Let’s go ahead and address the impending elephant in the room before we go any further here. There’s simply no way around it: Morgan Wallen’s use of a racial slur back in 2021 was unacceptable then, just as it still is now. He’ll be the first one to admit it was inappropriate, offensive, and something that he shouldn’t have said under any circumstance. Since then, Wallen entered rehab and spent time talking with several black leaders, donated $500,000 to numerous black organizations, and even had people like Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen in his corner. Whether he has done enough for redemption may be up to each individual listener, but in a world where we should be holding people accountable for their actions (some refer to this as cancel culture), there then should be room to grow and comeback in some sort of sense. Certainly there are scenarios where there is no room for redemption, but that’s a far more nuanced conversation for another day.
Getting to the music aspect of this review with One Thing At a Time, this album has been a long-time coming for Wallen. Given the aforementioned controversy and COVID-19 pandemic, there wasn’t much touring in support of his 2021 album Dangerous: The Double Album — outside of a sold-out arena/amphitheater tour last year. Seemingly, that provided a lot of time for him to get to writing new tunes. By the end of 2021, he was a feature on two songs: “Flower Shops” with ERNEST and “Broadway Girls” with Lil Durk. 2022 came along and Wallen wasted no time continuing to pump out material, “Don’t Think Jesus,” “Thought You Should Know,” and “You Proof” all came out between April-May and although it signaled a new album was coming, no announcement was given quite yet and they were acting as standalone singles. Then the end of 2022 came, fans were gifted “Days That End in Why,” “Tennessee Fan,” and the title-track “One Thing At a Time” with the promise that the album was coming soon.
Sure enough, after the release of 3 more songs in January — “I Wrote the Book,” “Last Night” and “Everything I Love” — we are finally here on March 3rd, with the full album out. Although the public ultimately got a whopping 9 songs ahead of time for the album came out, that still leaves them with an almost overwhelming 27 songs to dig through.
As someone that has spent the last week listening to One Thing At a Time thanks to an advance from the lovely people at Big Loud, I can tell you that while 36 songs is surely a lot of songs, there’s not necessarily a bad song on the album. Sure, there are stretches where you may hit songs that you think “Okay, maybe I won’t come back to this one” — but that’s surely expected from Wallen and his team. I would be surprised if anyone on his team expected every fan to ride or die for all 36 songs. Consider this: A group of seven friends could list their top 5 favorite songs from One Thing At a Time, and have entirely different songs with no overlapping songs. That has to be the goal here: all 36 songs will each individually get plenty of love from Wallen’s expansive fanbase.
Take for example, opening song “Born With a Beer In My Hand” — a strong opening song with a soaring chorus, it seemingly addresses the news that Wallen was “mostly” sober for his 2022 tour. There’s an interesting sense of honesty here, as he ever-so-slightly touches on his drinking, calling out “I ain’t saying I swore it off for good / I’m just saying I’m doing the best I can / But what do you expect from a redneck / Hell, I was born with a beer in my hand.” It’s an intricate balance of recollecting his childhood, how alcohol has gotten him into trouble, while also singing about how drinking has given him plenty to sing about. In some ways a spiritual follow-up to Dangerous‘ “Livin’ The Dream,” “Born With a Beer In My Hand” shows that he’s learned from that story previously told.
If you’re a fan of Wallen you know that he’s never shied away from collaborating with other artists. One Thing At a Time is no different, as Eric Church, HARDY, and ERNEST all lend their voices on separate tracks here. Church is up first with “Man Made a Bar,” which is thematically and structurally similar to Dangerous’ “Only Thing That’s Gone,” which also featured a collaboration with Chris Stapleton. It’s a country song that has Wallen talking with a bartender about his current heartbreak, detailing that while God made men and women, bar’s came to be as men needed somewhere to go after getting their heart broke. If you’re needing something to listen to while you are down, Wallen has made a name for himself by having you covered with songs (more on this later), and this is the first song on One Thing at A Time that gives you that familiar comfort.
