Like many of us on the European side of the Atlantic, I didn’t grow up on country music. I wasn’t surrounded by it, hearing it on the radio, in the car, on the music channels. I had to discover it, and that was around 2009 with acts like Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum and Sugarland.
What I like immediately about Blue Roses, the debut album by trio Runaway June, is how it reminds me of that kind of country:the kind that hadn’t left 90s country in its dust quite yet, the kind that still felt the power of the fiddle and mandolin, the kind that rarely went five minutes without a surfacing guitar solo.
As the incredibly popular, less-than-affectionately-titled “bro country” phase seems to have had its day (feverishly debated as either the bastardisation of our favourite genre or the most effective way of bringing country to the masses since Garth Brooks and Shania Twain), there seems to be a welcome appetite for songs just as fun, yet ones that make a more presented effort to avoid being described as vapid. Enter, Runaway June.
‘Buy My Own Drinks’, the trio’s biggest hit so far, is officially in the top 20 country airplay songs, and rising. It’s a glass vitrine for their stellar wit, their strong female persona and their power as songwriters. Josh Kear (‘Before He Cheats’, ‘Need You Now’) and Hillary Lindsey (‘Jesus Take The Wheel’, ‘Girl Crush’) help out here, top of the stack of the album’s rich writer pedigree. What’s pleasantly surprising is that some of the album’s best tunes are ones they had a hand in writing. This, as we know, is the key to longevity. Even in a genre like country where legacy acts can make the charts, it doesn’t last forever in the majority of cases. Eventually you must fall back on the skill that is never out of style: great songwriting.
Check ‘Head Over Heels’ for example; it’s a great lyric, and boy, do they know their way around a syllable. “These ain’tmy lace-up, late-night, black leather shoes… these ain’t my you-get-drunk, call-me-up, and head over heels”. It takes a well-known metaphor and builds a literal narrative from it, and that’s an impressive technique that can make a hit song. Many of the best writers can do it.
Minor gripes occur. Sure, ‘We Were Rich’ could be reckoned insincere, given the act’s established background. And sure,the impeccable chorus of ‘I Am Too’ could have been handled with a bit more grace and subtlety on the production front. The latter is a brilliant-cut diamond that would have fared better in the rough, and it would only take an acoustic version with a rustic single-mic set up and a heavier harmony to show the songs brilliance more clearly.
Regardless, it’s one of the album’s best moments. It’s impossible to keep your mouth closed once you catch the lyric: “too far to walk, too far to dare to drive”. That alliteration is addictive.
The title track offers that killer traditional flavour, and I’m glad Runaway June have decided to present that side of their repertoire. They sound capably folky, like Home era Dixie Chicks, albeit with deemphasised harmonies – as we all know, that album won four Grammys and is hailed as one of the greatest of all time. The album’s template manages to cover many bases in a traditional 10 song, 32-minute run length. They add fresh spin on familiar topics and attach themselves to your brain with the more rudimentary country pop tracks, comprising acoustic guitar licks and a healthy dose of slide.