For most of the years that I listened to country music, the field of duos was almost exclusively the territory of Brooks & Dunn. For that reason, I always find the career paths of any given duo particularly interesting — Brooks & Dunn was always just so prominent that no other duo could ever seem to come within striking distance. But rarely was it for lack of effort; a lot of these little-known duos actually boasted considerable talent, a marketable image, and solid songs but just never clicked somehow. And perhaps one of the biggest, most baffling "how were these guys not huge?" moments for me is Blue County.
Blue County's origins are extremely unusual for any duo. Aaron Benward recorded with his father in the Dove Award-nominated Christian duo Aaron Jeoffrey, while Scott Reeves was a Daytime Emmy-nominated soap actor best known for playing Ryan McNeil on The Young and the Restless. The two of them met on the set of a video shoot for Curb Records artist Tamara Walker's "Didn't We Love," from the Coyote Ugly soundtrack. By 2003, Blue County had become the first act signed to Curb's newly-launched Asylum-Curb division.
Blue County's debut release, "Good Little Girls," was an incredibly solid piece of up-tempo ear candy. Catchy and slick, but still energetic, it took the oft-used trope of a "bad girl" and hung it on the great hook "Good little girls make some mighty wild women." Benward and Reeves both possessed slightly grainy voices that still harmonized well, and the production — rather light for Dann Huff's standards — was as laden with electric guitar as it was fiddle.
I've said before that 2003 seemed to be one of the most unfocused, directionless years in country music, with no clear musical trend in the forefront. That said, this is the same musical environment that spawned Dierks Bentley and Billy Currington, both of whom are still charting rather consistently to this day. And that same lack of focus spilled over into the first quarter of 2004. By the time Blue County hit Top 15 in April, they were sharing chart space with sadly too-short comebacks from John Michael Montgomery and David Lee Murphy. The female drought was slowly coming to an end, with Carolyn Dawn Johnson, SHeDAISY, and Lee Ann Womack returning after dry spells; Blue County labelmate Amy Dalley scoring the third of what felt like an infinite string of semi-hits off an album that somehow never saw release (the cheeky "Men Don't Change"); and both Rachel Proctor and Julie Roberts were right on the edge with two of the best releases of the year ("Me and Emily" and "Break Down Here"). Oh yeah, and Gretchen Wilson was soaring to #1 with "Redneck Woman."
But out of all the acts on the chart, perhaps the only one to whom Blue County could draw any comparisons was Big & Rich, who were just about wrapping up a decent run to #21 with "Wild West Show." While Blue County were slick country-rockers who recalled a somewhat more mannered Little Texas, Big & Rich were flashy, colorful, and wild, with lyrical and production choices the likes of which Nashville had never seen before. (Who else would be so audacious as to put out a song titled "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)"?) And in that regard, Blue County could be seen as a highly viable contrast.
That balance is perhaps exemplified in Blue County's second single, "That's Cool." Easily the best of their single releases, this song was a tender ballad about those moments in life that have a "coolness" to them. It starts small, with vivid details such as "Shootin' Dr Pepper cans with your brand new Red Ryder / That old folding lawn chair makes the perfect X-Wing fighter / Those no-name baseball cards spinning in your spokes…" and builds to a date at 17, then a marriage, a second honeymoon, and finally, having kids of your own. As Benward and Reeves were both in their 30s when they wrote this song with Lee Thomas Miller, they were no doubt drawing from some of their own life stories, and the emotion in their voices is truly moving.
Perhaps realizing that Big & Rich had made a more brash type of music marketable, BC gambled on "Nothin' but Cowboy Boots" as the third single. Bursting with fun and energy, this song somehow managed to take the theme of nudity and spin interesting stories around it: a three-year-old naked in the sprinkler, a streaking session in high school (were any of the bystanders named Ethel?), and in one of the best lyrical payoffs I've ever seen, the singer's wife wearing the title outfit (or lack thereof). This might've been a little too much for even the genre that gave "Save a Horse" a thumbs-up, so it stalled out at #38. Finally, they tried the "musical nostalgia" trope á la "The Song Remembers When" with "That Summer Song," where the narrator hears an old song and thinks back to a teenage lover. As tuneful and lyrically sharp as its three predecessors, it inexplicably stalled at #53.
Still, the table was set for a second album. "Firecrackers and Ferris Wheels" was chosen as the leadoff. Despite the song getting a music video, it somehow failed to chart entirely. Perhaps they misstepped by choosing two "nostalgic" songs in a row — "Firecrackers" was a more open-ended recollection of teenage years without the added hook of a song stirring up the old memories, but it was no less effective. If anything, it was probably even a little bit better, with their voices sounding a bit strained, but only even more emotional as a result. Finishing up was the slightly religious-themed "I Get To," a beautiful take on all of the things in one's life that one gets to enjoy: helping out a father, going to church, making a living, etc. It failed to get very far up the charts either. And after two cuts on the Evan Almighty soundtrack, Blue County called it a day. Reeves returned to acting, scoring a role as Steven Webber on General Hospital between 2009 and 2013, in addition to co-writing Toby Keith's 2011 hit "Made in America," while Benward started a songwriting show with future Bobby's One Hit Wonders candidate Brian McComas called Nashville Unplugged. So while Blue County is no more, their members still are (working).
Blue County clearly had it all right out of the gate: some degree of name recognition, a hot lead single, a clear musical image, and songwriting chops to spare. I think that literally only one thing kept them from stardom: the fact that they were signed to Curb Records. I won't even pretend that I know the slightest thing about label politics, but it's long seemed that Curb has long had trouble breaking artists through to the mainstream. Those that do often have to wait a long time for their big hit (Rodney Atkins comes to mind), while other artists (Amy Dalley) get strung along for an eternity without putting out, you know, an actual album; still others (Atkins again) end up having their momentum drop out so sharply after a hot streak that they end up back at square one. Still, a lot of this could just be the fickleness of the music market as a whole, and Curb is far from the only label that has had its share of artistic turmoil. Still, I feel that a more consistent label could've fashioned Blue County into A-listers, because they sure as heck deserved it.