HARDY is then up next with “In the Bible,” their second collaboration this year. Almost a lock to be performed this summer as the two are touring together, and boy did they nail it again. “In the Bible” is a mid-tempo country that highlights their country lifestyle and how if it was in the Bible, they would be saints. “If being country was in the Bible / Hallelujah, amen / heaven bless this life I live” Wallen and HARDY sing together towards the end of the song’s chorus.
Lastly, for features on the album is “Cowgirls” which features ERNEST. It’s one of the most surprising songs on the album, if not the most surprising song on One Thing At a Time. It’s towards the tail end of the track-listing, but if you’re listening through, then he truly saves the best for last — at least in this writer’s mind. If you saw the name ERNEST and were expecting a traditional song like most of us probably did, you are in for a wild ride. “Cowgirls” is the perfect blend of country and hip-hop that Wallen has really been experimenting with these last couple years. Lyrically it’s familiar territory for country music fans, but you don’t need something groundbreaking when you’ve got a hook like that. The song explains their love for “cowgirls” for not being the settling down type, going on to mention specific attributes “She’s got a cold heart but she’s got a warm smile” and “I hate the way that I love them kisses taste like whiskey” and even their penchant for leaving, “How they wake up, take on off, and not even miss me / Leave this heart broken holding that smoking gun / I guess thats just the way them wild horses run.” But, at the end of the day, “It’s fine / cause it’s kinda my thing” as they sing at the end of the songs massive chorus destined for radio and sing-a-longs on Wallen’s upcoming stadium tour.
If you’re like me, you think Wallen is at his best when he’s blending country and hip-hop music. He’s proved he can do it better than anyone else in the genre right now, and One Thing At a Time continues to further solidify that. The aforementioned “Cowgirls” may be the best example of that, but it’s far from the only one. “Sunrise” is my personal second favorite, and one that also may be destined for radio play in the near future — at the very least, it’s going to get a lot of plays at parties this summer. Similar to “Broadway Girls,” there’s not much country influence in this one other than a faint guitar twang in the background. There’s an unexpected shoutout to Cincinnati, Ohio of all places in the song, as Wallen sings about this Cincy-girl he can’t get out of his head. “Used to my late nights, love me until the day lights / Now you’re just my sunrise, you keep coming up.”
Interestingly enough, Wallen turns the tables — albeit likely not the same girl, sorry buddy — on “Thinkin’ Bout Me.” Like “Sunrise,” it’s driven by a hip-hop beat and nearly ditches country altogether. Unlike “Sunrise,” though, “Thinkin’ Bout Me” is essentially a revenge song of sorts, as Wallen sings about how he imagines he’s running through his ex’s head (“When you’re up in his bed / Am I up in your head?”) while she’s out with a new man. This song slowly started to make the rounds on TikTok leading up to the album’s release, and quickly had fans hooked. In case you haven’t heard it yet, think something like Nelly in the early 2000’s. I know — that’s not a comparison I was expecting to make either, trust me.
The previously released “I Wrote the Book” and “Last Night” follow this same country/hip-hop blend and show there’s incredible demand for more and admiration for his ability to do it, as “Last Night” peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 so far — without even being released as a radio single (!). Hell, for good measure Wallen samples Young Thug on “180 (Lifestyle).” Listen, if you had Wallen, Young Thug, Nelly on your bingo card for being within two sentences of one another when talking about One Thing At a Time, I want a cut of your winnings. It’s layered over a sample of Young Thug’s “Lifestyle” and even still is nearly begging for a club remix, and rest assured that will come one way or another from local club DJ’s across the country.
I told you we would circle back to Wallen’s knack for writing heartbreak songs. What’s most impressive about some of these songs, is his ability to write them and then deliver them in a way that can tug at the heart strings of folks who may not be directly able to relate to the lyrical message. For example, “Devil Don’t Know” is a mellow, country song about heartbreak and hurting as you think about the one you love being with another person. In it, Wallen sings about the pain he feels seeing the girl he loves being with another man and eloquently sings with his southern drawl, “It’s a whole ‘nother level / Girl, even the devil don’t know this kind of hell.” As a happily engaged and soon-to-be married to the girl of his dreams in 6 weeks, even I start to feel for him in this song.
