Album Review – Ernest’s “Nashville, Tennessee”

You don’t really need a conventional album review to help navigate you through or understand Ernest’s 26-song treatise, Nashville, Tennessee. What you need is a road map, a sherpa, someone to point your nose to the mounds of treasure, while navigating past the land mines and booby traps that you encounter along the way. It’s an adventure to say the least.

Ernest’s Nashville, Tennessee is a staunch and starkly traditional country album. It’s unquestionably the most traditional album that has been released in the mainstream in years, or maybe in the last decade or two, and perhaps the most traditional country album that will hit shelves in all of 2024, from a mainstream or independent artist. And since there are 26 tracks, it’s almost like two traditional country albums instead of one … until it’s not.

Interspersed with rather incredible and inspired specimens of traditional country, other more classic throwback-style country songs, and even examples of bluegrass-inspired country and straight up Western Swing, Nashville, Tennessee serves up some of the seediest examples of post Bro-Country-era Southern pop pablum pandering for radio play, perhaps rendering the entire listening experience problematic for purists, and positively impossible to define as an album overall.

Nashville, Tennessee isn’t really album. It’s more like a dump of songs from Ernest’s hard drive with little or no attention paid to sequencing or flow, and even less effort expended to try and convey a cohesive expression, theme, or story. But what can’t be ignored is the majority of songs are exquisitely written and inspired, and are 10s on a 10 to 1 scale of country-sounding songs—10 being Mark Chesnutt, and 1 being Beyoncé.

A true Nashville native who was born and raised in Music City, Ernest started in the country rap scene, and came up in the industry writing songs for Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line. He’s best known now as one of the right-hand writers and collaborators with Morgan Wallen along with the HARDY. It’s is these three guys who basically are defining mainstream country in 2024, for better or worse.

All of this history is the reason that many traditional country fans won’t even give a passing sniff to Nashville, Tennessee, or perhaps they got a snoot full of him live and won’t be back. But you truly have to shove all of those prior experiences to the side. We first heard Ernest’s dramatic shift toward traditional country on the extended version of his debut album, Flower Shops (The Album): Two Dozen Roses. On the new album, Ernest doubles and triples down on committing to that sound.

It isn’t just the sound though, it’s the writing. Whatever bug Ernest caught, he’s zeroed in on the purest of country influences, and can stamp out solid country gold with improbable ease and frequency. Along with a solo write and a couple of covers, Ernest also gets assists from Dean Dillon on a couple of songs, and records a song co-written by Chris Stapleton.

The Stapleton-written “You Don’t Have to Die” is a superlative composition. So is “Bars on My Heart” that Ernest wrote with Mark Holman and Nicolle Galyon. Nashville, Tennessee is some of the best traditional country music you can find. Ernest even knows how to take traditional country cliché’s, and still make quality songs from them—the mark of a truly gifted writer. This is what he pulls off on “Dollar To Cash,” which weaves in the names of old school country stars in the lyrics, but in a way that actually works and remains reverent.

As easy as it is for some traditionalists to hate on Ernest, they love to hate on Jelly Roll even more. But the opening song of the album “I Went To College / I Went To Jail” is hard to hate on with an open mind. “Would If I Could” in collaboration with Lainey Wilson is another gem, co-written by Dean Dillon. With very few performers actually cutting traditional country songs, there is an incredible inventory of them for someone like Ernest to pick off the shelf. He takes full advantage of that on this album.

The first four songs on the album are straight traditional country. But when you get to the 5th track of the album, “Hangin’ On” featuring Morgan Wallen, you feel yourself falling back to reality. Tracks 16 to 24 of the album are the soft spot, where radio singles and contemporary production completely contrast with the rest of the album’s material. Songs like “Small Town Goes” and “Sayin’ You Love Me” are textbook examples of post Bro-Country radio schlock, and makes you wonder where you took the wrong turn.

Lucky for you, there is a list at the bottom of this review with small genre-based descriptions of each song and a score from 1 to 10 on how “country” the songs are. You can’t overlook that a majority of the tracks score 10 out of 10, including the first four of the album, ten of the first twelve, and twelve of the first fifteen. One saving grace is most of the bad tracks are back loaded, while the album also concludes strong with two of its best traditional songs.

