The Case of ERNEST’s Fiercely Traditional Single “Flower Shops”

Many independent country music fans and Americana nerds will never admit to it, but the simple fact is that mainstream country music has been on a painfully slow, but palpable improvement track since about 2015 when Bro-Country hit its peak. That definitely doesn’t mean it’s now safe to pipe up the local mainstream country radio station or tune into the CMA Awards, or that artists like Walker Hayes or Niko Moon still don’t find one-off success with sincerely awful songs. This assessment of mainstream country’s improvement is from a more broad based perspective, and starting from a low bar. But, that improvement is real.

Here in 2022, some of the top songs so far are underscoring how this trend could elongate, or even accelerate in the new year. Michael Ray’s song “Whiskey and Rain” is his first multi-week #1. And though the song is not something to get too excited about, and took a record 65 weeks to ascend to #1, it does live up to a pledge Michael Ray made for his music to be “more country”—a promise his ex-wife Carly Peace also made, and has stuck to as well. Pearce’s current single, the very country “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” with Ashley McBryde has now cracked the Top 20 itself (#18), and will likely be etching its own #1 in the next few months.

Michael Ray’s “Whiskey and Rain” was replaced at #1 this week by a song from Jordan Davis called “Buy Dirt” featuring Luke Bryan. Yes, a lot of “featuring” going on in today’s country. “Buy Dirt” is probably not in the same league as “Whiskey and Rain,” or “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” but the song is surprisingly understated and well-written, aside from the obvious packing of buzzwords you see with many country radio singles. Really, it’s the personnel on the song that many actual country country fans will find problematic, a.k.a country music’s Gomer Pyle with yet another generic male with a snazzy haircut scoring another radio #1. Still, this is a far cry from Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” or Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad.”

And this “more country” trend isn’t just resigned to radio. Many folks were veritably floored to hear the new song from Kane Brown called “Whiskey Sour.” Kane came up singing traditional country covers from guys like George Strait and Randy Travis, and we always knew he had it in him. Kane’s even shown some flashes of that on his albums. It’s just not what makes it to radio. “Whiskey Sour” is not a new radio single, at least not yet. But simply releasing it as a digital track, the song shot up to #28 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs its first week. “Whiskey Sour” doesn’t just validate that Kane Brown can sing actual country when he wants to. It also validates that people love it when he does.

And that is part of the major appeal behind the big new single from Big Loud artist ERNEST (yes, one word, all capitalized). Called “Flower Shops,” it’s written by ERNEST with Ben Burgess and Mark Holman, and was said to be written during a “George Jones/sad country songs kick.” It most certainly sounds that way. The song also features (gulp, writhe, clutch pearls!) … Morgan Wallen singing a verse and some harmonies. This was the song Wallen jumped up on the Grand Ole Opry stage to sing a couple of weeks ago that incensed Twitter.

What is for sure is that by any objective assessment, “Flower Shops” is a fiercely traditional, well-written, bonafide country music classic crooning tearjerker that could have been penned by Hank Cochran or Harlan Howard 50 years ago. It’s not your dad’s country music, it’s your grandad’s country music. There’s no “modern sensibilities” to suffer through here, no rolling off or ratcheting down the twang. “Flower Shops” is steel guitar mimicking the cry of the heart, and a classic narrative set to three chords and the truth. “Flower Shops” is extremely country. If it was released in 1972, it would have shot up the charts straight to #1. The crazy thing is, here we are in 2022, and it’s still shooting up the charts straight to #1.

Even more remarkable than “Flower Shops” getting past the Music Row gatekeepers to even make it as a legitimate radio single is how well it’s faring already. The song was the 2nd most added on country radio last week, and debuted at #44. And this was all before it had even been officially released to radio. This week is its first true week, and it’s the #1 added song, and is already in the Top 30. As country music chart expert Chris Owen says of the single, it’s “One of the best starts we have ever seen for a debut single at country radio.” The song has also already made it into the Top 20 on the consumption-based Billboard Hot Country Song chart.

