Carrie Underwood's Smoke Break sizzles in dry summer for country music

Carrie Underwood

Hasn’t country music been through enough this summer already?

For the past three months, we’ve had to endure dreck like the Band Perry’s Live Forever, Lee Brice and Bubba Sparxxx’s Girls in Bikinis, Luke Bryan’s Move and even Uncle Ezra Ray’s BYHB, a song that finds Mark McGrath and Uncle Kracker hollering, “B-Y-H-B! Bring your hot body!” like two lecherous dads at a high school pool party.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the overlords of country music have unleashed two of the very worst “country” songs that could possibly be imagined at the tail-end of this frustrating season, thereby ensuring that the degradation of the genre will not go unnoticed by even the most cloth-eared listeners.

Thomas Rhett’s Vacation is the first of these travesties. Remarkably, the song lists a whopping 14 men as co-writers, eight of whom were members or producers of the funk band War, whose famous hit Low Rider the song resembles. (They’re credited because no artist wants a Blurred Lines-sized copyright lawsuit on their hands in 2015.) Even if we remove those guys from the equation, though, that still leaves six men who collectively came up with this dull refrain:

Hey, let’s party like we on vacation.
Hey, let’s party like we on vacation.
I got my toes up in the sand,
Cold one in my hand,
Toes up in the sand,
Cold one in my hand.
Hey, let’s party like we on vacation.

Vacation is little more than a classic bassline dressed up with handclaps and other shiny producer buttons. Rhett talk-raps about working on his tan and sipping coconut water like a wannabe Macklemore, proving yet again that country has turned into a brand that sells escapism to country folk instead of trying to reflect their real lives. Rhett says he’s staying at a Motel 6 and that his beach chair is from Walgreens, but those are thin marketing devices used to make this song seem more low-class than it is. I’m willing to bet that when Rhett met with Ricky Reed and Axident, the LA production team behind Jason Derulo’s Wiggle, to record this song, he wasn’t spending the night in a motel. The video, which finds Rhett skydiving in Hawaii, makes the song’s urbane underbelly much more clear.

And then we have Danielle Bradbery’s Friend Zone, a song somehow even more devoid of wit than Vacation. Bradbery, who won season four of NBC’s The Voice, has never been an especially emotive performer, but her attempt at mimicking Kelsea Ballerini’s cool-girl attitude falls depressingly flat. Lyrically, the song is senseless clash of sports metaphors that never decides whether it’s about football or baseball. “Seconds on the clock, you need a touchdown,” she sings on one line. “There’s never three strikes in love, you know,” she sings on the next.

The half-spoken sass in the post-chorus is the latest example of a budding female star attempting to copy Ke$ha’s famous delivery style, but it seems exceedingly pointless given the song’s bizarre third-party, observational perspective. It’s all just a mess, and somehow this is a lead single for her second album. Introducing an album with Friend Zone is akin to M Night Shyamalan introducing his entire filmography with The Happening. (Actually, now that I think about it, Shyamalan provides a convenient metaphor for country music: both his reputation and country music’s have steadily been met with more eye rolls than admiration in recent years.)

The rapidly morphing sound of country, which is suddenly and wholeheartedly embracing pop and hip-hop trends that the genre once only flirted with, has been the narrative of summer 2015. As such, it’s easy to forget how much great country music has been released in the past few months. Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material, Chris Stapleton’s Traveler, Lindi Ortega’s Faded Gloryville, Kip Moore’s Wild Ones, Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol and Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free have all been gems of the genre – providing substance, feeling, authentic instrumentation and indeed songs written without the help of committees to the country landscape.

Among all the great music we’ve been treated to this summer, no song has carried more significance than Carrie Underwood’s excellent new single Smoke Break. Here we have an A-list star releasing an unabashed country-rock song that isn’t trying to chase any sonic trends, but one that nonetheless pushes Underwood outside the sentimental ballad mould that many have come to expect from her. Smoke Break tells the simple story of hardworking people who need a moment of respite from their own difficult lives. “She’s a small-town hardworking woman just trying to make a living,” Underwood begins. “Working three jobs, feeding four little mouths/ In a rundown kitchen.” In the second verse, Underwood shifts her focus to a humble fellow trying to make something of himself. She says plainly: “It’s hard to be a good man, a good son/ Do something good that matters.”

Smoke Break thrives on empathy, not escapism. The characters in Underwood’s song aren’t drinking and smoking out of some cheap desire to prove their country cred or get wasted in a cornfield. They’re doing so in order to ease their minds for a moment, and Underwood sympathizes with them, saying: “I understand if you wanna take a load off.” (Some discussions have suggested that Underwood is promoting tobacco use, but that’s a thin read of the line “I don’t smoke, but sometimes I need a long drag,” which celebrates the idea of rest more than it does tobacco. Tellingly, the music video features no shots of anyone smoking or drinking.)

She’s not laying back in her shades and getting stoned, she’s not kicking the dust up with a jar full of “clear”, and she’s not waking up the neighbors ’til the whole block hates her. She’s just singing about real life, and sometimes that’s enough.

In the past year, Carrie Underwood has emerged as the leader of country music. Her songs appealingly balance the flourishes of modern mainstream production with the traditional sonic hallmarks of the genre, and she delivers them with soaring vocal prowess and bold perspective. Something in the Water didn’t use church as a mere buzzword on the country checklist – it told a sincere tale of baptism. Little Toy Guns didn’t turn marital strife into a subject matter for a woman-scorned revenge song – it explored the way it can hurt those privy to all the arguing. Smoke Break, similarly, doesn’t take the path of least resistance. It thinks deeply about regular people and the hardships they might be facing, and in a genre that seems dead-set on imagining its listeners as gullible, shallow party-bots, that feels refreshingly smart and bold.

Powered by article was written by Grady Smith, for on Tuesday 1st September 2015 20.55 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010