is just an empty platitude.
To their credit, The Watson Twins deliver these fairly vacuous lyrics with their captivating trademark harmonies. The closeness of their harmony arrangements always impresses, and that’s the case here, too. But for a honky-tonk piano in the instrumental break, it’s the clever variations in the harmonies across each repetition of the “Holler if you hear me” refrain that do all of the heavy lifting on the single. D
ZK: Yeah, this feels like a song I could have heard at any point within the past seven-to-eight years. The Watson Twins are a new name to me, and I do dig the tight harmonies. But even for a rote “let’s all come together” narrative, this feels very lacking in punch and energy, from both a vocal and production standpoint.
Props for including some slight gospel and blues sizzle in the slow-burning electric axes and honky-tonk piano, but they feel a tad too tasteful and puritanical in actual tone to ever let this thing erupt – probably because it’s such a weak and empty statement anyway. D-
KJC: “Can’t we all just get along?”
No, we can’t. Not when an entire ideology is organized around the dehumanization of the already marginalized and when violence against them is encouraged and celebrated.
When the middle ground that everyone can agree upon protects the freedom and dignity of every human being, give me a holler. Happy to get along then. F
Written by Ralph Casey Edwards and Lance Roark
ZK: A gross narrative surrounding this band’s long-awaited (and very welcome) return is that, due to lead Evan Felker’s newfound sobriety, there’s no possible way their new material will sound as sharp as the old stuff. It feeds into the old, very gross adage that personal suffering is required to make great art.
At least here, though, I don’t think much proof is needed to refute the statement anyway. This is a chipper, fiddle-driven anthem about a screwed-up fool that fits within the band’s wheelhouse exceptionally well, to the point where the opposite criticism could emerge that this band hasn’t pushed as far out of their comfort zone as they could have over the years. For me, when it’s this melodic and packed with an urgency behind the general conceit of someone who’s failed at nearly everything in life but gave it his all in love, I couldn’t care less. It’s so good to have these guys back. A
KJC: The raw energy of this track dovetails nicely with the open wound vulnerability of the lyric. While listening, I kept thinking of one of my favorite opening lines of any song: “I did my best, but I guess my best wasn’t good enough.”
James Ingram and Quincy Jones weren’t singing about the ghosts of addiction on “Just Once,” but the helpless sense of regret is the same. I have no doubt that the protagonist of “Chipping Mill” always left the best for the love of his life. Problem is, it’s what was left after he already put himself through the chipping mill, and sawdust isn’t enough to sustain anyone. A
JK: Zack’s point about the way the authenticity fetishists like to wax rhapsodic about how Turnpike Troubadours (or Jason Isbell, or Sarah Shook, or Tyler Childersc or…) did their best work while in the throes of addiction is spot-on. It’s never not gross, and it’s rarely ever accurate. If “Chipping Mill” is in any way indicative of how the best country band since The Chicks sounds with a sober Evan Felker at the helm, I’m disinterested in entertaining any complaints.
Their punchiest single since “Down Here,” “Chipping Mill” bears all of the band’s hallmark– the lyrical wit, the strong sense of melody, and the truly first-rate musicianship– while sounding more energetic than they have on record in years. That this is actually getting a push to mainstream radio is significant in the wake of Zach Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” managing a top 25 run. It would instantly shame most everything else on current playlists, except, perhaps, the artist below. A
“Learned to Lie”
Written by Nicolette Hayford, Ashley McBryde, and Sean McConnell
KJC: To be fully aware of your intergenerational trauma and still be imprisoned by it is like being buried alive. You can see the cycle so clearly but you are doomed to repeat it, without even the numbing comfort of self-deception to make it a little more bearable.
“Learned to Lie” has gotten under my skin because its truth is viscerally uncomfortable, each line like a dagger digging into wounds that will never heal.
The one that draws the most blood: “I learned to say things I don’t mean. Like ‘stay’ when I want you to leave.”
It cuts so deep and I know why. But I learned the same lesson as McBryde, so I’m keeping it to myself. A
JK: The strongest of the five tracks released thus far from McBryde’s forthcoming album, “Learned to Lie” is as brilliantly-written as anything from the likes of Isbell, Lambert, or Clark. The verses, in particular, are just masterful. Consider the abrupt break in meter and the slant rhyme at the end of the phrase, “I must’ve heard my mama tell my daddy / She was tired ‘cause babies make you tired / But deep down, she was just unhappy.” McBryde just lets that “unhappy” sit and stew for a good couple of bars, allowing the weight of a lifetime of discontent to really sink in. It’s extraordinary.
The narrative is elevated by one of McBryde’s most empathetic vocal performances, too. There’s not a whit of adverse judgment for the parents she sings of; instead, she recounts the impact of their stories on her own with the recognition that the best they could do didn’t necessarily line up with what she needed or wanted. “Learned to Lie” wrestles with the contingencies of reinforcement and punishment for when she tries to do better and, just as critically, for when she doesn’t.
Country music by and for adults should never feel like a revelation, but here we are. A
ZK: To be honest, while I’ve adored all of Ashley McBryde’s albums and will forever be mad that radio hasn’t jumped on further, I’ve been mostly cold on the pre-release singles to her upcoming album. Thankfully, “Learned to Lie” is an incredibly welcome exception, in part because Jay Joyce ditches his weird-ass production tendencies for something a bit more restrained (that is, until that excellent smoldering outro).
Of course, the bulk of the credit goes toward the writing, namely in the inter-generational trauma that comes from bad parenting and the bad personal choices it creates and inspires. By presenting it through the traditional family structure, too, it’s also the kind of trauma most people won’t notice or think twice about, making it all the lonelier for the child affected by it. And the heartbreaking realization is that they’re adopting their own bad habits growing up and realize it, but also don’t know how to change. You’re either doomed to repeat the same mistakes as those who came before you or repeat them within a different context but still in a similar manner; either way, they’re bad habits that are hard to shake.
Like Jonathan noted, it’s not so much a track cast with anger or judgment as it is just a sad, matter-of-fact depiction of a common situation, and it’s one of McBryde’s best. A