There’s an obvious point to be made about “90’s Country,” the late-summer single from Walker Hayes: It’s a clever and catchy nod to a long-gone era in the genre that sounds more like a Jason Mraz song than any of the music it celebrates.
Hayes takes less than three minutes to weave together 22 song references, culminating in a sweet effort to convince a girl she makes him “feel like 90’s country.” That is to say, she feels like the warmth of nostalgia, like familiarity and comfort. The songs cited in “90’s Country” range from bubblegum smashes like“Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You),” to twanged-out ballads like “I Cross My Heart.”
It’s not poetry, but it’s not terrible either.
Some of its references blend more smoothly than others. “Strawberry wine on your lips, got me amazed. How ’bout you let this cowboy take you away?” goes down easier than, “Do you love me? If you do, check yes, please. Girl, you know you think my tractor’s sexy. I’m sold to the lady in the front seat.” Clunky as that line may be, it’s also shameless, which actually complements the speaker’s sense of infatuation.
But Hayes delivers his frothy homage to the era in a strange package. There’s some country flavor in the instrumentation, but the song is driven by mellow guitar strums, pop beats, and his gentle falsetto. (Compare that with the twang in his earlier work.)
It’s probably an oversimplification to take the obvious contradiction of “90’s Country” as a statement on the devolution of the genre. After all, Hayes is paying tribute to the decade that inspired “Murder on Music Row.” Speaking of which, Hayes honors both Alan Jackson and George Strait in the song, which is odd considering the rise of the pop stylings predating his is exactly what they were lamenting in that duet.
As “bro country” falls out of fashion, the genre is entering an era that could, in some ways, be compared to the late ‘90s, where traditional crooners shared the top of the charts with the likes of Shania Twain. Among the artists with songs on Billboard’s year-end country chart in 2017 were people like Chris Stapleton, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, and Miranda Lambert, who mingled with the likes of Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini, Dan + Shay, and Hayes himself. For what it’s worth, “Body Like A Back Road” took 2017’s top slot.
But for all the Lamberts and Bentleys, country’s boundaries still seem to have expanded since the Clinton era, and perhaps that’s what “90’s Country” reminds us. None of the songs Hayes references are as poppy as the song that’s referencing them. Take the aforementioned “Don’t Be Stupid,” which Hayes alludes to at the track’s end. It’s hard to out-pop Shania, but even that particular song is driven heavily by fiddles. Most of the 22 songs alluded to in “90’s Country” were recorded by more traditional artists, which is worth noting given that the decade left a vast pool of less traditional hits from which to choose.
In a way, “90’s Country” waxes nostalgic about music it risks pushing further out of fashion. Granted, radio is less powerful now then it was then, and the waning influence of traditional gatekeepers means there’s some more room for genre-bending.
But the more popular songs like “90’s Country” become, the more incentive there is for artists to mimic the style, and the more that sound will come to define country music— a genre with boundaries that matter because they’re tied up in our history. The wailing steel guitar of “Strawberry Wine” makes a beautiful sound, but it’s also the echo of a way of life: one that most of the 22 songs referenced in “90’s Country” speak to.
So if the nostalgia of Hayes’s song ends up resonating with listeners, perhaps artists and their record labels should contemplate why the feeling of ’90s country is one that’s actually worth chasing. And then they should chase it.