Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The State of Country Music

When I'm driving around in my sexy '05 Dodge Caravan, I'm usually listening to cd's, NPR, or progressive talk radio, but every once in awhile I like to scan the channels on the radio. Sometimes I'm looking for a nostalgia fix (maybe a 90's alternative song that I listened to in high school) and sometimes I'm hoping for a catchy Tom Petty or Steve Miller song. But every now and then I like to find a country music station and see if I can find at least one good song in a 20-min. block of music. Generally, I can't.

Now I grew up on country music, my dad was always listening to Hank Williams, the Carter Family, Emmylou Harris, and even John Denver. I love that stuff (though John Denver admittedly can get pretty cheesey). I love the "twang", the pedal steel guitars, the banjo, the harmonies, and the great songwriting of classic country. Real country. I say real country because modern "country" has been corrupted by corporate greed and bubble-gum pop music. It seems to me that what Nashville is doing these days is taking generic pop songs, and simply adding a few signature country sounds to "trick" us. Maybe the singer will have a slight twang to his voice, or there will be a faint pedal steel in the background to remind us that, yes, we are indeed listening to something thats sorta kinda country music. Heck, the most "traditional" country music you might hear on the radio might even throw a banjo in there! Now I'd like to actually provide some proof for the "suckness" of country music rather than just provide my opinion all day long. Lets take a look at two songs that I heard on the radio as I was driving earlier today: "I'm Still A Guy" by Brad Paisley and "Just A Dream" by Carrie Underwood.

With "I'm Still A Guy" comes one of my biggest complaints about modern country music: its own self-awareness of how "country" it is, which means blatant lyrics relating to "everyday men" and "joe the plumbers" so as to equal album or download sales. Just take a look at some of the lyrics of this song:

"These days there's dudes getting facials
Manicured, waxed and botoxed
With deep spray-on tans and creamy lotiony hands
You can't grip a tacklebox

With all of these men
lining up to get neutered
It's hip now to be feminized
I don't highlight my hair
I've still got a pair
Yeah honey, I'm still a guy

Oh my eyebrows ain't plucked
There's a gun in my truck
Oh thank God, I'm still a guy"

Wow, what a manly piece of songwriting, eh Brad? Can you see what I mean about the self-awareness there? Its like a laundry list of things that "common men" can say, "hell yea, thats me!" about. Laughing at men that take good care of the personal hygiene because they can't grip a tackle box, hyuck. Hell yea there's a gun in my truck, hyuck, and I've got a pair, woooooeeeeee!

Now let me make this perfectly clear, I am NOT making fun of rural people, or people that keep guns in their trucks. I grew up in the country, I like to fish as much as the next person, and although I don't keep a gun in my truck, I can understand why someone living out in rural Nebraska would. That being said, what makes me angry is that all of those rural Nebraskans, Oklahomans, and even the city slicker country music fans are getting completely ripped off. You are getting spoon food everything that you want to hear about your lifestyle by people that don't live it! Yea, Toby Keith might have a ranch somewhere, but do you really think he goes out and works his hands to the bone every day? And don't tell me that pretty boy Brad Paisley never gets manicure or lotions his hands. That is a load of crap.

There is another song I've heard on the radio from time to time by Montgomery Gentry called "Lucky Man" that is along the same lines. Some choice lyrical excerpts include, " Got a brand new rod and reel " and "My old trucks still running good, My ticker's ticking like they say it should". If you haven't heard the song, Montgomery Gentry is singing about all of the reasons they are lucky, and guess what? All of those reasons relate to directly to the "common man"! And the kicker is that when you hear this song in Wisconsin, there is a line that goes, "Last Sunday when my Packers lost, Lord it put me in a bad mood", but when it plays in other states they switch the team name! If you look the lyrics up online you will see versions with the Steelers or the Bengals inserted. If that isn't a marketing strategy, I don't know what is.

Now lets take a look at Carrie Underwood's "Just a Dream", and with it, my biggest pet peeve about modern country music. It is too damn sentimental. Do you remember Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, all those old dudes? They used to sing songs about murder, drinking, gambling, etc. And yea, maybe Emmylou, Dolly, and Linda weren't always singing their own songs, but those songs had class. They were classic songs about lost love and hard times. Now I don't want to fall into the testosterone trap and seem Brad Paisley-ish, and there is nothing wrong with a little cheese now and then, but every other song on a country station is just as market crafted to make you weep as Paisley's song is to make you feel like a real man. Here are some lyrics to Carrie Underwood's song:

"And when the church doors opened up wide
She put her veil down
Trying to hide the tears
Oh she just couldn't believe it
She heard trumpets from the military band
And the flowers fell out of her hand"

At the risk of sounding like a total music snob, that is crap. Those words sound like they are straight from a Celine Dion or Mariah Carey song. And really, the only thing separating them from that kind of pop music is that there is an occasional pedal steel in the song. Listen to it if you get the chance, Carrie's voice doesn't even sound particularly twangy, it starts out like a piano ballad, and there is just the faintest of pedal steel in there. My point is that these Nashville businessmen are taking tasteless pop, dressing it up with a hint of “twang”, and selling it to the masses as country music.

Now where to turn if you are looking for real modern country music, the kind you wont hear on the radio? Go to your local record store (or iTunes if you must, though I’m sure the locals could use your business) and look for Gillian Welch if you’re hungering for some female dust bowl ballads. If ass-kicking, working man songs are what you need check out some Drive-By Truckers or Hank Williams III. If you just can’t live without some cheesey country, pick up some Ryan Adams, he will deliver with great songwriting to boot. And go back to the foundations. I can’t say enough good things about the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams. Hell, even the 90’s country music was ten times better than the stuff on the radio today. Sometimes when I’m driving through western Nebraska and all I can get are country stations, I think, “what I wouldn’t do for a Garth Brooks or Randy Travis song right now.”

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