By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Song titles I'd like to see: "She Got Bored With My Wild, Wild Ways" and "When I Get Drunk I Get Vague." (Montgomery Gentry lyrics are strategically abstract when it comes to any actual wildness, getting no more specific than "I've cheated undertakers/I've dang near met my maker." Compare to the standard hip-hop mess, e.g., metal-rappers Rehab from their new album: "You ever wanna swerve into the oncoming lane/Leaving nothing but body parts, wrecked cars, and brains?")
But actually, vague though they are, Montgomery Gentry sound so rambunctiously redneck, they get such a kick out of these roles, that the roles come off as playthings. And the music's quite good. It's rock all the way through, blistering hard rock when necessary. Some of it is Southern rock boogie circa 1970, slide guitars instead of pedal steels, loud solos, fuzz guitars, organ wails. And the track"My Father's Son"where the guy's proud to be plowin' the same old ground, doesn'tplow the same old ground musically. Rather, it's a hard bluesy version of an '80s rock-pop-type melody, one that Pat Benatar or Kim Wilde or Richard Marx could have sung. And it's very good. Another favorite is "Cold One Comin' On," which wails like "Angel of the Morning." And even though its lyrics come from Basic Theme No. 4 in the Country Handbook (she left me and I'm getting drunk), I like the metaphor, his contradicting the weather report: It claims warm and mild, but he feels a cold one comin' on.
That said, and despite this album's rock sound, and despite my finding it exhilarating where I found the Anderson depressing, and despite rocking as hard as any rock of the last five years, it still stops short of rock 'n' roll. And this is not because it's staying true to "country" in some interesting way, but rather because it has put itself into psychological and intellectual shackles. All art has forms, limits, but there's a restraint here that's neither form nor artistry but simple evasion: Let's not figure out what we're talking about; let's not see where this music can go.
Is the genre at fault here, or is that just an alibi? Maybe there's an unwritten rule, honored on both sides of the traditional versus new country divide: "We're country, so we don't push." But not everyone adheres to it. Some country music kickseven the relatively placid Haggard kicks, though "kick" may not be the right word for him. He's steady rather than exciting, but his steadiness drills right into you.
When has country itself been considered a vanguard, the doorway to lead us into new sounds, into the unknown future? I'd say that Western Swing was the last time. After that, no matter what its actual influence or innovations, country wasn't perceived as representing the future. Rock 'n' roll was the cutoff. Country could have decided that Elvis was expanding the country sound, and embraced him as a further development of the music; country could have heard Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" and said, "My God, hear that honky-tonk music, this man is one of us." Country could have heard the Stones' "Satisfaction" and said, "Listen to that bass and guitar; interesting, they're doing those country lines with fuzz instead of twang; we ought to try it too. And let's do gigs with these guys, next time they tour." So I think there's a choice that country makes, to defend a faith rather than to develop one, to react rather than to act, to be done to rather than to door at least to perceive itself this way. The reason it can't perceive itself as the vanguard is that it doesn't want to be the vanguard.
I suppose that in the 1950s country couldn't have maintained itself as an adult music while embracing rock 'n' roll, but this doesn't mean it couldn't have had parallel innovations. The music changes a whole lot, but it has a strange attitude toward this changeas if there were no inherent forward motion to country as a genre. The changes are something done tocountry; the new musical elements come from elsewhere and pull the music into the future (or into decline, depending on your point of view). Which is to say, you don't read a lot of commentary about a country artist (Shania Twain, say) usingarena-rock technology to make interesting country music, or about a country artist (e.g., Jo Dee Messina) using an interesting chord progression to develop the genre. What you read, pro or con, is that they don't make real country records; they make pop records, instead.
Interestingly, now that blues-based rock is old hat (so to speak), it not only becomes part of the basic vocabulary of country, it finds itself aligned with the traditionalists.
Even though country hadn't embraced rock 'n' roll, in a parallel universe it could have followed rock 'n' roll blueprints for how to use r&b and pop in new ways, and so country could have done the same, using r&b and pop in country ways. For instance, take the Marcels' doo-wop version of Richard Rodgers's "Blue Moon." The Marcels simply wrote an altogether different r&b song in the same key as Rodgers's, a bunch of doo-wop syllables and the phrase "blue moon" running up and down and all over; then they inserted the Rodgers song itself but kept singing the r&b song too, in the background, with its famous "bom-b-b-bom b-bom-b-bom-bom" vocal fills. The thing is, there's no reason that this second song and its fills couldn't be a country hoedown, with the fills done on banjos or guitars or with country voices, "d-dang-a-dang-dang" easily being transformed into "t-twang-a-twang-twang." So you could have countrified the song in the same way that the Marcels had rock 'n' rolled it.