by Tyler Morgenstern, Staff Writer
Aside from distracting snap tracks, there’s almost nothing hotter on commercial country radio these days than sanguine tributes to the 1990s and the country hitmakers of the time. On his ubiquitous hit “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s,” for example, Sam Hunt pines for simpler times and less intensively-mediated relationships. Meanwhile, newly minted TikTok phenom Walker Hayes kind-of-raps his way through a series of rapid fire shoutouts to the likes of George Strait, Kenny Chesney, and Deanna Carter in his forthrightly titled single “90s Country.”
Aesthetically, of course, neither track could be further from the musical canon to which they ostensibly pay homage. Both have been scrubbed of the honky-tonk sensibility that still inflected many of the decade’s biggest chart-toppers, like Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It.” And, at least in Hayes’ case, storytelling has been altogether abandoned in favor of a kind of checklist maximalism that careens from one little fragment of lyrical nostalgia to the next. 90s country, it seems, could do with a better ambassador.
Luckily, we have Tommy Atkins, whose debut album Truth Be Told taps the sensibilities of the moment without lapsing into the sort of misty, unfocused nostalgia that currently hangs over commercial country playlists. Across twelve tracks, Atkins pays clear tribute to his greatest influences—The Chicks, Shania Twain, and Deanna Carter, to name only a few—while at the same time honing a deeply personal and defiantly queer lyrical voice. The result is grounded in the closely-observed details of a musical life that stretches from the northern shores of England to the honky tonks of Nashville.
By turns playful and heartfelt, Truth Be Told more than lives up to its name, offering Atkins (a seasoned Music Row songwriter) a long-deferred opportunity to reclaim his own authorial voice. Through this, he reconnects his thoughtful, complexly narrated lyrics to the lived experiences from which they emerge. Take, for instance, the plaintive ballad “It Took a Woman.” Featuring an understated but elegant cameo from the great Rissi Palmer, the track is an affecting tribute to Atkins’ husband’s grandmother, a posthumous thank-you note to the woman who raised the man of his dreams. Sweetly sentimental and earnestly performed, it’s a fine showcase of Atkins’ capacity to blend country-western storytelling with the conventions of pop ballideering in a way that feels honest and unforced. In this, Atkins shows his 90s stripes, tapping a formula polished to a high shine by the likes of Martina McBride and Faith Hill.
Things very nearly turned out otherwise, however. “Shortly after being written, this song was pitched to a young Christian country group who decided to pass on it,” Atkins writes. “Later…a different Christian country publisher wanted to sign the song, on the premise that it would be for a female artist….The request for the pronouns to be sang ‘straight’ by a female vocalist was not a new thing for me.” Truth Be Told comprises a round refusal to abide such strictures any longer, a quiet rejection of the ways the Nashville publishing and promotions machine forcibly ‘straightens out’ the work of queer artists.
This ‘straightening’ apparatus, of course, is one and the same with the machine that today spawns a glut of awkward, aesthetically defanged tributes to ’90s country. With Truth Be Told, Atkins meets it on both fronts, offering such rollicking honky-tonk numbers as “Cinderella’s Had a Drink” and “Time of the Month”—both of which smack distinctly of John Michael Montgomery, circa “Be My Baby Tonight”—alongside heartfelt mid-tempo ballads as “Kiss Me, Cowboy,” which owe a clear debt to Fly-era Chicks and early Trisha Yearwood.
In these respects, the album is an ambitious undertaking: an attempt to split the hair between earnest homage and schticky nostalgia, and to do it all through an unabashedly queer lens. And though at times the concept feels more clearly defined than the performance—here and there, Atkins seems unsure of himself, backing off vocally precisely where the melody invites him to lean in—it succeeds admirably. It’s a thoughtful, sharply written, and much needed antidote to what today passes for 90s-style country, and an exciting sign of things to come from this accomplished writer and performer.
Tyler Morgenstern is a writer, researcher, cultural critic, singer-songwriter, and communication professional currently based in Syilx Territory (British Columbia, Canada). He holds a PhD in Film and Media Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and his writing explores the history and politics of technology, colonialism and empire, and the cultural politics of country music.