Chart for Charts’ Sake: Hot Country Songs

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Don’t tell the wuddnadunnitthattaways who clutch their Stetsons whenever some cute hunk drawls three-year-old slang over a five-year-old drum sound, but the real problem with mainstream country music today isn’t that it’s too “pop,” but that it’s too traditional. Country’s always been a songwriter’s game, but now it’s a bored one, and even a pun as lazily tossed off as that would freshen up most of a current top ten, where the hits feel like writer’s exercises, with slight formal variations on recycled tropes illustrated and weighted down by mundanities.

Brett Eldredge sings with the attentive humidity of a young Darius Rucker and the first verse of “Mean to Me” ain’t bad as comparative corn goes:

If I could be the reason your hair’s a mess,

The bass drum beatin’ way down deep in your chest,

If I could be the voice on your radio,

Then I could be your long ride home.

Then again, the coyote could chase the roadrunner pretty far across the canyon just on sheer momentum; by my calculation, gravity kicks in here around the time Eldredge gets to “If mine could be the name that changes yours.” What follows is a brainstorming session rather than a completed set of lyrics, as Eldredge and his co-writer scrambling for examples of what one lover could mean to another with maybe a 33 percent accuracy rating.

Cole Swindell’s “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” is another $25,000 Pyramid  category (“things he’s drinking about besides you”) disguised as a song, listicling items neither funny nor especially moving, including a “Yeah I’m raisin’ my glass/ To those savin’ our ass/ Overseas” so cheap I’m surprised it’s not followed by canned cheers. A better singer would either wring some ambiguity from the set-up or amplify the spite, but Swindell just sounds like all’s he wants is to watch the game and you keep asking him dumb questions.

Randy Houser’s “Like a Cowboy” slaps its metaphor front and center then shades vaguely enough around the edges for one-size-fits-all pop use. I can imagine its don’t-fence-me-in nostalgia offering consolation to overseas service members or Dakotan oil riggers or other free-range laborers whose families have been interrupted by the whims of global finance. But I can also hear it as chesty self-justification for a puffed up jerk who’s found a woman who’ll put up with and/or is relieved by his disappearing act. And if the “damned ol’ rodeo” Houser’s cowboy claims to chase isn’t also metaphorical, the singer should be possessed by a skintillionth of the addict’s competitive delirium or the rider’s ass-worn wearniness that Garth once brought to his songs about the sport.

Despite a sexy little arena-riff, Jason Aldean’s “Just Gettin’ Started” isn’t exactly my kind of heavy breathing. Fair enough — it’s not my fire Jason’s trying to light. But though I’m not the object of Sam Hunt’s seduction either, I do feel entitled to lodge a complaint with the chart-topping patter of “Take Your Time.” Hunt’s awkwardly stylized delivery — he speaks stagily, then breaks weirdly into song — may indeed prove innovative in Nashville, though I don’t hear too much of its advertised affinity with R&B, unless that’s now the universal term for slick dudes lying tunefully. But the song is a four-minute conversation about how he wants to have a conversation, and that’s taking the term “sweet nothings” all too literally.

The conceit starts out OK: A guy walks up to a woman at a bar and proceeds to flaunt how few expectations he has from the encounter. But by the time he claims he doesn’t even want to take her home, Hunt has chomped around the donut so thoroughly that only the hole is left. “I just want to take your time,” Hunt insists, sounding like one of those downtown clipboard and t-shirt kids who ask if you have a minute to save starving children. But isn’t that the last thing you want to surrender when you’re out for the night? I’ve heard that club life is obnoxiously skeevy for women nowadays, but I never suspected it was so bad that they’d come to fantasize about meeting a foxy college QB who can’t stop bragging about how he doesn’t want to sleep with them.

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