It’s one thing to take The Bellamy Brothers and John Anderson out on tour with you, give them an opportunity to give contemporary crowds some classic country learning in the middle of your show to hopefully remind folks where the music came from. It’s another thing to cut a few classic country cover songs in digital form and throw them out there for people who may have not heard them before. It’s something else to speak out about how you think country music should stick closer to its roots, even if it’s counter to things you’ve said in the past.
All of these things Blake Shelton has done recently. But when people look back in history and assess his influence and impact on the music, it’s going to be his singles, and his albums that will define him—that is unless a certain reality TV singing competition doesn’t permanently typecast him as “The guy from The Voice” before everything else, which it very well might. Though his name continues to be mud to many traditionalists, Blake Shelton’s last record Texoma Shore was a return to his roots, with some exceptions of course. These were still Blake Shelton’s roots mind you, so this wasn’t material to compete with Tyler Childers. But it was still a welcome development in the Blake Shelton saga.
“God’s Country” is Blake’s latest single from a yet-to-be-named upcoming record, and just the title gets you interested, hoping perhaps it will evidence an even further retrenching towards Shelton’s more traditional starting point, with maybe some Gospel overtones mixed in there. In some respects “God’s Country” delivers on these hopes, but in other aspects, the substance and originality feels a little skin deep.
“God’s Country” certainly surprises you at first for a country radio single with it’s dark and moody tone—something counterclockwise to the sunny disposition of most mainstream country selections. And no mistaking it, the initial burst of the song inspires a carnal reaction, like a wave of thunder rolling out from the clouds and rumbling the ground at your feet. “God’s Country” tries to evoke the awe-inspiring version of the Almighty, bequeathing us mere mortals patches of soil to toil upon from his perch high up in the clouds, peering down as the beads of sweat form across our brows, and calloused hands fold in prayer for rain. “God’s Country” is both nostalgic in its reverence, and here-and-now in its relevance to the modern farmer, re-affirming the hearty and honest nature of America’s agrarian forgotten.
But as a track, “God’s Country” does little to address the lack of work for Nashville’s drumming professionals, instead focusing on mostly computer-generated tambourine taps, bell strikes, bass thumps, and gated hand claps as opposed to sticks on skins. Later some actual drums may chime in, if they weren’t administrated by a central processing unit as well for consistency. This composition makes “God’s Country” compromised for most traditional country listeners, but will render it palatable to the modern ear, since a sweet and catchy melody is nowhere to be found. The raw power of the “boom, clamp” is what they hope gets the public’s attention, and it probably will. It also tries to put the song in touch with the Rick Rubin era of Johnny Cash’s output, though more loosely approximated as opposed to dead on accurate in approach and understanding.
“God’s Country” feels inspired, yet its verses begin to feel familiar, list-like, and self-affirming in almost an indulgent manner as the song progresses, however poetically composed they may be, and powerfully delivered by a clearly impassioned Blake Shelton they are. We’ve heard these same sort of bombastic proclamations many times before. Jason Aldean specializes in this kind of canonizing of rural life, if he’s not out there chasing whatever radio trend is hot out there himself.
But judged among its peers and the patterns that Blake Shelton has carved for himself in now nearly 20 years of releasing music, “God’s Country” is unexpected, expressive, passion-filled, and hard not to feel the power of. It won’t be interesting enough to assuage Johnny Cash hipsters to pay attention to commercial radio or have traditional country fans come around on the Blake Shelton legacy, but it makes for a good conversation piece. Debut singles from new projects come with the primary purpose of training attention back on a performer before they unleash a full boat of songs. It’s hard to see “God’s Country” not accomplishing this, especially since it’s already being quickly adopted by both consumers and radio. Meanwhile it won’t be offensive enough to draw active outrage from country music’s independent thinkers like some of Shelton’s previous efforts.