Over the last week there have been two albums everyone in country music has been abuzz about: Eric Church’s surprise new album Mr. Misunderstood and Chris Stapleton’s award-winning Traveller. It’s completely understandable and justified why these two albums are getting so much attention. But when you’re done paying attention to these records, don’t overlook the brand new album from Tim McGraw, Damn Country Music. In the late 2000s, McGraw was embattled in a dispute with his now former label Curb Records and as a result went a while without releasing new music. Finally he was able to move on and join Big Machine Records, which despite having a lot of artists who chase trends, allows more creative freedom for their artists (Maddie & Tae and The Mavericks being great examples). The first album he released under them though, Two Lanes of Freedom, wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Many thought it might have been best that Curb was preventing him from releasing music.
This was followed by Sundown Heaven Town, with its lead single being “Lookin’ For That Girl,” which is widely regarded as McGraw’s worst single ever. Then McGraw surprised many when Sundown Heaven Town turned out to be a really solid album. He then followed this up with three really good single choices in “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” “Shotgun Rider” and “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools.” All performed well at country radio and many started regarding McGraw as one of the few artists who can regularly bring substance to a country radio climate desperately needing it. In other words, it was a return to what made many enjoy McGraw’s work in the first place. Despite an interesting lead single choice, I was definitely intrigued in what McGraw would bring to the table with his new album Damn Country Music. And as I said up top, you don’t want to overlook this album because it’s pretty good.
This album has a lot of interesting sounds through it, some expected and some unexpected. Well it starts off with the unexpected in “Here Tonight.” It’s a Celtic-folk influenced song where McGraw is joined by his oldest daughter, Gracie McGraw. The theme of the song is living for the moment and enjoying whom you have in your life. It’s an all-around solid song that immediately draws you into the album. This is followed by “Losin’ You,” which is a weird combination of steel guitar and palpable electronic influences. You’re probably expecting me to tear the production on this song apart, but I have to say it grows on you after a while. Still it’s just too loud at points and brings the song down. The songwriting isn’t half bad, but this song just has too many things going on to really get into it.
“How I’ll Always Be” is McGraw’s personal anthem of how he’ll always be country and he has no plans of changing. He’s a fan of the simple life and many country things. The line that best exemplifies this is when McGraw sings, “I’m a little more old Hank Williams than that trendy crap.” The song is a tad cliché, but I feel like this is McGraw’s message to everyone that he has no plans of going back to appealing to trends like when he released “Lookin’ For That Girl” and plans on just being himself. It feels honest, authentic and I think many will feel this when they hear it. The album’s title track is a love letter to country music and how a country song can be so impactful on your life. The steel guitar is present throughout the song and McGraw’s vocals sound great. Once again it’s a reassuring message that McGraw loves country music and putting his money where his mouth is. I see this as a strong contender to be released as a single to radio.
The slightly electronic-influenced “Love Runs” is next. This sounds like your classic Tim McGraw song. Written by Andrew Dorff, Brad Warren and Brett Warren, this is the kind of love song that has made McGraw many fans over the years and will continue to make him new fans. This song just fits him and really is a good fit on country radio in 2015, perfectly balancing between a country sound and a sound that will attract radio listeners. This is one of the highlights of the album and I’ll be surprised if it isn’t a single. “What You’re Lookin’ For” is a heartbreak song about a man realizing his woman has grown tired of him and wants to leave. So he encourages her to walk out the door and go find what she’s looking for instead of continuing something that is clearly over. It’s a mature take from a veteran artist on the standard heartbreak song and something younger artists need to take a cue from. Once again the steel guitar is present throughout, but there’s also some noticeable electronic elements. McGraw balances this just enough to make it sound good and proves this to be another solid song on the album. Damn Country Music’s lead single “Top of the World” follows this. In my initial review of “Top of the World,” I was quite critical of this song. While I’m still not fond of the opening of the song, the song overall has grown on me and while I still wouldn’t call it a good song, it’s not a bad song either. It’s a decent song that is better than most at radio.
The deepest song on the album and the best on it is “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home.” The song is about a man who is having an affair because he feels lonely at home. He’s meeting this woman at a hotel to regain a sense of love and passion again, something that has been missing in his life. The man contemplates whether or not this is right or wrong, basically leaving it up to the listener to decide. A big credit has to be given to the songwriters of “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home,” L. David Lewis and Kim Williams. They craft a brilliant story full of emotion and making the listener think as they hear it, a mark of a truly great song. McGraw tackles love again in “Want You Back.” It’s a mid-tempo ballad written by Ashley Gorley, Hillary Lindsey and Rodney Clawson, a troika that has written many hits. I think they wrote another one in “Want You Back,” as it’s another song I could see doing well at radio. It’s catchy, solidly written and has enough steel guitar for many country fans to appreciate. This is one of the more under-the-radar songs of the album, but it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Big & Rich join Tim McGraw on “California.” This isn’t a surprise collaboration, as McGraw appeared on their 2014 album Gravity on the song “Lovin’ Lately” (he was also a co-writer of the song too). Their present isn’t heavy though. The song is about a woman who is in love with moving to California and as a result in love with breaking her man’s heart, something the man is well aware of and has accepted. It’s again a solid heartbreak song from McGraw. McGraw closes the album with “Humble And Kind.” It’s a beautiful song about life advice, but above all you should always be humble and kind. The brilliant Lori McKenna wrote this song and kudos to McGraw for putting this on his album. It’s another example of McGraw having a great eye for well-written songs (remember he recorded Chris Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You” over a decade ago). This is one of the must-listens of the album and a fantastic way to conclude Damn Country Music.
I came in expecting to enjoy Damn Country Music, but not this much. The songwriting on this album went well above my expectations, offering a variety of themes and ranges of depth. Ironically, Tim McGraw did not help write a single song on this entire album. In fact he only helped write one on his previous album and none on the album before it too. Most of the time this indicates bad music, but not with McGraw. He has never been known as a brilliant songwriter and instead has a great eye in terms of picking music from talented songwriters. It appears he has followed my advice, which has always been if you can’t write something good, go find people who can. The instrumentation on here is really good too. Even his dabbling in electronic influences are interesting. I definitely recommend this album and I’m excited to see what singles get released from it, as there are plenty of great choices. Damn Country Music is one of the better mainstream country albums I’ve heard in 2015.
There’s more official audio of the album on McGraw’s YouTube page, which you can find here.