REVIEW: Thomas Rhett - "Crash and Burn"
None of us is immune to a solid radio hit, and I figured Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn” would be my country single du jour to simply sing along to on the way home from work. Each time I heard it, though, I liked it more and more, and realized there was more to it than just being a well-timed pop-infused earworm. It has the elements of soul and old school pop that country has increasingly been embracing in a fresh, radio-ready mixture.
For a while, I could not put my finger on what it was that made this different from the other songs that I look forward to hearing on country radio in the midst of the Brantley Gilberts and Florida Georgia Lines of the world. In fact, before this single, I might have grouped Thomas Rhett close to those artists. Right on the fringe of bro-country, I just did not pay too much attention to him.
Shortly after the single was released, I learned it was co-written by Jesse Frassure and Chris Stapleton. Frassure is behind another whistle-heavy bro radio hit, FGL’s “Sun Daze,” the recent success of which must have made the feel of “Crash and Burn” a no-brainer. I cannot say enough good things about Chris Stapleton-- Traveller might be the best record of this year and I will listen to anything he has ever sang on or written. I figured the Stapleton tie explained why this song seemed a level above anything else currently on radio, but there was more still.
The structure of the song seemed familiar, too. My main academic and collecting interest in music is 1960s girl groups, and something about “Crash and Burn” felt like it borrowed from the formula of that era and style. The attitude of it-- the upbeat and nonchalant storytelling of a love come and gone, and the confessional style in a pop framing has girl group written all over it. Substitute “girl” for “guy” in the line “some guys can’t have all the luck if others don’t sing sad songs,” and it could have come right off a Shirelles record. The girl group tie was cemented for me when I heard Rhett perform a live version at the Grand Ole Opry over the radio earlier this summer, and the “teardrops falling down” phrasing with the dramatic drawing out of “down” was underlined by the nature of the less produced version. It’s a line you can almost see the Supremes hitting with choreographed steps.
The third piece of the puzzle about this song fell into place when Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” came on the radio one night while I was running errands. The gang vocals of “Crash and Burn” are directly taken from “Chain Gang.” If there is a canon of gang vocals, “Chain Gang” leads the pack. I couldn’t believe I didn’t recognize it in “Crash and Burn,” but the last thing I thought I would hear on country radio was a direct allusion to a Sam Cooke classic in a current single. When you hear them in succession, it is absolutely unmistakable.
When Stapleton’s Traveller came out, he was lauded as a torchbearer of country soul. His Stax-esque sound appealed to both the NPR crowd looking for a new alternative country darling, and his longtime fans from his time with The SteelDrivers. This opened a conversation about soul’s current influence in country, which somehow has spilled over into a discussion about hip hop phrasing in Kelsea Ballerini songs and Keith Urban’s newest single.
In terms of popular country commentary, the road from soul to R&B (whatever the popular accepted definition of that is this month) to hip hop is a short one, but “Crash and Burn” belongs squarely in the genre-fluid forefront of that discussion, in my opinion.
Rhett himself jumps around from Will Smith to Bruno Mars when discussing influences in interviews, but never alludes to the direct influence of Cooke on his single. I believe Rhett’s appreciation for artists influenced by soul assists him in delivering a convincing and exciting performance in “Crash and Burn,” although his firsthand knowledge of music like girl group pop or Sam Cooke’s brand of soul doesn’t seem especially apparent. Stapleton, however, clearly has a deep knowledge of soul music and how to interpret it for a country platform. This makes for a magical combination that has resulted in a solid radio hit that reminds you that there is hardly a song that is as simple as “just” a radio hit.