So often when considering mainstream radio singles, we slip into the habit of saying, “Well, it’s good for country radio,” or “It’s better than the other crap they’re playing,” or “I’ve heard worse” as ways to give backhanded compliments to songs that really aren’t that great, but are tolerable compared to the peers surrounding it in the mainstream. That’s part of passing fair judgement on a song, is to compare and contrast it to the other selections currently in the marketplace. But rarely does this mean in the grand scheme of country music’s history that these songs are anywhere near on par with even your average radio single two decades ago.
Chris Janson is in danger of becoming a one hit wonder. Before his poorly-written song “Buy Me A Boat” was dubiously pushed to the top of the iTunes charts by iHeartMeida’s syndicated morning DJ Bobby Bones, who literally commanded his army of mind-numbed listeners to trek to iTunes and purchase it, and which ultimately landed Janson a major label deal, the thing Chris Janson was known most for was having the albatross slung around his neck as a co-writer for Tim McGraw’s unfortunate career detour, “Truck Yeah.” Just like Chris Stapleton, Chris Janson’s got songwriting baggage.
“Buy Me a Boat” and “Truck Yeah” didn’t give true country listeners much reason to even sniff Janson’s debut record when it was released last October. Maybe it would have one or two good songs, but the truth is most mainstream releases do. But they’re just thrown in there like Easter eggs for the few lost souls who actually still listen to albums cover to cover. These songs don’t really factor into the equation when attempting to measure an artist’s impact.
But in this post-Stapleton world, when Bro-Country songs are struggling to find traction more and more, including a song like Janson’s second single, “Power of Positive Drinking,” which stalled out in the mid 30’s on airplay and the mid 40’s on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, why not actually release the best song from an album, instead of the worst one that you think might tickle the fancy of the masses?
“Holdin’ Her” is not just a good song by today’s country music standards, it’s a good song, period. Written specifically from Chris Janson’s own life experience, with a little help from one co-writer, James Otto, it chronicles Janson meeting his wife, falling in love, getting married, and finding the sense of home we all search for in our youth while the promises of “freedom” look to lead us off that path.
“Holdin’ Her” makes absolutely no compromises to radio or anyone else. It starts on the acoustic guitar in waltz time, then the steel guitar comes in, a little Telecaster and keys, and as the old saying goes, it’s three chords and the truth. No drum loops, no electronic doo dads, no superfluous buzzwords thrown in there to lure in your garden variety corporate country radio fan. The song is delightfully simple and straightforward, and they even left the 60-cycle hum of the tube amp on the master to give it that extra organic feel.
Most every songwriter comes to Nashville wanting to express themselves in the purest, most honest manner possible, just like “Holdin’ Her” does. And then the priorities of life like rent, bills, and the pit in their stomachs asking themselves if songwriting is even a worthy pursuit, force their hands into scribbling out commercial rotgut to keep a inkling of the dream alive that one day they can record and release a song like “Holdin’ Her,” and actually have people hear it.
The moral of “Holdin’ Her” is that even behind a song like “Buy Me a Boat,” there’s a success story; a man, his wife, and his child, who will be set up now, and perhaps he will even get the freedom do do what he came to Nashville to do. Look at Chris Janson. He’s no superstar. He’s a regular Joe who got gerrymandered to the top of the country music mountain on a crazy whim by Bobby Bones. He’s played the Grand Ole Opry 26 times last year, and he just released what might be the most traditional country music single to radio in the last five or six years by a major label star, including Chris Stapleton. Who knows what he might develop into.
Will “Holdin’ Her” succeed on country radio? Who knows. But when you have songs like Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” at the top, Jon Pardi’s “Head Over Boots” climbing, and Maren Morris’s “My Church” making an impact, why not give it a shot? This is where commercial, mainstream country is headed at the moment, and for the first time in half a decade, that direction is up instead of down.