Carrie Underwood is releasing a Randy Travis cover as her next single.
But it isn’t “On the Other Hand” or “There’ll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere” or some other song that echoes the sounds of Haggard and Jones. No, this is one of those Randy Travis songs that’s country mostly by virtue of the fact that pretty much anything he sings ends up sounding country. Even with the steel licks giving texture to the chorus and the solid country hook, “I Told You So” would likely sound pop coming out of anyone else’s mouth. It’s Randy Travis in bombastic crooner mode.
The fact that Travis is a country singer does not mean that every song he has written or recorded is country. When he delivered his indisputably country cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on last year’s Around the Bend, the song itself didn’t become inherently country; Travis just offered a country reading of it. In the same way, his country cut of “I Told You So” does not make the song itself country. It could go either way depending on the singer, but definitely leans pop. Travis has acknowledged that recording it was a stretch:
To be honest, ‘I Told You So’ was more suited for [Underwood] as a vocalist than for me. When you look at the vocal range, her ability to get into the upper register of her voice and just hold those high notes is great.
I’m not saying that Underwood’s recording of the song is bad. In fact, this has nothing to do with the quality of her cover. I’m saying that Underwood surveyed the Randy Travis songbook, pulled out one of the least traditional songs she could find, and is now trying to use her recording of it to establish her traditional country credibility. And there’s something disingenuous about that. What’s next, a cover of “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” to prove that she’s as country as Mark Chesnutt? Are we to understand that the closest Underwood can get to traditional country is a poppy cover of a poppish detour by a solid traditionalist?
I don’t think that something has to be country to be good and I’m all for judging Underwood’s performance on its own terms. But it seems pretty clear that the choice of “I Told You So” was calculated to associate Underwood with the staunch traditionalism of Travis without actually demanding that she do anything as resolutely country as the majority of his work. In other words, the selection of this particular song means that Underwood gets to gesture toward real country music without giving up the bombastic vocal stylings more characteristic of pop. It’s an easy way to appease some of her detractors without really changing anything.
Which is all well and good unless “traditional” is more to you than a marketing buzzword.