Thanksgiving was a major life marker for Kelsea Ballerini.
Recently divorced from Morgan Evans, she had had possession of her new home — purchased from fellow country star Kacey Musgraves — for less than a week, and she was already planning to host a holiday soirée with friends.
Single people naturally rely on their compadres in a big way, and Ballerini is set up to do that, not only in her personal life, but also in her latest career move. “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too),” which Black River released to country radio via PlayMPE on Nov. 15, is a “besties” single, a track focused on two women with a shared, rambunctious history. If the title generates thoughts of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon driving off the cliff in Thelma & Louise or the song’s murder reference leads to thoughts of the Dixie Chicks single “Goodbye Earl,” then it’s working as intended.
“We just started talking about Thelma & Louise, and [“Earl” characters] Marianne and Wanda, and these really beautiful best-friend stories that had a tinge of murder attached,” Ballerini remembers. “Me and my girlfriends will all listen to Crime Junkie and text each other every Monday after we listen to the podcast. And if we have a girls’ night, we’re going to watch some kind of true-crime documentary.”
Ballerini had that Thelma & Louise conversation with two male friends — songwriters Julian Bunetta (“Craving You,” “Look What God Gave Her”) and Shane McAnally (“Body Like a Back Road,” “One Night Standards”), who co-produced her current Subject to Change — during the final stages of the album’s production this summer. They felt they had enough material to make a solid album, but they mapped out one last “Hail Mary” writing day on the chance that they could craft a song that would beat what they had already cut. That morning, they penned “I Can’t Help Myself” with Josh Osborne (“I Was on a Boat That Day,” “Merry Go ’Round”); after he left, they had one more hour to work, and they reviewed the topics that might be absent from Subject to Change.
“There was a big, missing puzzle piece, and that was a song that honors my friendships,” she recalls. “Friends was a huge theme on my last record — the two lyrics that popped up the most on that Kelsea record were ‘home’ and ‘friends.’ And so it was like I was doing a disservice to a pillar in my life to not have a song that carried that through.”
Bunetta found a groove with a celebratory attitude, driving home a simple, fast-paced chord progression that provided a foundation for the story. He kept at that rhythm, bolstered by a distinct chop, for much of the write. “I got this funny little guitalele that is my fun writing guitar that songs just seem to pour out of,” he says. “It’s just a fun little nylon-string, so it’s easy on the hands.”
They instinctively locked in on a melody that reflected the attitude. The lines in the opening verse start primarily with an ascendant passage, ending in a flood of syllables. The chorus flips that pattern a bit, descending in its opening moments and making longer notes more prominent. That cheery setting gave them plenty of leeway to go dark with the plot.
“The juxtaposition of lyric and music, if you can get them right [as] opposing forces, it always makes it a bit more intriguing and multilayered than sad music/sad lyric,” notes Bunetta.
The first line — “I’ve known you since Brad and Angelina” — used a celebrity couple rather than a calendar year to provide a sense of the friendship’s longevity. And it also tied the lyric further to Thelma & Louise because that movie introduced the world to a shirtless Brad Pitt. The rest of the lyric embraced holding secrets and hiding evidence as the two women look after each other’s reputations in a mutually beneficial manner: “Dirt on you is dirt on me,” Ballerini sings at the start of the chorus.
The song continues to traverse an outlaw path, with an imaginary bank robbery and a “getaway Mercedes” — shades of Bonnie and Clyde — plus an additional pledge to lie on her girlfriend’s behalf should their crime spree take the ultimate twist: “Hypothetically, if you ever kill your husband …”
They introduced subtle variation to the structure of “Go Down” by playing with the final line of the choruses, singing “If you go down, I’m goin’ down too” once at the end of the first chorus, twice to wrap the second and three times when they reached the fourth (and final) chorus.
Ballerini sang over Bunetta’s guitalele for the demo, though all three writers agreed that the lyrics might be misordered. In fact, when they met up again the next day to record “Go Down” at Starstruck Studios on Music Row, they swapped two of the verses and delayed a lyrical change in the chorus — “Our bodies are buried, and they’re in the same ditch” — until the final chorus, instead of the second; it made more sense for that reference to come after the “kill your husband” thought.
Most of the instruments were acoustic — only one electric baritone guitar is present among two acoustics, a mandolin and a Dobro. Drummer Evan Hutchings plays the snare with brushes instead of sticks, and bassist Craig Young borrowed Bunetta’s Kala U-bass, which enhanced that acoustic motif.
“It sounds kind of like an upright bass, but it’s still got like some give in the in the notes, meaning that they bend a lot because of the way that those rubber strings are, so it just fit the texture perfectly,” Bunetta says. “I happened to bring it out and kept it in my car because I just had a feeling that we’d use it.”
They brought in Jenee Fleenor later to overdub a fiddle part, and she filled in half of the original solo section, creating a trade-off between fiddle and mandolin. “We really wanted to lean into a very ’90s country feel, and so we brought in fiddle for the song, which I think to me makes it,” says Ballerini. “That’s also why there’s a Chicks reference to it, which everyone picks up on, which was absolutely intentional. I didn’t want to make it sound like anything else on the record. I wanted it to be its own moment.”
Ballerini spent roughly two hours on the vocal. The notes weren’t particularly difficult, but she worked very specifically on providing lines that sounded like an aural wink, ensuring that the listener would not take the song’s criminal streak seriously.
“You can almost see her acting it out,” Bunetta says. “It was a very visual thing, [the way] the vocal was being shaped.”
Black River assigned “If You Go Down” a Dec. 5 add date, issuing an uptempo single to radio at a time of year when ballads are a little more prevalent. Meanwhile, the running-buddies theme mirrors the new period in her personal life when friends will play a bigger role than they have for several years.
“Sometimes you put out a single because you think that it’s the most radio-friendly, and sometimes you put out a single because it’s actually reflective of where you’re at in your life,” she says. “And then sometimes, both things can be true.”