If you listen to Morgan Wallen’s last album, you’ll hear some straight up traditional country songs too, but the ratio is completely inverted. That’s not only what makes Ernest and Nashville, Tennessee so unique, it’s also what makes it so important in the grand scheme of things. If you need any further proof that mainstream popular country is making a dramatic, perhaps historic shift towards traditional sounds, there is no better example than this album. And because it still includes moments of pop country, it verifies that it’s still from and for the mainstream country beast.

And interestingly, there are absolutely no 808 beats (electronic drums) on this album whatsoever. That in itself makes the impact of this album seismic in many respects. Meanwhile, steel guitar is all over these songs, including many of the bad ones.

Nonetheless, many traditional country fans would rather hear N.W.A. than pop country. Though some might think pop country and traditional country are cousins, in truth they’re polar opposites. This means Ernest has populated this album with poison pills that will put him at odds with large portions of the primary audience the majority of these songs will appeal to. Also, Ernest doesn’t have a voice that’s especially tooled for traditional county.

But make no mistake about it, Nashville, Tennessee isn’t just full of excellent traditional country songs, it a symbol of the genre’s shifting sound and significant movements back toward the heart of country, and from one of the individuals who was partly responsible for the shift away from it in the previous era, and primarily responsible for writing some of the most popular songs currently in the country genre.

1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)

Score is based off of combining all the individual song scores (195), and the top possible score (260), and coming to the percentage of 75%. See individual song scores below.

1. “I Went To College / I Went To Jail (feat. Jelly Roll)” – Two-tone Outlaw traditional country (10)
2. “Ain’t As Easy” – Traditional country (10)
3. “Why Dallas (feat. Lukas Nelson)” – Western swing (10)
4. “One More Heartache” – Classic country (10)
5. “Hangin’ On (feat. Morgan Wallen)” – Post Bro-Country buzzword-centric modern pop country (3)
6. “Did It For The Story” – Metro radio contemporary pop country with some steel guitar (3)
7. “How’d We Get Here” – Classic Nashville country (10)
8. “Never Said I Love You” – Modern Daryle Singletary/Jake Worthington-style traditional country (10)
9. “Would If I Could (feat. Lainey Wilson)” – Modern traditional country (10)
10. “Honkytonk Fairytale” – Modern traditional country (10)
11. “Smokin’ Gun” – Bluegrass-inspired classic country (10)
12. “Twinkle, Twinkle [Live at Fenway Park] (feat. Ryman Saint)” – A capella lullaby sung with Ernest’s son (10)
13. “Life Goes On” – Decently-written modern radio country with prominent steel guitar (7)
14. “If You Don’t Know By Now” – Modern traditional country (10)
15. “You Don’t Have To Die” – Modern traditional country (10)
16. “Redneck Sh*ttt” – Terrible ’90s-sounding rap rock with an attempt at country lyricism, though maybe useful as a guilty pleasure (1)
17. “Small Town Goes” – Straight Bro-Country with list lyrics and some steel guitar (3)
18. “Kiss of Death” – A true fusion of traditional country with rootsy instrumentation, mixed with modern radio country writing and lyrical phrasing. (6)
19. “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” – Chris Stapleton-style baby making country with heavy steel guitar (7)
20. “Ain’t Too Late” – ’90s pop rock with glimmers of twang in the guitar tracks (5)
21. “Sayin’ You Love Me” – Horrible Morgan Wallen-style post Bro-Country (2)
22. “Summertime Flies” – Bad radio pandering Southern pop not redeemed by a cheesy steel guitar part (2)
23. “Ain’t Right, Ain’t Wrong” – Understated traditional country with modern radio sensibilities (8)
24. “Creep (feat. HARDY)” – Radiohead cover rendered as a traditional country song (8)
25. “Bars On My Heart” – Modern traditional country (10)
26. “Dollar To Cash” – Modern traditional country (10)

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