Apr 22, 2024, 06:24AM

As the Album Sprawls, ERNEST Delivers

He delivers flowers, but also great commercial country music for this moment.

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I'm tempted, but I won’t condemn the pervasive tendency to issue 30-cut albums. Even if various critics were a little put out by having to listen to the whole release by Friday night so they could review The Tortured Poets Department on Saturday, no Swiftie was unhappy about the unexpected length. If you like the artist, you're happy that Morgan Wallen, or HARDY, or Beyoncé is putting out lots of music, all at once, like Netflix dropping an entire series.

On the other hand, the 30-cutter is kind of intimidating: it took me a few weeks to work up the time and focus to listen last year to Wallen's One Thing at a Time. By the time I did, HARDY's The Mockingbird and the Crow was out (as well as a number of his sprawling collaborative Hix Tapes); then I had approximately 60 new songs to sort through. I favor car listening and think of album lengths in terms of drivetime: Wallen and HARDY started to demand that I drive to St. Louis or something. Keep going like this, and I'll run out of continent.

The 30-cut album comes in part out of changes in the way music is produced. High-level production is far easier and less expensive than it was 30 years ago. The tracks for The Tortured Poets Department were assembled by Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, no doubt consulting every moment with Taylor. But when Antonoff produces a song, he doesn't have to call in session players and work on mic-ing up the drum kit just so: he just types into a keyboard, I believe, and an instrumental track appears. The “drums” come out any way he pleases, though I'm sure it's work. Meanwhile, Nashville has generated a round-robin technique for writing many songs quickly: collaborators gather in a hotel room, a bus, a rehearsal space or on Zoom and churn them out, audio files flying back and forth from phone to phone. Writing 30 songs in a year isn’t only possible; it's fun, I bet.

All this by way of recommending ERNEST's new album Nashville, Tennessee, though it checks in at 26 cuts, an hour and a half. It's taken me a week to review it. I have other stuff I'm trying to do. But I'm glad I finally got to it: it's a small masterpiece and an excellent summary of where country music is right now, which is, overall, a good place. Now, "masterpiece" probably means something different on the 30-cutter: there are bound to be some throwaways. You didn't edit it down as savagely as you would’ve if you had to get it to 12 for the vinyl LP. You were happy to leave in a few throwaways or digressions, a few experiments or moments of genre-bending.

I'll admit that it's taken me some time to adjust to the all-caps mononym, as in HARDY and ERNEST, who do seem to be associated with one another and also with Morgan Wallen. The group of them amount to a single factory of hits, and often feature on one another's records. They've got a formula: mostly traditional country, but with many aspects that signal “contemporary”: a rapped verse, a touch of autotune on the vocal. They’re rowdy party boys and sing about whiskey all the time. Wallen is liable to be in rehab again as we speak. But they’re also hopeless romantics with terrible relationship issues.

And they've brought country back from the brink and into some sort of new golden period.

ERNEST and the massive star Jelly Roll, I gather, grew up as contemporaries in Nashville, but on different sides of the track (however, they say they "met at a party over big bags of weed"), and the first cut on Nashville, Tennessee is a duet between them: "I Went To College/I Went to Jail." "I was supposed to go four years, but quit after one/I was sentenced to seven, but after four I was done." This is an instant hyper-traditional classic, and reminds me of Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart, circa 1990.

It hits pretty close to home, too: in 1976, I went to the University of Maryland for English Lit, and my brother Jim went to the state penitentiary in Hagerstown for armed robbery. "Who came out on top? Well, it's hard to tell." ERNEST burned all his books when he got out, he says, but Jelly Roll stayed up at night reading in his cell.

ERNEST delivers a number of stylistic approaches here, again an advantage of having as many cuts as you like to work with. He hits some big-production 1970s tributes to styles of people like Charlie Pride and Ronnie Milsap ("Ain't As Easy"), pure honky-tonk or outlaw ("Dollar to Cash"), Western Swing ("Why Dallas"), television themes ("Smokin' Gun"), and contemporary bro ("Hangin' On (feat. Morgan Wallen)," e.g.). It makes for a nice set with many changes of pace and mood, funny to heartbroken (the devastating You Don't Have to Die (To Lose Your Life)). He might suggest Willie one moment, Glen Campbell the next, then HARDY. ERNEST obviously venerates the history of country music in a very conscious or even scholarly way (he went to college, after all), and he named his son "Ryman" after the mother church of country music. Ryman sings Twinkle Twinkle on this album. It's sweet.

There are many fine songs on Nashville, Tennessee, including several that I think people will still be listening to in 30 years. These include his collaboration with the great Lainey Wilson "I Would if I Could" (the two previously appeared together on my 2022 top ten), the minor-key Riders in the Sky-style Kiss of Death, or the self-lacerating, lovely Creep (feat. HARDY). There are also, as hinted, a couple of real throwaways, as on "Redneck Shittt": "wait, did HARDY just pull up in a backhoe?" But you can always delete a few from the playlist, leaving by my count a 20-song classic album.

Okay! 26 cuts. We made it. Now for Taylor...

Crispin Sartwell's podcast Crisper Roots reviews two underknown country or blues albums each week.


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