We all need to take a second and appreciate what exactly is happening here. “Flower Shops” will go #1, and will probably stay there for multiple weeks. And when it does, it will be the most traditional-sounding #1 country song in maybe 10, maybe 15 years? Maybe longer? What even competes? Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication” from 2019? Lainey Wilson’s “Things a Man Oughta Know” from 2021? Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem” may be another good candidate, but it never hit #1. These were all groundbreaking traditional country singles that helped set the table for “Flower Shops,” but as traditional as these singles were, they’re still nowhere near “Flower Shops.” Neither are some of George Strait’s final #1’s like “River of Love” and “I Saw God” from the late oughts.

And though some will claim it’s simply a symptom of slapping Morgan Wallen’s name on something and watching it shoot to the top, that doesn’t really feel like the full story of what’s happening here. Of course Wallen’s presence is helping, and probably to a large degree, as did the media’s outrage cycle over the song’s performance on the Grand Ole Opry. Like Jason Aldean’s wife selling T-shirts on her Instagram account that Rolling Stone and The Washington Post have both written multiple articles about trying to shame her and her husband into silence, savvy folks are now starting to monetize the media’s overplayed and predictable outrage.

But just like with Kane Brown’s “Whiskey Sour,” there is an organic appeal with “Flower Shops” and its distinctly classic sound. It truly feels like once fans get a whiff of actual country music, lo and behold, they really like what they hear. And sure, traditional country or no, “Flower Shops” is kind of corny. But so is much of classic country. The song’s innocence and simplicity is part of its appeal.

Still, the worst part about “Flower Shops” is who is involved. Morgan Wallen has proven himself time and time again to be a turd. And though he should be afforded a path to forgiveness for past trespasses the same as anyone—and the media continuing lie about him has only won him strange allies with many country fans who wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead listening to his tractor rap music—Morgan Wallen’s actions have put country music in the cross hairs, and he deserves ire both for his music, and his actions. ERNEST is no country savior himself. He claims to be equal parts a hip-hop artist and a country one, and his name is on some truly terrible songs.

It’s confounding, and somewhat annoying that such as good song that is finding such positive, and potentially historical traction for a traditional country song in the modern era is tied to to these two knuckleheads. But too often in music we focus too much on the artist, and not the song. We would be hypocrites if we complained about how mainstream country doesn’t sound country anymore, and didn’t acknowledge the serious importance a song like “Flower Shops” can have on the country music marketplace.

Sometimes big songs like this can be outliers, and sometimes they can spark sea changes or outright revolutions in country music. Music Row is a copycat campus, and whatever works, everyone else rushes to mimic. When “Flower Shops” becomes a monster hit—and it will—it very well could spawn more traditional country songs being released as singles. And in truth, “Flower Shops” is simply responding to the “more country” trend that is already sweeping mainstream country, born off the success of artists such as Luke Combs and Lainey Wilson, and songs like “Heartache Medication” and “Things a Man Oughta Know,” and the overall trend in music for people to seek out more old music than new music.

And with artists like Carly Pearce and Lainey Wilson rising in stature, Kane Brown and even Maren Morris out there making statements that their next albums will move away from pop and be more country, 2022 could be full of some welcome surprises. And instead of standing in the way, or poo pooing stuff simply because of who recorded it or where it came from, a song like “Flower Shops” is the stuff we should be encouraging more of.

Yes, Morgan Wallen said a very bad word, and his behavior before that was also disappointing. But his actions don’t speak for ERNEST, “Flower Shops” or its co-writers, or country music at large. The most discriminated against subset of country musicians in the last 15 years has been those that had the audacity to play actual country music. If the success of “Flower Shops” and other songs can help change that paradigm, I don’t see why we shouldn’t bust out the watering cans, and watch it grow.

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