Galloping out of the silence with a vitality that has become all too difficult to come by in mainstream country music lately, Austin English’s new single “Willie Nelson T-Shirt” wastes no time filling the air around us with a rarefied melodicism you’re not likely to dismiss as unsatisfying this summer. Driven home by English’s warm lead vocal, “Willie Nelson T-Shirt” has a lyrical swing that just might be packing some of the sharpest bite I’ve come across out of the American underground in recent months, but I wouldn’t say this is its only sterling feature.
Set against a modern but ultimately pastoral backdrop, our lead singer’s voice leads us through the layers of rhythm and rhyme into a familiar country framework that has admittedly become a little watered-down in the last couple of years. While plenty of big-budget songwriters have been more than content to recycle whatever the Nashville elites are comfortable stamping a commercial labeling on in 2020, this is one player who is breathing new life into the genre that his native land was built upon.
The gloss on the guitar parts in this mix adds to the melody quite a bit, but I think it’s worth nothing that nothing about “Willie Nelson T-Shirt” feels overproduced or swaggering simply because of the production quality. Right from the get-go, it’s obvious that English isn’t interested in relying on his voice as his lone tool for constructing a narrative here; he’s utilizing everything from the beat to the melodic fabric of the instrumentation to set the mood and keep us engaged even in moments where he’s stepping away from the microphone.
The sonic depth of the vocal matches up with the organic integrity of the instrumentation in a way that verifies authenticity as much as it encourages us to move along to the groove beneath the harmony, and I honestly can’t recall the last time I was able to say this about a major label country release. This is definitely a hook-oriented composition from a songwriter who clearly has a strong, pop-influenced skillset (especially for a cowboy), and its crossover appeal is something that has been largely missing from the FM dial for the entirety of the last year.
If you haven’t already heard his work, I’d highly recommend starting with “Willie Nelson T-Shirt” when making your proper acquaintances with Mr. Austin English this August. Though there have been plenty of lackluster country releases worth forgetting in 2020, there have also been a handful of interesting indie players emerging from the underground, and among those I’ve personally reviewed, this gentleman is absolutely one of the more naturally talented. He isn’t forcing anything here – on the contrary, he’s giving himself over to the framework of the melodies and rejecting the very notion of overthinking his goals.
There’s something incredible about his swagger, and though he’s not quite a household name just yet, I can see his present attitude winning him a lot of fresh exposure as the year continues on.