"It's always been the one that I felt was going to be my first No. 1, and who knows if I'm right," says Doleac. "I still feel like I am, and I feel great about it. I have a team now. I have a record, I have a record deal, and I've got all these people behind me that believe in this song and [that] we can do it properly."
The wait may be appropriate, given that "Whiskey's Fine" wears well with repeated listens over time.
"All good whiskeys should," opines co-writer Monty Criswell ("Five More Minutes," "I Saw God Today"). "They should get better with age."
Doleac and Criswell penned the song on June 24, 2016, in writer room five at the Sony/ATV Fire Hall on Nashville's Music Row. The date is easy enough for Doleac to remember — it's his mom's birthday — but that also makes the theme a tad ironic. The song finds a woman knocking on her ex's door at 2 a.m., looking for a physical hookup — and maybe an emotional one, too. The couple ends up in bed, and it's just explicit enough that Mom would know quite well what her boy is focused on.
"I've always been a good kid. Always," says Doleac. "I never really got into trouble or anything like that, but I've also never tried to lead on that I was anybody that I'm not with my parents. Maybe it was weird, but she actually loved the song immediately."
Doleac loved the hook — "Come on in, the whiskey's fine" — when Criswell presented it at that 2016 writing appointment, twisting a common phrase.
"Most people, I think, when they hear that title immediately realize that it was a play on ‘Come on in, the water's fine.' I did not," confesses Doleac. "It was just one of those things that I actually didn't catch on to till later in the day."
Criswell gave it what he considers a Muscle Shoals feel — mixing gospel, rock and soul — owing in part to its basic 1, flat-7, 4 chord progression, with the middle triad creating much of its flavor.
"It's really more of a rock'n'roll chord," he says. "There's a lot of songs that are 1, flat-7 progressions, and there's a lot of Southern rock stuff that is, too. ‘Free Bird,' ‘Sweet Home Alabama'; all that stuff is 1, flat-7, 4 kind of stuff."
They wrote a big chorus with stark long notes first, then plunged into a more conversational opening verse using just a few key phrases — "It ain't even close to closing time," "Two drinks in" — that create a scenario in which the narrator's home is his own personal tavern. Those first two stanzas were completed in a scant 45 minutes. The second verse heightened the sexual tension, clothes dropping as the couple heads down the hall toward his bed, the woman kissing her host with "lipstick red," a noun-adjective combination that's intentionally backward.
"The cool reason is I thought it was cooler doing ‘lipstick red' as opposed to ‘red lipstick,' " explains Criswell. "The selfish reason is we needed the ‘bed' rhyme."
"Whiskey's Fine" took a brief sonic detour with a short bridge, keyed by a 2-minor chord. Its closing line, "I need that you-and-me buzz," reinforced the idea that the former couple's passion had not completely cooled.
"I like to call it the Cliffs Notes of the song," says Doleac of that section. "The bridge should almost tell you exactly what the song is about in one or two lines."
They recorded a guitar/piano/vocal work tape, with the piano's damper pedal providing a noisy distraction. They subsequently cut a demo that leaned on slide guitar, emphasizing the Southern rock component in the underlying progression.
Several labels around that time showed interest in Doleac, including Sony Music Nashville, though the company offered only a development deal, and the singer turned it down. He and his then-manager worked out a deal to self-finance an EP, and producer Lindsay Rimes (LOCASH, Tyler Rich) oversaw the 2017 date at Nashville's Blackbird Studios.
The initial run-throughs remained somewhat faithful to the demo, though they felt like "Whiskey's Fine" had more to offer. As they noodled with it, pianist Charlie Judge ended up playing a version that shifted some of the chord changes to the afterbeats, much like "Drops of Jupiter," which is one of Rimes' favorite songs.
"It kind of skips a little bit on that second chord," says Rimes. "It's a subtle thing, but it just changes the feel ever so slightly and puts it in that ‘Drops of Jupiter' pocket."
Derek Wells weaved in a winding, Southern rock-tinged guitar solo, and Doleac showed some restraint on his final performance, avoiding the temptation to fill in the chorus' long notes with vocal runs.
"That is one thing I had to fight with that song because there's so many options with that chord structure and the gospel feel where you could really do vocal calisthenics all throughout the song," observes Doleac. "But my goal is never to be the best singer in the world. I just would like to be the most listenable."
Rimes hired a vocal trio — Kristen Rogers, Stephcynie Curry and Morgan Hebert, who have toured with A Thousand Horses — and brought them into room one at the Fire Hall to build a gospel choir. They gathered around a microphone and did repeated takes at different distances and in different locations (at least one of the singers did a part while standing on a couch) to get a full-bodied effect.
"They were so good at balancing themselves on the microphone with each pass," says Rimes. "I was moving the microphone around the room, so each pass had a slightly different tone and it created more of like a stereo spread of the girls. By the end, we got this really convincing choir sound. It surprises me to this day that we just did that in a little [10-foot-by-10-foot] room."
Doleac's self-titled EP was released in June 2017, and SiriusXM's The Highway channel made "Whiskey's Fine" a Highway Find. Sony, the label he had previously rejected, announced his signing in October 2019 and released a first single, "Famous," which reached No. 60 on Country Airplay. During a pre-pandemic radio tour, Doleac routinely made "Whiskey's Fine" the last song he played for programmers, and invariably, they told him they wanted it as a single. Arista released it via PlayMPE on Oct. 19, betting that it's a song that will fit in the format while still separating him sonically from the pack.
"There's a cool thing that happens sometimes when songs find the right artist or the right voice, and that's what this one felt like," says Doleac. "It was the first time I felt like I had found what I was supposed to sound like as an artist."
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