“Whiskey Friends” is another prime example of this, although it’s a little more upbeat than “Devil Don’t Know.” It finds Wallen sing “Got a lot of over her work left to do that we need to get into / So bartender pour me up again / I just took a hook on my heartbreak chin” over a mid-tempo country beat that will be another surefire hit for his fans drinking with their friends this summer. “’98 Braves” elegantly compares a failing relationship to, you guessed it, the 1998 Braves — one of the greatest baseball teams of all time that fell short of expectations — with lines like “If we were a team and love was a game / We’d have been the ’98 Braves” and how their season and this relationship both ended without a ring. The previously teased “Keith Whitley” reflects on his own failures in a relationship and how he didn’t do enough to make it work.
“Had It” is another standout song that comes towards the album. At the very least, Wallen deserves credit for laying out the track-list in a way that has undeniable hits and songs that are bound to stick all across the 36 song track-list. “Had It” is a country-driven mid-tempo song that toes the line of being hurt of a break-up and knowing that it’s time to call it quits. Throughout the song, Wallen sings about the signs along the way that got them to the point they’re at, how you can’t take back certain things, and although they’re both hurting, the damage is done. “Yeah I knew what I had when I had it / But girl, I’ve had it” he sings as the chorus wraps up.
It’s not all heartbreak mixed between country and hip-hop, Wallen touches on other topics and expands on them from past songs. “Don’t Think Jesus” is a personally emotional song for Wallen, as it brought him to tears the first time he heard it. It lyrically touches on his use of alcohol and women to get him through the days, and acknowledging that he wouldn’t forgive himself for these actions and doesn’t blame others for doing the same, but finding that Jesus “doesn’t [do it] that way.” Then you’ve got “Tennessee Fan,” which was teased after the Tennessee football team pulled off an upset over Alabama in the fall of 2022. Although it was released to poke fun of that game, the song itself isn’t about sports but rather how he’s falling for a girl who is a fan Alabama, which is something he gets hell for from his friends as he’s a longtime Tennessee Volunteer guy. Meanwhile, “Ain’t That Some” is an upbeat country song that sounds like it was specifically written for summer get togethers with friends. “Money On Me” is a mid-tempo country song that has Wallen addressing that he may not be the man a prospective woman wants him to be, with a seemingly little nod to Kenny Rogers with the second verse.
Listen: One Thing At a Time is 36 songs. If I didn’t have the album for the week leading up to today, I’m not so sure I would have been able to get through it a few times to accurately write a review of how I feel about it. There’s not bad songs on here, but there’s just a lot to digest. Once you do, and you sit with One Thing At a Time, you’ll see that Wallen did exactly what he wanted to do: write an album that touches every corner of what he does well and shows it off to the world.
At the end of the day, there’s something for everyone here. Wallen hones in on his hip-hop, country, and hip-hop influences and nails them all. He blends what works and knows just how far he can push it before it becomes too much. There’s a reason there’s more straight up country songs than ones that are more hip-hop influenced. He knows his audience and frankly he writes songs in a way that his audience feels like they know him, even better than before on One Thing At a Time.
Wallen is country music’s biggest modern country star and it isn’t necessarily particularly close. Dangerous: The Double Album shattered records left and right, and it’s a safe bet that One Thing At a Time will do the same. If you’re an artist releasing an album in the next few months, good luck going for that #1 spot on the Billboard 200. Wallen has crossover appeal and he knows just how to use it and how to capitalize on it. All the same, it doesn’t feel inauthentic and the songs show a side to him that is precisely who he is. He’s a country kid from a small-town in Tennessee having the time of his life. But if there’s one thing that One Thing At a Time proves, it’s that Wallen doesn’t mind being the face of modern country music — not only that, but he embraces it and he’s got the talent to be that face for years to come.
For a genre that is more star-power reliant than perhaps any other genre, and got catapulted to new heights by George Strait and Garth Brooks, Wallen is ready to follow in those foot steps and push what country music can be and take it to new heights along the way.