Sunday, March 4, 2012

Country Singles: "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" by Alan Jackson and "Whiskey and You" by Julie Roberts

Two of the best singles currently released to country radio probably, and unfortunately, will not make a dent on the charts: Alan Jackson's "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" and Julie Roberts' "Whiskey and You." I am admittedly more familiar with Jackson's song, but when I heard "Whiskey and You" a couple days ago, I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities between the two. They both are slow ballads, they both are unflinchingly heartbreaking, and they both represent the best of what honest country music can be. Unfortunately, to release songs with those attributes nowadays risks the chance of radio programmers hesitating, or simply refusing, to spin your record. I am all for happy tunes that offer a bit of escapism and make you feel good, but I also think you need a good dose of sadness and reality to balance it out. And put quite simply, heartbreak ain't what's popular.

Written by Jay Knowles and Adam Wright (Jackson's nephew), "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" is a beautifully written ballad on par with some of Jackson's best ballads released to radio, including "Remember When," "Monday Morning Church," and "Sissy's Song." It is certainly his best single since his Good Time album. In the song, the heartbroken narrator tells his ex-lover that he'll be "the SOB" and the "bad guy" if that's what she needs to get over him a little easier. Not much background is given about the relationship, which is a good thing because it makes the song somewhat more ambiguous, a word that can hardly be used to describe most country singles. We don't outright know whose fault the demise of the relationship was, though the willingness of the narrator to take blame may lead one to believe it was the fault of the one he's saying those things to. At the same time, why does he feel the need to take all the blame in order to help her move on? There is something less obvious going on here.

What is abundantly clear is that, no matter the details lacking in the story, the emotional weight of the song is piercing and true, mostly due to a stunning vocal from Jackson; if you didn't know better, listening to him sing this song, you'd be worried about the guy. He is accompanied beautifully by understated production that includes piano and acoustic guitar played gently as if they just might break, and a steel guitar ride that, when paired with Jackson's vocal, will nearly bring a man to tears. The harmonies on the chorus bring it all home:

I will keep all those memories
Of the good times
Yea, they were some good times
So when you think of you and me
They won't even cross your mind

As if I haven't praised Jackson's vocal performance enough, there is a moment in the song where it sounds as if he is on the edge of breaking down. He sings:

If you need me to make your cry
I don't want to but I'll try
So you don't have to love me anymore

The moment is magically rendered in the video (around the 3:20 mark), as Jackson makes split-second eye contact with the camera as he sings, then looks down and away briefly, only to glance back up at the camera as his close-up image fades into an image of his darkened silhouette walking away from the scene of a fair. The moment perfectly captures the resigned and helpless sadness that can pervade the slow dissolution of a long relationship.

"So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" currently sits and #35 on the country singles chart, and Jackson hasn't cracked the top 15 since his Good Time album. Granted, his last few single releases have been less than stellar, but if radio will still play George Strait to number one (even with some sub-par single choices himself; the best single he's released in recent years has been "Living For The Night" from Twang), there is no reason the same can't be said for Jackson.

With "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore," Jackson has surely taken a risk, but at the same time he has released one of the best singles of his enduring and consistent career. And for that, Mr. Jackson deserves accolades galore.

***UPDATE: As of today, June 23rd, the song has reached number 25 on the Billboard country singles chart. Color me a tad surprised. Here's to hoping it keeps climbing.

"Whiskey and You," as interpreted and sung by the gorgeous and underrated Julie Roberts, hits the same authentic and heartbreaking notes as the aforementioned Jackson song. Written by Chris Stapleton (former lead singer of the ferociously talented modern bluegrass band The Steeldrivers) and Lee Thomas Miller, Roberts' song has many of the same qualities that make Jackson's so affective: a powerful vocal performance, a steel guitar that weeps, and the theme of two people struggling to get over the demise of a relationship. Tim McGraw also sang a version of the song for his Let It Go album, and while it's good on its own merits, Roberts' interpretation conveys more emotional truth. The song starts out with eerie and lonely lyrics:

There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring
And it’s empty so right now I don’t feel a thing
I’ll be hurtin’ when I wake up on the floor
and I’ll be over it by noon
And that’s the difference between whiskey and you

In the second verse, the narrator says "your forgiveness, that's something I can't buy," so we know she at least feels regret for what has transpired. What we are to believe she needs forgiveness for is not spelled out, and it seems too easy to assume she needs it merely because she committed that one wrong that began the downward spiral.

Roberts' strongest -- and most obvious -- asset is her voice. It sounds from a time long past in country music, but without question belongs in today's world. Raspy, twangy, and whiskey-soaked, it is a voice that is wholly unique in today's country music landscape, yet one can detect hints of some of the greats in it: Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline. Just listen to the way she sings the word "bitter" in the chorus:

One's the devil and one keeps driving me insane
At times I wonder if they ain't both the same
But one's a liar that helps her hide me from my pain
One's a long long bitter truth
And that's the difference between whiskey and you

In the context of the song, it feels wrong to call the way she sings the word "sexy," but I can think of no other descriptor. (Heartbreak can be sexy, right?) That is simply the nature of her voice, and in a song of such emotional devastation, it does not get in the way, which is something to be admired.

Best known for "Break Down Here," a monster of a single which peaked on the country singles chart at #18 in 2004, Roberts' chart success has been virtually nonexistent since then. While she hasn't had as much success as her on the charts, and certainly hasn't had a mammoth crossover single like her, radio's reluctance to play Roberts reminds in myriad ways of their recent reluctance to play LeeAnn Womack and her more traditional single output. Unfortunately, I doubt "Whiskey and You" will rectify such an omission. I can't remember the last sad song about whiskey I heard on the radio.

I am not so cynical as a lot of country music fans when it comes to country radio -- there is some good stuff that gets played and there is some utter crap -- and I've long ago learned how to appreciate an otherwise stupid song superficially. I'm the first one to admit that peoples' tastes in music are wholly subjective. Everyone loves something, everyone thinks something sucks, and everyone thinks they are right. But it is a true shame that songs like "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" and "Whiskey and You" have such a small chance at reaching a wider audience with the help of radio. There should be room for all forms of country music on country radio, from country-pop to stone cold traditional, from let's-all-get-drunk-and-have-fun party anthems to she-left-me-and-I-feel-like-I-want-to-kill-myself pit of despair songs. Country music is many things nowadays, and whether you like it or not, that's just how it is. But hopefully one day, room will once again be made in the wide spectrum of the country radio landscape for songs like the two I've written about above. Hopefully, country radio once again will make room for sad songs sung by somebody other than the Zac Brown Band (whom I love), or the sad songs churned out by the overproduction factories in Nashville that over-compress and overload on standard instrumentation so that just enough of that real and depressing sting is taken away. That sting is too big a part of country music's heart to simply be forgotten.

If either "So You Don't Have To Love Me Anymore" or "Whiskey and You" have any sort of chart success, it will certainly be a step in the right direction.