Chris Young is a rising country young-gun with a hearty voice and the kind of neo-traditional musical tendencies that we critics love to love. After winning the 2006 season of USA Network’s televised talent show Nashville Star, the Tennessee native’s self-titled debut album rose to #3 on the country albums chart, but produced no hit singles.
“Voices” was the first single released from Young’s sophomore album The Man I Want To Be, but the song—like the two before it—performed disappointingly, peaking in the mid-30s.
Of course, that was in 2008, back before “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)” reversed the singer’s fortunes. That song went all the way to the top of the charts, and with it Young went from irrelevant to irresistible. Seemingly overnight, the 25 year old became one of country music’s leading sex symbols.
Now on the heels of back-to-back chat toppers (the title track from The Man I Want To Be also hit #1), Young’s record label RCA Nashville has decided to roll the dice and re-release “Voices.” Interestingly, the track’s re-release comes in conjunction with a Chris Young Voices EP—a three-song collection that finds him covering John Anderson’s “Swingin’,” Keith Whitley’s “I’m Over You” and Vern Gosdin’s “Chiseled In Stone.” “Voices” itself does not appear on the Voices EP.
The obvious implication here is that the singer is cut from the mold of these three staunchly “country” male vocalists. By tapping into a well of decades-old hits that are likely obscure or unknown to Young’s target audience, RCA is selling his authenticity while pitting him as a counter-point the genre’s more pop-oriented acts. To be sure, we’re unlikely to see Jason Aldean releasing many John Anderson or Vern Gosdin covers.
That Young follows in that esteemed artistic lineage is far from fabrication. Like all three of the artists he covers on the EP, Young’s music is musically conservative and constructed from within a notably mainstream starting point. Outside of “Gettin’ You Home’s” semi-racy imagery, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy or exceptional about Young’s production to date, except for its throwback qualities. In a format where hardly anything actually sounds related to country music’s past, Young provides some context and texture.
“Voices” fits perfectly into that framework. The song sounds like it was culled from a mid-90s country radio playlist, and hits on all of the right lyrical talking points to bring it into sync with the format’s morally simplistic world view—one in which right and wrong can be distilled into a few common-sense nuggets.
Written by Young with veteran songsmiths Chris Tompkins and Craig Wiseman, “Voices” is a mildly pandering affair that delves no deeper into its subject matter than the typical clichés about what constitutes life lived on the right side of the tracks. In the song, Young still hears the voices of his parents and loved ones whispering advice into his now adult ears: Quit that team and you’ll always be a quitter. Say your prayers every night. “Have a few,” but never let yourself get totally sloshed.
These messages are so natural to the mainstream country audience that few listeners will question the validity of their sentiments. But in dispensing these shallow tidbits of morality, Young betrays the authenticity he’s trying to build—and the authenticity that defined much of the music produced by those artists his label is working to tie him to.
Whitley, Anderson and Gosdin all have significant songs in their catalogs of hits that find them recognizing their own faults and suffering the consequences for those shortcomings. With “Voices,” Young embraces none of his own shortcomings or imperfections; instead, he latches on to the genre’s motif of the wisdom of elders as a moral compass.
The problem is that much of what Young is proffering here is a guise. Country music—even modern country radio—prides itself on telling real stories about real people. But real people quit. Real people drink. Real people question faith. “Voices” denounces all of these activities as intrinsically wrong, implying along the way that those voices we hear know what’s better for us than we do.
The truth is that sometimes you have to quit a team, or a job, or a relationship. And Young’s audience knows that the action of quitting doesn’t make you “a quitter for the rest of your life.” Just like they know that going to a bar and getting hammered doesn’t buy you a one-way ticket to the Devil’s living room. And just like they know that everyone questions faith.
But in country music today, there is enormous social pressure to deny or denounce those things—even though we all know them to be true. And when the music does admit those things, it must tie up any moral ambiguity with some clean, succinct and satisfying resolution. Indeed, there is enormous pressure to conform to a specific strand of morality.
With “Voices,” Young strives to meet that standard. But we’re left to wonder what his own voice says about the issues he addresses here. All of his thoughts, all of his beliefs, everything that is presented in this song—it’s all filtered through the eyes of others.
And if the point he’s making is simply, “I agree,” then his message—like his music—is little more than a carbon copy of that which came before.