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THREE TRUTHS ABOUT
ONE THING AT A TIME


Three truths about One Thing at a Time (Big Loud/Mercury/Republic), Morgan Wallen’s follow-up to his mega-everything, record-shattering double-set Dangerous:

1) More than massive, think ubiquitous. The East Tennessee kid remains the go-to voice of (young) people in the flyover zone. This is their Sound of Summer 2023.

2) As a Field Guide to Rednecks & Small Towns for Yankees, critics and media types who’ve never been South of the Mason-Dixon, it’s all here. Ford trucks (“F-150-50”), SEC sports (“Tennessee Fan”), classic ballgames (“98 Braves”), the good book (“Don’t Think Jesus,” “In the Bible” with HARDY), cigarettes, muddin’ and a whole cavalcade of adult beverages.

3) Wallen and producer Joey Moi continue their mainstream country/hip-hop convergence, which creates space for 808s and banjos. This time they’re tempering the fusion with a War on Drugs’ indie-rock flavor.

With the obvious said, there’s a deeper reality here. If Dangerous was the COVID quarantine deep dive into what Wallen country encompasses (nostalgia, bittersweet heartbreak, good timing and hope), One Thing at a Time moves into the notion of tempered partying, reckoning, maybe even growing up.

The good times are still on tap. But even the set-opening “Born With a Beer in My Hand” is served more as an explanation than a justification. Wallen’s voice—a strong basic baritone that conveys vulnerability and an Everyman quality—carries his inner conflict without a seemingly conjured performance.

That gives his terrestrial-radio #1 single, ”Thought You Should Know,” co-written with Miranda Lambert and Nicole Galyon, a sense of how tentative moving from the wreckage to a saner way of living can be; the naked hope of something worth embracing beyond a bottle and a “Broadway Girls” as his Lil Durk collab suggested shimmers. The tumbling-down melody of “Keith Whitley” mirrors that evolution. Delivering the lyric over an acoustic-grounded arrangement, Wallen cites song titles and the troubles the beleaguered Country Music Hall of Fame member endured as a way of weighing what genuinely matters.

Not that this is an AA meeting set to song. There’s plenty of drinkin’, dancin’, smokin’ that smoke—and even the regret that sometimes inspires that stuff. But it feels good when Wallen delivers the project naming’s confession to the on/off girl that he “can only quit one thing at a time”: her or his wild habits. Doubling down, Eric Church steps into the pain-quelling “Man Made a Bar,” which traces God building the world into the wages of love—inspiring man to create a whole other kind of world.

The phrase-turning that’s only found in country is on full display here. Part of Big Loud Entertainment’s realm involves a creative community whose members constantly feed off each other, expanding what their music can be. Mirroring (sub)genre-specifics from vintage Elektra/Asylum to TwinTone and Sub Pop, Seth England, Craig Wiseman and ERNEST, HARDY, Jake Owen and OGs Florida Georgia Line created the post-Bro Country blend that fired up hip-hop-infused authentic country.

The creeping, emo-flecked “Thinkin’ Bout Me” chases the girl playing the old flame against her new guy, running through the double game she’s playing. The hard redneck “Ain’t That Some” runs the totems of Zebcos at honey holes, Skoal rings, blue Coors, mud on the tires and Silverados like a string of trout on a good day fishing—but the terse track has a lean rap tension.

The tug of not being settled creates a more honest account of the swarm on Nashville’s celebrity bar-studded Lower Broad. Whether the girl in the sweeping “A Little More Single,” the knowing not-ready-to-settle-down yarn “Money on Me,” or the flip-the-lifestyle escape “Good Girl Gone Missing” that turns into “180 (Lifestyle),” there’s a lot of gray on the romantic front: less drama, less torture, more philosophy and the reality of what goes down along the way to a white picket fence.

Like all great country, simplicity is the genius the speed of life is strapped to. Wallen has managed to capture personal growth without losing his sense of the party; his biggest trick is these 36 songs going down easy instead of feeling like a lecture.

Indeed, the closing acoustic guitar-driven “Dying Man” pays off that truth. Sifting through the last few years—the fame, the complications and temptations and yes, missteps—he neither shrugs it off nor blusters about where he’s been. Clear-eyed, he owns all that it was, then acknowledges life isn’t a straight line. Inverting what happened to Hank Williams, Elvis and so many others, Wallen decides there’s more powerful things to hold onto.

Redemption may not be the word. But for everyone living the wild-eyed young country life, it’s as good a song about reaching for a little more longevity as there is. For the ones listening and living in these songs, “Dying Man” serves as a perfect coda and blessing.

Photos of Wallen's hometown album-release party at Gibbs High School on 3/2 by Happy Monday

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