Though it hasn’t happened yet, the multi-platinum success of Big & Rich and their cohorts (Gretchen Wilson, Cowboy Troy) is sure to spawn a horde of knock-offs—mainstream country may be resistant to change, but it will still gladly milk whatever cash cow presents a distended udder. Hot Apple Pie arrives positioned as one of those inevitable clones. Wretched lead single “Hillbillies”—wherein frontman Brady Seals quite literally brays like a jackass in what is either a stereotype-perpetuating reference to bestiality, a halfway-subversive reference to anal sex, or a hilarious joke at the expense of professional braying jackass Darryl Worley—is accompanied by a music video full of daisy dukes-clad “farmgirls” shaking their asses to low camera angles, borrowing a tired cliché from hip-hop without a trace of irony or self-awareness. And, like John Rich, formerly the second-chair vocalist (behind the god-awful Richie McDonald) in Lonestar, Seals first appeared as the “other” lead singer (behind the god-awful Tim Rushlow) of Little Texas, so it even seems that there’s a certain formula behind the band.
“Hillbillies,” though, is misleading in two key ways. One, it’s built around an admittedly catchy bass line that, as a rhythmic hook, is somewhat more closely aligned to hip-hop than any of the guitar power chords that build Big & Rich’s hooks (the closest Big & Rich actually get to the hip-hop they claim to be incorporating into their country-rock is some disingenuous, cloying pop-culture references, rather than an understanding of the genre’s structures). Secondly, “Hillbillies,” which takes the “roll in the hay” idiom to what one hopes is an endpoint, sounds like precisely one other track, the also not-good “Redneck Revolution,” on Hot Apple Pie. It’s understandable from a marketing standpoint that Dreamworks Nashville might try to capitalize on what’s currently trendy in country music in selling Hot Apple Pie as treading the same territory as Big & Rich, but Hot Apple Pie, both for better and for worse, doesn’t support that comparison.
Thankfully, the album isn’t tied to any thorny social context—the questions of race-baiting, the treating of an entire genre of popular music as a novelty to be exploited at whim—as was Horse Of A Different Color. But, as mainstream country efforts go, Hot Apple Pie also unfortunately lacks the potent hooks of a “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy).” Songs like “We’re Makin’ Up,” “The Good Life,” and “I Should’ve Seen Her Leavin’ Comin’,” like so many pop-country songs, rely too heavily on cutesy wordplays, while “Hillbillies” and “Redneck Revolution” amount to posturing that never fully convinces. Still, there are some highlights: “California King” offers some genuine insight on the failings of Seals’s previous stabs at fame, “Everybody Wants To Dance with My Baby” deftly avoids the clichés that bog down the album’s other ballads, and their fantastic cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” is a bluegrass-inflected rave-up that would’ve been an infinitely more impressive introduction to a band formed from some of Nashville’s finest session musicians (multi-instrumentalists Keith Horne, Trey Landry, and Mark Matejka).
Hot Apple Pie is obviously brimming with talent, and theirs is a full-bodied sound more substantial than many of their contemporaries on country radio. But Hot Apple Pie too-often adheres to mainstream country’s conservative formula to generate much legitimate heat. They’re a talented bunch worth keeping an eye on, but their debut is characterized by untapped potential. Ultimately, what passes for “progressive” in Nashville is unlikely to impress many people anywhere else.