D-Dang-A-Dang Me

Like on a lot of recent country albums, the sound choices are rich enough on Nobody's Got It All, the new John Anderson LP: soul horns on the first track, which he sings with the blues feel of a gospel- or soul-based blues singer like Bobby Blue Bland or Magic Sam. There's a song about tent revival meetings that (the song, not the meetings) starts with guitar feedback—gentle, tonal feedback, rather than a dragon screech, but feedback nonetheless—and goes into a basic drone and steady thud-thud-thud-thud push-push-push-push of the drums, not unlike the Yardbirds-Kinks-Velvets back in the day. Anderson's got a nice voice—a beautiful voice, though one that doesn't always reach me. Sometimes it's too thick and chewy. In any event, I keep getting depressed by this LP. Maybe I'm depressed at it. (Can one get depressed at something? Is that grammatically legitimate? "I had to leave the room because she kept getting depressed at me"?) His lyrics here about mom-and-pop stores giving way to malls or about suits coming in and selling out your farm from under you—these just don't interest me. Such lyrics could interest me if they were done as more than just clichés. Back on Anderson's second album he had a song (Norro Wilson's "July the 12th, 1939") about a poor boy who got fingered for a rape that had actually been committed by a rich boy. That song, like the new ones, was about how the world mistreats a type of people—but it was also a story in itself, with vivid details, whereas the current lyrics just symbolize an attitude.

I like the song that goes, "I miss her a lot, but at least she took the little Chihuahua"—that's just attitude too, but it's funny. Otherwise, I'm fed up with this album's attitude. (I don't seem to mind the similar attitude last year in Merle Haggard's "Wishing All These Old Things Were New"—maybe because it's his kids, not the suits, who represent the new world; and they're bugging him to give up smoking. And he's sitting around watching Cops and seeing some guy get hauled off to jail, and Haggard's getting pissed at the TV crew for making a display of someone else's misfortunes—"and they show it all on TV just to see somebody fail." So he's presenting a vivid world of sitting on couches and smoking cigarettes, not just the fact that they symbolize "real life.")

What depressed me while listening to Anderson was how he seemed only to be looking out at something when he talked about the world, without believing that he could shape the world. The world isn't a result of his life. The world is something that's been done to him.

Street survivors Montgomery Gentry, sans overalls
photo: Sony Music
Street survivors Montgomery Gentry, sans overalls


John Anderson
Nobody's Got It All

Montgomery Gentry
Carrying On

Of course, you could say that this attitude permeates the whole genre. Country is the most alienated and defensive music in existence. Even—or especially—all the "new country" happy-romance songs and boy-meets-old-girlfriend songs, I sat behind you back in geometry class, etc., which have the sense of "I'm a normal person portraying what life is like for normal people," "these are our experiences (as opposed to those of people not like us)," the sense of trying to fend off alternatives—for instance, Tim McGraw's "Something Like That," Phil Vassar's "Carlene," and Martina McBride's "Love's the Only House," all of which sound good, have interesting lyrics, but still the air of "here I am embodying a particular point of view." No doubt you can say the same about half a million hip-hop songs, and punk songs, and heavy metal songs. Nonetheless, the alienation in country seems more entrapping. When alienation doesn't recognize itself as such, portrays itself as normality or realness or deep-rooted moral wisdom or the life of the common people, it gives me the creeps. And maybe the gangstas and punks and metalheads are every bit as self-deceiving, but at least they know that their roles are roles, are problematic—and imagine they're creating rather than just defending those roles. (Maybe the fact that the roles are being played for shock effect also makes them "fun," like, "Wouldn't it be fun to come off as a gangsta-punk-metal monster?")

McBride's "Love's the Only House" contains the heartfelt (and to me utterly hilarious) line: "We got teenagers walking around in a culture of darkness living together alone." The thing is, in the song it's not her culture, her teenagers, her darkness.

I don't know that country's alienation has a bad effect on the music, however. It constrains the music, but constraints aren't always bad. For instance, the Carrying On album by the duo Montgomery Gentry rocks even harder than Anderson's while, like Anderson's, calling out to the country tradition; and again like Anderson's it wallows in the same alienation, to the point of being proud of itself for its dumbshit attitudes. Strangely enough, I like it a lot, and it irritates me a lot less than Anderson's, despite having lyrics that are far more reactionary. Maybe its obviousness, and the simplicity of its moral incoherence, makes it less irritating—makes it funny, actually. Really, a Madison Avenue hack could've come up with a lot of their words. Like, OK, we'll sit him there in his overalls, and when the girl gets too hoity-toity with her pink Chablis we'll send her on her way, and she'll go out West and listen to some "hip-hop mess" (sipping Chablis with her homeboys in Compton?); then we'll bring her back when she finds out her country boy is the best. Then we'll do some rote ambivalence about a wild-drinking boy tryin' to stick with a church-goin' babe. Then some blank lyrics about him driving his love away. Then stuff about how happy they are not to be in an urban life and its gang wars. Then stuff about good ole bootleggers, stuff about broken hearts and whiskey, stuff about stayin' with the plow, keepin' the country life.

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