Album Review – Alex Key’s “Outdated”

#510 (Traditional Country on the Country DDS)

There’s a bit of strange irony in how it’s technology in large part that has allowed for older-sounding traditional country music to find new fans and new footing in the modern music diet. We always claimed that if people were exposed to true country music, they would enjoy it more than whatever the mainstream is dishing out.

That’s exactly what’s happening now through fans using streaming, social media, and even Tik-Tok to find new music as opposed to mainstream radio. And it’s not just older fans who like what they hear. It’s younger audiences who are finding an appreciation for the timeless modes of traditional country, often because it feels so outdated, grounded, simple, and authentic in an increasingly inauthentic and complex world made even more complicated by technology.

It’s leveraging technology that has allowed a completely independent traditional country artist in Alex Key with no major label backing or big machine behind him to find a major fans base, and garner songs with millions of streams. From his home in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Alex Key has cultivated a national and international following for his self-described “outdated” music.

None of this would be possible of course if the songs and music weren’t any good, or weren’t really country. With Alex Key, you have nothing to worry about there. All 12 songs on his new album, as well as the rest of the songs from his catalog have an uncanny similarity to many of the best songs in the classic catalog of country music, utilizing double entendres, and tried and true themes to sell songs that feel immediately familiar, but with just enough twist of originality to keep them fresh.

All of this is then fleshed out with straight down the middle ’90s country neotraditional instrumentation including plenty of fiddle and steel guitar. A few years ago, this approach would have only been fine for niche programming. But similar to what’s happened for Zach Top, Jake Worthington, and others, an audience has opened up of appreciative fans for this kind of music, giving Key 66k followers on Instagram, 243K followers on Facebook, and over 425K followers on Tik-Tok.

You can’t just make the same traditional country songs over and over though and expect to find significant traction. It’s a delicate balance of embracing country’s clichés, yet finding ways of reinventing them that is key to a good traditional country song. There are plenty of new tunes that call to mind older country songs, but the way “Willie, Waylon, and Mama” utilizes a classic country song to say something new is the kind of inventive approach it takes to make a good traditional country track in 2024.

From the opening song “Fortune Teller,” to other songs like “Heart-tender” and “Bed That I Made,” an elevated level of wordplay and situational association showcases clever songwriting that not only tickles you with the turn of phrase, but drives home the story. According to the credits, Alex Key wrote every song on Outdated.

But similar to a lot of the songs and artists in this new traditional space, taken as a whole, some listeners will find this music a little too cheesy for continuous listening. There’s not the exploration of involved themes like you get in folk and Americana. The beauty is in the simplicity. But for some, simplicity leaves them unfulfilled. You need a few deeper songs to round out the diet, and like many of these traditional country albums, Outdated finds difficulty delivering them.

But for other listeners, this is exactly what they think of when they think “country music,” and hearing a young man like Alex Key sing these songs doesn’t just fill the ears with favorable sounds, it fills the spirit with a sense that maybe everything isn’t lost in life and country music. It may be “Outdated,” but that happens to be exactly what many traditional country fans both young and old are on the hunt for.

1 3/4 Guns Up (7.9/10)

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