Music

Country Grammar: RaeLynn Tramples Pop Country Assumptions On ‘WildHorse’

Country Grammar is a recurring monthly column about country music. The purpose of this column will be to analyze and demystify country releases, large or small, and help halt the notion that Country music is somehow less deserving of introspective analysis than rock, rap, or pop. It will highlight the great moments, and occasionally, dig deep into the bad ones, but the goal is always to bring more attention to a genre that is far too often swept under the rug due to class assumptions or music criticism’s clear rockist past.

If you’re like me, hearing about the TV show The Voice instinctively produces an inadvertent wince. It’s okay, I’ll wait. Got it over with? Good. Sure, American Idol gave us Kelly Clarkson, and a few other relatively successful artists made their way through that grueling circuit, but mostly those talent shows are associated with middling skill and tryhard antics. So if you’re tempted to write RaeLynn off because of her stint on The Voice, that’s understandable. But it’s also, in this case, completely wrongheaded.

Keep in mind, country music’s biggest female star, Miranda Lambert, also got her start on a country talent show, Nashville Star. And remember, when RaeLynn auditioned on The Voice in 2012 she rendered a Miranda-helmed song, “Hell On Heels,” with such sugared ferocity that Miranda’s then-husband turned his chair the f*ck around. Do you know how self-assured and brave you have to be to cover a man’s own wife? In case you — ever busy millennial that you are — missed it:

(In case you further missed the all-female trio the Pistol Annies, made up of Miranda, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, they have two albums and both are fire straight through.)

For a genre that still refers to women as tomatoes garnishing the salad of men, routinely stalls out female careers for years, remains largely conservative about gender roles (among other things), and systematically refuses to play women on the radio, an alternative route is success is all but required. Enter TV, a tried and true way to spot star power when it’s there. Funny enough, neither Miranda or RaeLynn were winners on the TV shows they appeared on. But the exposure was enough to get the right people interested, and catapult these two into full-fledged country label deals, the latter’s fueled in part by the pooled resources of Blake and Miranda.

Those of you who spent any time with Shelton’s 2014 record Bringing Back The Sunshine (I did, I was going through a horrible breakup and badly needed his country-sleaze-lite to survive) will find RaeLynn’s curlicues of harmonies sound familiar from “Buzzin,” (which has a surprisingly “feminist” video, below) and as part of the Pistol Annies crew threading backing vocals through “Boys ‘Round Here” off Blake’s 2013 record Based On A True Story (No 2 Chainz connection here, sadly). That’s what The Voice can do for you — RaeLynn went from covering the Annies to working with them.

After she was eliminated, RaeLynn became the first artist off The Voice to ever chart on Billboard, hitting the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles with a song called “Boyfriend” about wanting another woman’s man, but being too sweet to make a move. It’s the typical My Best Friend’s Wedding trope, but the song ends up being more about the relationship between the two women than the guy at all, a clever songwriting move, particularly for such a young artist. However, it was with a couple of early songs about the dynamics between men and women that the young artist went a bit astray. Her biggest hit to date is a song called “God Made Girls” that’s an achingly awful distillation of a few reasons women exist: They were whisked up by God’s hand to fulfill a multitude of tasks and functions that revolve around men.

While this may have pleased some of the aforementioned Conservative players in the country genre, it also evoked a backlash as an anti-feminist song. Make no mistake, it certainly is, but it was also a co-write with some of country’s greatest working songwriters: Liz Rose and Lori McKenna among them. So the rainstorm of criticism came, and RaeLynn’s momentum was temporarily stalled.

This gets at the crux of what female artists face everywhere, but particularly in country: How to please both the feminists and the staunch traditionalists? In many ways, this song was a breakthrough for female artists in the genre, it at least centered a female subject, and surely a lot of women enjoy participating in the activities with men she lists here. But the framing makes the subject’s raison d’être center entirely around providing a foil for a man, a hard pill for most self-sufficient women to swallow in 2017. And a lot of those women are listening to country, too. But so are the women who find this song to be an empowering narrative of their actual goals as wives and partners. So how to split the difference between those two, especially given it’s the majority of the latter group who identify as country fans? That was the riddle RaeLynn — and truthfully, any emerging female country artists — had to solve.

RaeLynn was 20 when that song came out in 2014, followed quickly by the EP Me in 2015 that was similarly hung up on songs about boys, but a couple years later, she’s 23 and seems to have puzzled it out. There’s almost no trace of that rhetoric on her debut full-length WildHorse. Instead, a firm sense of self-worth and strong-willed feminism comes through, even the title track hearkens back to Carrie Bradshaw’s own oft-repeated, earnest beyond belief metaphor: “Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they just need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with them.” On this album, RaeLynn has learned to harness all the pop-country stereotypes and gallop them right off the ranch. Platinum blonde hasn’t been this clever and frisky since, well, Miranda Lambert’s Platinum (Also a classic).

