Looking back on it now, it’s probably our own fault for thinking Dustin Lynch could be one of the good guys. You see him with his strong jaw, refusing to ditch the cowboy hat despite what the Music Row image consultants tell him, and you just hope he could be one of the brave few to make it out of the other side of the sausage factory with a little bit of his dignity still in tact. His first single “Cowboys and Angels” back in 2012 had us all impressed, and singing his praises. He was the William Michael Morgan of his time.
But then Lynch chased “Cowboys and Angels” with “She Cranks My Tractor,” and that should have told us all we needed to know from there on out. God bless Brett Beavers who co-wrote the song, but it’s nothing more than a poor man’s version of “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” and that started a fairly awful run of singles from Lynch since then, not excluding last year’s incorrigible “Seein’ Red.”
Now we get this. I just don’t understand how we’re reverting back to Bro-Country and list songs in 2017 after the previous two years saw a slow, but very obvious and significant drawing back from them, even if it meant many were replaced with the sort of Metro-Bro style of Sam Hunt. Even Hunt’s new single “Body Like a Backroad” leans on this list-style of songwriting, and the dropping of ‘s’ on the end of words to aid the delivery of phrases more indicative of hip-hop than country.
“I’m a dirt road, in the headlights. I’m a mama’s boy, I’m a fist fight,” is how “Small Town Boy” starts off. What does this stuff even mean? It’s just nonsensical self-referential, self-ingratiating pap. There’s no point to it except identity politics tied to the demographic country radio is looking to serve, which is primarily people who don’t live on dirt roads, but love to daydream about that lifestyle vicariously through country songs.
Music Row just can’t get off the sauce. In 2016, mentioning dirt roads and tailgates in your song was the first way to get it buried by your publishing house. It was so 2013. Now it’s all the rage again, but we’re still hearing explanations about how it’s the “evolution” of country music. When country got too saturated with Bro-Country, even the label heads were saying that enough’s enough, and challenged people to try and find stronger songwriting. But country music is mistaking a downturn in country radio altogether as a sign that they need to go back to Bro-Country instead of finding a smarter path forward.
Cumulus and iHeartMedia keep having to refinance their massive debt loads, and while every other genre has moved to a system that considers the reality of music streaming and the re-emergence of physical sales, country’s model is still to promote artists through terrestrial radio, and hopefully make their money on touring and 360 deals. This is what a song like “Small Town Boy” is all about. It’s not a “song” for Dustin Lynch to hang his career on, it’s an advertisement for his opening spot of Florida Georgia Line’s “Dig Your Roots” tour which not by accident, is hitting its 2017 stride right as “Small Town Boy” is released to radio. It’s no coincidence that Dustin Lynch releases his most Bro-Country song while he’s on tour with the most Bro-Country act ever.
“Small Town Boy” does have a semblance of a plot one can discern through all the listing in the lyrics. It’s about a small town boy who feels blessed to have a girl that could be anything anywhere, and decides instead to stick it out with him. It’s some respects it’s similar to Lynch’s “Cowboys and Angels” song, but there’s no story, no arc. Go back and listen to a song like Trisha Yearwood’s “Shes In Love With The Boy,” and it’s this song done so much better. And while “Small Town Boy” doesn’t have any obvious electronic elements, the drums are clearly programed instead of played live, and the guitar is incredibly douche-erific adult contemporary/R&B style.
“Small Town Boy” is a song of the past, not of the future. That’s not to say Lynch won’t find any traction with it, because I’m sure the Music Row radio system with gerrymander it to the Top 5 right as Lynch’s appearances on the Florida Georgia Line tour hit their spring stride, and he’s set to release a new album. But this entire system is the reason country is on such shaky ground. The rest of music has moved on, and if country and Dustin Lynch are going to continue to lean on songs like this, they won’t be long for the streaming-based, album-based reality that is seeing the independent side of country continue to gobble up market share, while the mainstream continues to falter by trying to rely on the short-lived successes of the past.