Some question why Saving Country Music expends so much effort on reviewing radio singles. It’s because radio is the last primary holdout in the effort to save country music. Maybe the war hasn’t been won, but significant ground has been re-taken all across the country landscape. And it’s not just about songs or artists that some think are better based on personal taste, but measurable gains in songs and artists universally recognized for being more honest, and more real than what took hold on country music at the height of Bro-Country a couple of years ago.
Yet radio remains the last bastion of the industry’s stranglehold on creativity. Perhaps radio is a lost cause, or eventually will implode to the point where it’s no longer relevant enough to even worry about. Some like to fancy that we’ve reached that point already, but the numbers paint a different story. So until that day radio is deemed irrelevant, it still represents what country music is to millions of people. And under the principle that everyone has a right to good music, it’s worth being concerned about.
An artist like Chris Stapleton may have conquered every other sector of country music, but radio remains elusive to him and others, partly because when Stapleton made his record, he didn’t have radio in mind. Stapleton knows how to win over radio, because he did it with singles he wrote for others that went on to become big radio hits. But once radio programmers have soured on a name, it’s virtually impossible to fall back into favor and find traction on the format. That’s pretty much it for your radio career. Ask Kacey Musgraves.
Yet for Tim McGraw, however he’s managed it, whatever strings Big Machine has pulled, he hasn’t just found some success on radio despite pushing 50 years of age, and his career now spanning a quarter century, he’s downright mastered it. At this point McGraw can release darn near whatever he wants, and despite the worst songs of most mainstream albums constituting its most successful singles, for McGraw, it’s the exact opposite. He’s almost flaunting his radio freedom in people’s faces now. In fact his most commercial-oriented singles, “Truck Yeah” and “Lookin’ for That Girl,” have been his poorest performing. They’re the only two singles he’s released out of the last ten that haven’t cracked the Top 5 at radio.
If “Humble and Kind” had no business on country radio (yet it ended up at #1), then “How I’ll Always Be” is a downright coup d’état. It’s not the lyrics of the song that make it a marvel of modern American country radio. Aside from dropping the name of Hank Williams and referring to the current sound of country as “trendy crap,” the words are just rhyming affirmations of how country someone is, which is a tired approach to songwriting, even if this one is a bit more enhanced by the effervescent appreciation for all things rural instead of chest-thumping attitude-laden blowharding about how badass the country is.
It’s the music of “How I’ll Always Be” that makes it so unique and welcome for mainstream country radio. It’s brushes on snare drum, steel guitar, acoustic guitar, a tasteful guitar solo 3/4’s of the way through (remember those?), and a little melodic run presented at the beginning of the song that’s recalled again at the end like a memory. Now that’s composition. Parts of “How I’ll Always Be” are just snare brushes and the ringing of a bass guitar tone.
There are tons of songs that are better than “How I’ll Always Be,” but none of them are on the radio. Yet “How I’ll Always Be” is, and few, if any songs of the radio are better than it. It will be interesting to see where the song ends up, but it’s another single release with guts, gall, and confidence from Tim McGraw that his track record with recent singles necessitates strong consideration by radio, and that his songs rise above the crappy trends that dictate song rotations.
Who would have thought years ago that Tim McGraw would be a piece, however minor, in the effort to return country music to how it’s always been, and how it always should be?