In the early 2000s, a gravelly-voiced firecracker of a singer named Heidi Newfield lead the trio Trick Pony into the Top 20 of Billboard’s country singles chart a total of four times, peaking in 2001 with the band’s lone Top 10 hit “On A Night Like This” (which made it all the way to #4).
Newfield’s most defining song, however, was her 2008 debut solo effort, a song that—by chart standards—doesn’t distinguish itself from already-forgotten Trick Pony ditties like “Pour Me” (#12) and “Just What I Do” (#13).
“Johnny and June” finished its mediocre chart run at #11, but you can’t always judge the relevance of a song by its chart run alone. There’s something about that song—a lyric which possess no particularly fresh or notable songwriting—that feels essential. “And when you go, I wanna go too/Like Johnny and June” is an enormously simple hook, but Newfield belts it with devastating conviction.
When we hear her sing those lines, we know exactly what she craves more than anything in the world: a love so deep and encompassing that she can’t bear to live once she loses it.
Who among us doesn’t crave that? “Johnny and June” aches for a love so strong it sustains us until it kills us.
That’s a desire that transcends a piece-by-piece analyses of the lyrics and what they say. That’s what great hooks do—they communicate something beyond just what they mean. “Johnny and June” communicates an essential, fundamental desire—and that makes us want to blast it from our radios for the world to hear. We all want a love like Johnny and June, and when we hear that hook we say, “Yes! That’s me!” It’s not a cerebral thought, but a feeling that comes from a much deeper place.
Listen to Newfield’s new single (her first since 2009) and you’ll hear something entirely different. “Stay Up Late” is carefully calculated piece of focus-group country that tells an unremarkable story about an unremarkable night in the lives of two unremarkable people.
Some of the world’s greatest songs are about unremarkable people, however, and there’s certainly something happening in “Stay Up Late” that’s worth writing about. In fact, there’s something indelibly magical about two lovers coming together and sharing each other in an intimate moment.
But “Stay Up Late” only explains the process by which that might occur, not the reasons why the singer wants or needs it. The song describes something we can relate to, but it doesn’t really affect us on any meaningful level. It deals with what is, but not why.
What’s interesting about two people staying home, drinking wine and making love? This song never moves beyond the surface of its topic and into the guts of the matter. It’s the passion and desire at the root of this story that makes it a worthwhile one to tell, not the action itself.
This is a criticism I’ve levied against other songs, but is appropriate here: “Stay Up Late” is about sex and passion, but it contains hardly any of the former and none of the latter. There’s just nothing sexy about this unbearably ordinary song, and that fact leaves it sounding safe and inconsequential.
In other words, it’s the polar opposite of “Johnny and June.” And it aims for and accomplishes so little that it’s unlikely to help Newfield move beyond the legacy of that song.