5 min read

The Cole Swindell Situation

The Cole Swindell Situation
Cole Swindell standing in front of the only place he knows how to write about

The song of the summer is little more than a boring interpolation of Jo Dee Messina's breakout hit, and country fans deserve better.

Every May and June, a rash of new pop-country songs flood the airwaves in hopes of spending the next twelve to sixteen weeks riding atop the charts as the nation goes on summer vacation. The "song of the summer" may feel less meaningful in an age where virtually everyone is streaming whatever they want all the time, but I argue that such distinctions still matter. When we think back on 2022 in the years ahead, the songs that ruled radio and streaming will be the lens through which we perceive this time in our lives.

The latest crop of contenders is comprised primarily of young voices. For example, Breland's "Praise The Lord" combines the foot-stomping goodness of Southern gospel with high-energy country-pop aesthetics. Elsewhere, newcomer Kassi Ashton conveys romantic energy with the infectious "Dates In Pickup Trucks." At the same time, Kane Brown perfectly encapsulates our cultural obsession with music from twenty-five years ago with "Like I Love Country Music."

Any of these songs are fitting picks for song of the summer. Here are ten more:

  • Jimmie Allen, "Down Home"
  • Chris Jansen, "Keys To The Country"
  • Carly Pearce, "What He Didn't Do"
  • Corey Kent, "Wild As Her"
  • Jordan Davis, "What My World Spins Around"
  • Danielle Bradbery, "Stop Dragon' Your Boots"
  • Conner Smith, "Summer on Your Lips"
  • Lainey Wilson, "Heart Like A Truck"
  • Kidd G, "People Talk"
  • Frank Ray, "Country'd Look Good On You"

There is only one song we must stop from becoming the song of the summer: "She Had Me At Heads Carolina" by Cole Swindell.

Cole Swindell is a walking, talking, and sometimes singing advertisement for what I like to call misdemeanor alcoholism. The kind of country artist who stops short of going on benders but constantly encourages people to drink. Cole loves his booze, and he cannot stop reflecting on his drinking-related memories, and neither can his fans. I know this not because I'm a devoted follower or a drinker myself but because Swindell has built his career on the kind of derivative bottom-shelf swill that country radio programmers love to plug in between ads for local lawn care.

Head over to Spotify's This Is Cole Swindell playlist, and you'll find a bevy of drinking anthems, both energetic and full of remorse. Nine of Cole's top ten popular songs reference drinking, most in the first verse. That percentage drops slightly the more you listen, but the theme is eternal. He's either drinking to celebrate or to forget, and in between, he remembers a rotating door of vaguely described women whose drinks he recalls by heart. She may be some blonde in a bar on a night he can barely remember, but he'll never forget the White Claw in her hand.

"She Had Me At Heads Carolina" continues this trend of nonsense by taking an iconic song and reducing it to its worst, albeit arguably most common, use in modern culture. The song follows Cole and his friends as they stumble upon a karaoke night where a beautiful girl is singing Jo Dee Messina's breakout hit from 1997. You might think the song goes deeper than that, but it does not. Here's an actual quote from Cole about the music:

"She Had Me At Heads Carolina' is just about a night out with the guys, having fun, walking in a bar, not knowing it's karaoke night…and turns out there's a group of girls having a good time. They go and turn in one of their friends' names…next thing you know, she's up there on karaoke singing 'Heads Carolina, Tails California' by Jo Dee Messina, and that's the whole story behind the twist on the song."

To his credit, this is the same guy who explained naming his tour "Back Down To The Bar" with the following statement:

"Well…we had so much fun on the Down to the Bar tour that we decided to do it all over again in the fall with my friends Ashley Cooke and Dylan Marlowe. Can't wait to see y'all out there and play this new music for you. It's gonna be a hell of a time!"

Jo Dee Messina's "Heads Carolina, Tails California," by comparison, is one of the most iconic 90s country singles. Penned by Tim Nichols and Mark Sanders, the song captures the excitement and restlessness of young love and bottles it for mass consumption with a timeless tale of itching to escape everything you've known and throw caution to the wind. It's about knowing all you need in this life is someone who cares about you as much as you care about them and how that connection can endure whatever the world hurls your way. In the hands of any other artist or genre, that may sound too wide-eyed and corny to take, but Messina's performance sells the promise of a new romance in a manner that can warm even the coldest hearts.

There's nothing wrong with a simple concept when executed perfectly, but "She Had Me At Heads Carolina" is woefully underwritten. Aside from aping the melody and a decent chunk of the hook from one of 90s country's biggest hits, Swindell's so-called spin is little more than a quick cash grab masquerading as well-intentioned nostalgia bait that bastardizes a story of love so pure it feels overwhelming with yet another ode to drunken hijinks and booze-soaked romance. You think you can take her anywhere? No, Cole. You're drunk. Go home.

Maybe I'd feel differently if Cole was confident enough in his idea to leave Messina's track in the past, but a sample of the original song repeatedly appears throughout the song. It's one thing to reference and pay homage to 90s country, especially in an era where doing so is commercially viable, but Swindell's approach feels haphazard at best. In a time when country radio is full of self-referential songs (Scotty McCreery's "Damn Strait" and Kane Brown's "Like I Love Country Music" leap to mind), Swindell's decision to borrow an already proven melody and change it just enough to make the world-shaking energy young love feel like any other night in any other bar comes across as lazy. It's not so much a reinvention as it is a remix and one that does nothing to improve upon the original premise.

Country music is filled with songs about meeting strangers in bars who love the same extremely successful, multi-platinum certified artists you do. Most—if not all—required more creative effort than "She Had Me At Heads Carolina." If you need that kind of song, plenty of better options are available, but I argue that you deserve better. Hell, country music fans deserve better. Our lives are more than a collection of intoxicated moments brought to you by whichever brand is willing to pay a recurring Top 10 country radio artist to plug their product, and our music should represent that.