For RaeLynn, WildHorse is a statement of intent. She won’t be hanging on the bubbling under chart anymore. She won’t be making headlines for a Jezebel evisceration or a talent show clip. The purpose of WildHorse is to establish RaeLynn as a country artist who stacks up right alongside the other young women who are currently dominating the genre. Country is still experiencing a Taylor Swift-sized vacuum, and though others have been emerging, her lane is kind of wide open. The success of Kelsea Ballerini, Cam, and Maren Morris only opens this lane wider, and RaeLynn is poised to become a household name off the strength of this record alone. It’s a classic.

She co-wrote eleven out of twelve songs here, and the only one she didn’t have a hand in, “The Apple,” a thinly veiled song of pained regret about lost virginity, is the only one that’s skippable. The rest are pure gold, overlaid with shimmering dream pop harmonies, inky Jack’s Mannequin keyboards, rowdy electric guitar solos, and the kind of choruses that are meant to be doodled across notebooks. It is not traditional, old-fashioned country like Kacey Musgraves and her fans favor, it’s decidedly pop country, yes. But it tramples whatever low expectations you may have associated with that phrase thus far.

There is that requisite female independence anthem, the title track, which would make Carrie Bradshaw proud if she was ever open-minded enough to play pop-country on the radio in the car with Big, but it’s RaeLynn’s deeper cuts that prover her staying power. Strangely (or not), the thrust of “WildHorse” is just about as opposite from “God Made Girls” as you could possibly get — growth or contradiction? Sometimes they’re one and the same. Then there’s “Love Triangle,” the strongest track here and a completely original angle. Succinct and sharply sweet, it’s the tangled story of a child caught between two divorced parents, a flip of a romantic term into a familial one that is both searing and comforting.

“Lonely Call” traces the devolution of being someone’s first, treasured call down to becoming a lonely ex’s drunk dial, and her defiant refrain “Let it ring / I ain’t your lonely call” is a far cry from the resignation to toxic breakup cycles you’ll often hear populating the radio; it’s self-respect in the midst of pain, a hard theme to make resonate in under four minutes, but RaeLynn does it. Despite the strength of these two, perhaps the most obvious indicator of her growth comes on the lyrics to “Young,” the flipside to the inherent, cloying regret of “The Apple”:

“I’ll live while I’m young / I’ll forgive while I’m young / Yeah, the best is yet to come / So I’ll live while I’m young.” Instead of preaching a willfully sheltered stance, this song basks in the glory of living in the moment without fear or guilt. Leeland Mooring guests here, but you barely notice him. Meantime, I’ve barely even gotten to “Graveyard,” the gritty litany for a heart deaded by a careless lover that’s the best death-and-love country song I’ve heard since “Better Dig Two” put The Band Perry on the map, “Insecure,” rebuke against needlessly competing with other women, and “Diamonds,” a song with the anti-ring-by-spring wordplay of “a diamond’s just a diamond until you put it on the right left hand.”

Three wildly different songs, each pulled off effortlessly with RaeLynn’s throaty and girly Texan drawl that some (male) writers cite as unappealing. Critics called Jennifer Nettles’ voice grating when Sugarland first came out too, and look how that turned out. (2 Grammys, 5 ACMAs, 6 CMAs, 4 CMTs, etc) And when RaeLynn stops trying to please everyone and just tells her story — the struggle of a small town Texas girl trying to withstand life’s storms — like she does on the final track “Praying For Rain,” she sounds just as classic as Dolly or Loretta ever did. Except, she’s got what sounds like Enya vocals and production thrown in. If you were raised on both like I was, like RaeLynn was, how could you possibly argue that’s a bad thing?

Overall, RaeLynn’s ability to carry an entire album is so effortless that you don’t even notice it until the penultimate song on the record, when Dan + Shay show up (think millennial Rascal Flatts), and you realize there’s no risk of them stealing the show. In fact, like Leeland before, they can barely hold a candle to her. Which is probably the right note to end on: Half of the women trying to make country music right now are heads and shoulders above their male peers talent-wise, yet it’s the men who are landing deal after deal and radio hit after radio hit. These songs don’t honor the perspective of women, and often don’t even include them beyond sex objects, but they face no backlash.

So if it takes a reality TV show, and if it takes a a couple stereotypically feminine songs that reinforce gender roles while still uplifting a female perspective at the center of a track written entirely by women, to get an album as good as WildHorse out into the world, then to me, it’s worth the trouble. Let RaeLynn run wild, and see what happens next. And remember, rain makes the flowers grow.

WildHorse is out now via Warner Music Nashville. Get it here.

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