Who could have predicted that the hottest new things in country music would be pudgy songwriter dudes with mononyms. No, this isn’t HARDY. He’s the dorky-looking one with the glasses. This is ERNEST. Their rise is almost as improbable as the other hot trend in mainstream country music at the moment: actual country music.
ERNEST is not as big as Morgan Wallen or anything, at least not yet. But he’s one of the major reasons Morgan Wallen is as big as he is. ERNEST co-wrote 11 of the songs on Wallen’s massive Dangerous: The Double Album. That’s ten more songwriting credits than Jason Isbell had. And Morgan Wallen returns the favor by appearing on the title track of this debut LP.
The resume for ERNEST gets even more dubious from there. He co-wrote Florida Georgia Line’s “I Love My Country,” which Saving Country Music exposed as having stolen the chorus from Kane Brown’s “Short Skirt Weather,” and eventually Kane and his co-writers were added to the credits. That was one of numerous Florida Georgia Line songs ERNEST co-wrote. He also co-wrote Sam Hunt’s “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s.”
Not seeing anything yet to get your country music heart excitedet about this album or artist? Oh, it gets worse from there. ERNEST started his career as a country rap artist, releasing singles like “Dopeman” and “Bad Boy.” He cites EMINEM as a major influence. So why exactly is Saving Country Music talking about this guy?
It’s because Flower Shops (The Album) might strangely be the vessel for one of the most true country songs released in the mainstream in years, that being “Flower Shops” (The Song). We’re not talking Chris Stapleton here, whose soulful voice had us singing his praises, but wasn’t exactly “country,” or Luke Combs whose a level up from Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan, but still leaves some to be desired.
When the song “Flower Shops” goes #1 in country—and it will—it will be the most traditional country-sounding song to hit #1 in perhaps decades. And yes, there are more traditional country songs where that came from on the Flower Shops album. However improbable given this guy’s track record, ERNEST (real name Ernest K. Smith) is one of the strongest forces for true country in the mainstream at the moment.
Don’t get your hopes up too much, though. As an album, Flower Shops is extremely hit and miss. About a third of the songs sit in a similar vein as the “Flower Shops” single, about a third sound a bit more contemporary but are still pretty tolerable, and a third are just unabashed list-like panderings to radio play. Depending on where you land on a random shuffle, it can sound like you’re listen to three separate artists. If you’re having a hard time getting a read on HARDY … no ERNEST, then you’re not alone.
Ultimately, this is a young guy out there hustling on Music Row, trying to make a name and some scratch for himself. Clearly he has a talent for songwriting, no matter the style. But he’s a mercenary. You need him to scribble out a radio hit for Sam Hunt or Chris Lane? Sure, he’s your man. But he’s just as liable to release something like “Comfortable When I’m Crazy” that can be found on this album, starting off with its mournful steel moan, and developing like a song not far off from something Waylon Jennings might have sung.
Then you have songs like “Sucker For Small Towns,” which most certainly has a radio vibe to the lyricism, but surprises you with the string arrangement, adding that hint of Countrypolitan to give it a more classic feel, or “If You Were Whiskey,” which is nothing new, but still quite fetching with its steel licks. Steel guitar is all over the place on this record, including in places you wouldn’t expect it, or it may not even belong. “More steel guitar” seemed to be the mantra. When was the last time you heard a mainstream artist piling on the steel guitar as opposed to burying it in the mix?
But then you have songs like “Classic” and “Did It With You” that don’t sound country at all, which means they’d be perfect for country radio. And even some of the more traditional-leaning songs like “Tennessee Queen” and “If You Were Whiskey” still have that list-y style of radio-friendly lyricism that just make many traditional country fans feel a little queasy, even if the steel guitar initially throws them off.
Flower Shops (The Album) never really lives up to the promise of “Flower Shops” (The Song). It’s by far the best track, and the acoustic version is good too. But in some respects, it may not need to. I don’t know if ERNEST is country music’s next superstar. I just don’t know if his voice and delivery is distinct enough, even for the mainstream. He’s a songwriter first, and that’s where his influence may be felt the most. But without question, some of the songs, and some of the sounds of this album are really quite shockingly country.
What we’re hearing on this record may be a precursor; a prescient salvo in mainstream country music’s elongating trend towards more country-sounding songs. Music Row is a copycat campus. And if they see the success of “Flower Shops” and ERNEST, it could be the spark for many other similar songs, just like other more country-sounding singles that led to the success of “Flower Shops.” Where in 2013, all the trends in country were headed in the wrong direction, now they’re heading into the right one. ERNEST is part of that. At least, this album is.
But as an album, Flower Shops (The Album) is just a little too inconsistent to shower with serious praise. But it could very well be a positive premonition for good things to come, and some of the bold efforts this mainstream country songwriter makes in a more country direction deserve praise.
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