You can’t swing a set of dog tags these days without hitting a song about soldiers. In a time of war, that is to be expected because people do write about the world around them. Also, the music industry is just cynical enough to know that there is a knee jerk reaction to soldier songs that makes us all want to stand up and applaud, whether they are good or bad. Unfortunately, with so much background noise, very few solider songs really stand out. The best soldier songs tend to be either the most complex, such as Jason Isbell’s, or the most simple. “You First” is an example of a simple song, incredibly well executed.
“You First” works because it is, first and foremost, a story of two boys growing up and playing together. The early taunting and bravado gives way so seamlessly to their experiences in battle that by the time he gets to the line “you find out what you’re made of when it’s your time to say you first” it’s more like your grandpa telling you about his experiences than another country singer lecturing about the military as a road to manhood. McAnally, as usual, turns in a stunning vocal performance. In an era when volume is used to convey emotion, McAnally allows his voice to break at nearly a whisper during the big emotional payoff. Beyond the emotional impact of the song, it just extremely well crafted. A roaring electric guitar gives way to a quiet, layered and very pretty melody which elevates the vocals without drowning them. All combined, “You First” stands out as a prime example of just how good country music can be when it sheds all the bells and whistles.
Mac McAnally has hovered around the edges of country music for a long time. In a lot of ways he is almost a throwback to the 80’s where he would have fit quite nicely with such artists as Doug Stone and Don Williams. These days, McAnally is just a little out of step with the slick produced songs of his country peers, yet does not quite have the edge to cross over into the Americana realm. The internet gets a bad rap these days as a place where people can go to get music without paying for it. It is, also, the land of the middle ground, the place where lovely songs and artists like this can wait in the edges for fans to find them.